This article is part of our special report The Associated Trio in action.
The confrontation between Russia and the West is coming to a head, experts say. In consequence, the Associated Trio – Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – has declared its aims to step up cooperation to strengthen security in the Black Sea region.
“If the Black Sea countries and NATO members plus Ukraine, Georgia – and a place for Moldova can be found in that mechanism as well – do not team up, Russia will turn the Black Sea into its inner lake, split it into two halves and start to dominate its zone completely,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said after leaders of the three Associated Trio countries met in Batumi on Monday (19 July).
Kuleba added that Russia has followed a similar strategic playbook in all three countries, which is why they should aim to work together to counter Moscow’s intentions in the region.
His comments came as 2,000 forces and 30 ships from 14 NATO members and partners took part in a Bulgaria-led maritime exercise, dubbed Sea Breeze 2021, exercised in the Black Sea on Monday.
The exercise followed a rise in tensions between NATO and Russia, which In June had fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender to chase it out of Black Sea waters off the coast of Crimea.
Russia traditionally claims political and military sovereignty in the Black Sea region and considers the territorial waters of the annexed Crimea as its own, unlike the Western countries.
Moscow is also worried that large parts of European Russia would be exposed to the danger of Western sea- and land-based medium-range missiles if NATO were to increase their presence in the region.
Last month’s incident was the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia deliberately used armed force against a NATO asset.
“The Black Sea is of strategic importance to NATO. The Alliance remains strongly committed to Black Sea security,” NATO deputy spokesperson, Piers Cazalet, said.
Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has gradually increased its presence in the Black Sea. NATO ships regularly operate in the Black Sea, patrolling the waters for around two-thirds of the year.
However, according to the Montreux Treaty, which, among other things, regulates the free movement of ships through the waters, ships from non-bordering countries are allowed to stay in the Black Sea for a maximum of 21 days.
NATO maritime manoeuvres thus have been intended to send a clear signal towards Moscow against Russia’s claim to Crimea or its attempted supremacy in the Black Sea region.
“We need to think seriously about what the NATO role is in the Black Sea, especially as we’ve seen the recent provocative actions by Russia,” Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations, told an audience in Batumi.
Breedlove called the alliances’ aim to update its decade-old Strategic Concept, a master strategy document which after the revamp will outline NATO’s objectives and key security tasks with an eye toward 2030, a positive development in this context.
“NATO has been fairly soft on what Russia is doing in the Black Sea region, that’s the bad news. The good news is, that you see these attitudes changing,” he said, adding that especially the US-led ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises and others have proven that.
Security experts worry that the range of Russia’s S-400 air defence systems stationed in Crimea makes not only the south of Ukraine but also the coast of Romania vulnerable.
“As our current military engagements are beginning to wind down, so we need to develop the next series of enduring military engagements between the United States in Georgia, and between NATO and Georgia (…) as well as what the next step in our military engagement with Ukraine is to help it be more able to defend itself,” the former NATO general said.
Breedlove said alliance members like Turkey and Romania, which recently stepped up in bringing more military capabilities to the region, could lead the way into such a new strategy.
However, of Russia’s Black Sea neighbours, only the Turkish Navy can counter Russia. The Ukrainian navy lost most of its ships after the annexation of Crimea, Georgia has limited its navy to the coast guard for financial reasons, and Romania and especially Bulgaria have so far little to offer as deterrent against Russia.
In turn, speaking about EU and NATO approaches to the Black Sea region, Bruno Lété, senior fellow of security and defence at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) in Brussels, said he is “most concerned about the internal unity of Europeans and NATO” in this regard.
According to him, “EU institutions in Brussels have finally understood that the Black Sea is an area of priority, more and more than ever before”.
“However, we still see – and we have to be honest about that – that not all EU countries think alike when it comes to the importance of the Black Sea as a region where we need to increase efforts and be presence,“ Lété said.
Eastern Europeans, especially in the framework of the US-led Three Seas Initiative, have for long made attempts the Black Sea doesn’t become a ‘geopolitical black hole’. One idea is to extend the initiative to non-EU members like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
This, however, according to Lété does not mean there should be a military solution.
“The strategy here should be more about avoiding incidents and risk management while doing deterrence, I think those are two pillars of how security should be addressed in the Black Sea region,” Lété added.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev]