ODESA, Ukraine — Amidst uncertainty regarding the current U.S. administration’s continued support for Ukraine and commitment to NATO, the alliance is scaling up its own engagement in the Black Sea and with Ukraine.
Through statements made by NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, continuity in Black Sea training exercises and offers to buttress the Ukrainian Navy with used vessels, NATO is demonstrating not only continuing commitment to Ukraine, but a greater appreciation of the strategic significance of the Black Sea.
This follows a recent trend of increased NATO focus on the region, following the commitment to establish a tailored forward presence in the Black Sea in July 2016. These steps are important not only to NATO allies such as Romania and Turkey, but also to Ukraine, who is a partner in many of these initiatives.
These developments have coincided with Russian efforts to reinforce their own capabilities in the region and a plateau in potentially dangerous provocations.
Following a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February, Stoltenberg stated that the alliance had agreed to pursue “an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness.” Key to this increased presence are war games — particularly the continuation and expansion of annual exercises — and heightened surveillance.
Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe (2009-2013) explained to The Kyiv Post what these developments will mean for the region.
“[We can] expect to see expanded naval deployments to both the Black and Baltic Seas, with an emphasis on NATO operations but including working with partners like Sweden, Finland and Ukraine,” says Stavridis. “I would anticipate a 20-30 percent increase in forward deployments of NATO ships, both surface combatants and amphibious ships [in the Black and Baltic seas].”
This is a substantive increase, building upon the tailored forward presence agreed upon at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, and reflecting NATO’s awareness of the changing strategic environment along Ukraine’s littoral.
Four ships from the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 2 (SNMCMG2) arrived in Ukraine’s port of Odessa on March 17.
This year has already seen several exercises in the Black Sea to improve interoperability and readiness between partner nations, namely Sea Shield in February and Poseidon, which concluded this past week. These exercises are important symbolically, as a demonstration of NATO commitment, but also indicate the alliance’s concern regarding Russian activity in the Black Sea, and a reassessment of regional strategic concerns. Ukraine and Ukrainian security are integral to these exercises, and continue to be at the fore of NATO’s objectives in the region.
Romania is a logical host for both of these exercises, given its commitment to increasing NATO’s presence in the region and standout efforts to meet the alliance’s defense spending goals within the year.
However, much of NATO’s Black Sea activity is also Ukraine-centric. In March 3, a planning conference was held in Odesa on the next major Black Sea maritime exercise, Sea Breeze 2017. Held annually since 1997, Sea Breeze is an exercise coordinated between the U.S. and Ukraine, which aims to enhance interoperability in operations as diverse as anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue and air defense.
The exercise has served as one of the clearest indicators of NATO support for Ukrainian territorial and maritime defense, especially given Ukraine’s limited naval capabilities and Russian efforts to swell their Black Sea forces. Its focus on the strategically significant ports of Odesa is especially important in recent years, given Odesa’s role as the provisional port for the Ukrainian Navy and its target for Russian campaigns at destabilization in 2015.
As is the case with many NATO initiatives with allies in Eastern Europe, Sea Breeze has drawn ire from the Kremlin and Russian media, becoming a target for disinformation and criticism of NATO’s growing footprint in the Black Sea. More alarmingly, the Russian military has responded with efforts to intimidate and provoke NATO vessels and aircraft.
In response to Sea Shield, Russia and mandated snap drills and combat readiness checks amongst their air force. The USS Porter, which participated in Sea Shield, was buzzed by two Russian SU-24s on Feb. 10, as the exercise was coming to a close.
“The most significant danger is a confrontation between Russia and NATO stemming from unprofessional tactical behavior, such as close flybys of alliance ships or long range reconnaissance aircraft operating on the high seas and in international airspace,” says Stavridis. “Russia has been consistent in flying and sailing far closer than is permitted under normal rules of the road, and this could inadvertently cause one of their aircraft to be shot down, or a collision between ships. Both sides should be in close conversation at the military-to-military level to establish protocols for approaching each other and ensuring an unintended incident does not occur.”
On March 3, the Russian Ministry of Defense and NATO officials entered into their first high-level exchanges since 2014, a development that NATO officials hope will help to reduce the frequency of these confrontations.
Rebuilding Ukraine’s coastal defense
As a direct consequence of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine lost a sizeable share of its former naval force housed at Sevastopol. While Ukraine continues domestic efforts to build its Black Sea fleet to include an additional 30 vessels by 2020, the Ukrainian Navy has also engaged in negotiations with NATO to purchase older, combat-ready vessels. The Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Andrei Tarasov, explained to local media on March 9 that Ukraine had already reached an agreement with NATO on the acquisition of several U.S. island-class landing vessels.
Even with these procurements and the production of additional vessels, Ukraine can do little to rival Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and and Naval Air Force, especially as they continue to grow, with the Russian Ministry of Defense intending to spend more than $2.3 billion on Naval funding by 2020. An augmented NATO presence will help to tip this balance in 2017 and beyond.
Access and deterrence
Increased NATO forward deployments and multilateral exercises directly address one of the greatest challenges facing NATO in the region since 2014: Russian anti-access and area denial measures, intended to prevent NATO allies from conducting air and maritime operations throughout much of the Black Sea region.
Russia has sought to constrict NATO’s ability to defend Ukraine and regional allies through the placement of land-based missile systems (particularly S-400 air defense systems in Crimea this past August), anti-ship cruise missiles and sea mines. Land-based anti-access measures are novel in a European context, and have raised concerns about the future limitation of U.S. and NATO capabilities in Southeastern Europe. NATO’s changing approach to the Black Sea appears to be, at least in part, a response to these measures, and an effort to mitigate their impact on NATO’s freedom of action.
Exercises such as Poseidon 2017, which concluded this week, focus on anti-mining operations and prepare regional allies to coordinate operations in the kind of restrictive conditions they can expect to encounter in the Black Sea. Sea Shield prepared regional allies and partners, including Ukraine, for a wide spectrum of interconnected operations in February. This summer, Sea Breeze 2017 will build on this readiness, with an emphasis on Ukrainian servicemen.
More broadly, the significant increase in NATO’s presence and forward deployments permits a much timelier response to potential threats to Ukrainian security, counteracting the advantage of Russian anti-access and area denial efforts.
Stavridis sees increased NATO presence as a key element in securing a peaceful future for the Black Sea, and consequently, Ukraine: “As NATO faces an ongoing challenge from an energized and aggressive Russian Federation, maritime presence is crucial to deterrence and therefore to peace.”
These commitments are especially important in the context the defense uncertainty regarding the substance of continued U.S. support for Ukraine. As reported by the Kyiv Post, Congress has thus far authorized far less financial support for Ukrainian defense this year than in 2016 — though this may change in the coming months, the Ukrainian defense community remains anxious. For the moment, NATO’s commitment to ensuring regional security and aiding Ukrainian military development appears more certain.