US and NATO must stand up to Russian aggression on the seas

Five years ago, masked Russian troops in unmarked green uniforms disembarked on the Crimean shore. Within days, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in the most brazen military land grab since World War II. Much of the focus in the intervening years has been on the ongoing conflict in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. But what has yet to be fully appreciated in the West is that this is, in motives and actions, as much or more a sea-based conflict. Russia’s consistent goal has been to revive its forward fleet based in Crimea and establish a three-tier conduit of control stretching from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and on to the eastern Mediterranean. 

Following the success of the Maidan Revolution, Russian president Vladimir Putin moved quickly and decisively to annex Crimea. The strategic peninsula protrudes south from Ukraine into the Black Sea, separating the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov via a narrow Kerch Strait, a vital trade route for both Russia and Ukraine. Beneath the disingenuous talk about the self-determination and cultural identity of Crimeans, Putin’s message was clear: A Ukraine that does not bend to Russia cannot be trusted with the territory of Sevastopol naval base, at the time Russia’s only warm water port. 

The intervening years have been hard on Crimea. The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, and other international organizations have documented serious human rights violations against native Crimeans in shocking numbers, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, forced deportation to Russia, torture, and conscription into the Russian armed forces. Water and electricity shortages continue to plague the peninsula since being isolated from Ukraine, with no viable solution in sight. Regrettably, the Crimean people are a secondary object to Russia’s need to operate its Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol.

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What investment Russia has directed to Crimea has overwhelmingly served to solidify its military control of the surrounding sea, not to assist the peninsula’s inhabitants. Following the illegal annexation, Russia proceeded to build the 12-mile Crimean Bridge, spanning the Kerch Strait, at tremendous expense to the Russian people and risk of international backlash. Yet one of the most expensive bridges ever built holds little more than symbolic value for the Russian and Crimean people. Since its opening in May 2018, a main function of the the Kerch Strait bridge has been to close off the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea and disrupt Ukrainian shipping to and from Azov port cities Mariupol and Berdyansk. Ukrainian crew members are still detained in Russia following a November 25, 2018 attack on three Ukrainian vessels in direct violation of international law. Commenters have described the Sea of Azov as being turned into a Russian lake.

From a military perspective, Russia seems content with the current stalemate in eastern Ukraine, with credit to the Ukrainian people for defending their country so resolutely. Yet even if Russia decides not to risk further escalation on land, operative control of the Sea of Azov helps create the threat of unchecked gunboat and landing craft support should Ukraine mount a resistance to any moves to consolidate the Azov coast. Russia continues to flout the law of the sea to serve its own interests, at the expense of the longstanding principle of freedom of navigation. The rights of any vessel, flying any flag to transit and innocent passage are not some pretext for meddling in foreign affairs — they are the means of exercising a general principle that promotes peace, cooperation, and prosperity the world over. 

Beyond the Sea of Azov, it is becoming more important than ever to uphold freedom of navigation in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean as well. Just last week, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti testified that Russian maritime activity in the Black Sea was the largest grouping in of Russian ships that he has seen in 15 years and expressed his concern about the Russian military modernization program. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, new energy discoveries may cause the area to emerge as a viable future rival to Russia’s dominance of the European gas market. Energy is the backbone of the Russian economy and therefore a key to its national security. It follows that Russia will put pressure on the region, with severe ramifications for NATO.

Turkey still controls passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits under the Montreux Convention of 1936. The convention restricts Russia’s ability to move certain vessels of war en masse into the Mediterranean. How long before this arrangement is “no longer aligned” with Russia’s security interests? Moreover, two years ago Russia negotiated an extended lease of its naval base in Tartus, Syria, with plans to expand. It has further militarized the northeast Mediterranean, moving troops and equipment into Syria, including its S-400 missile defense system, and placing U.S. and NATO units at risk.

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In all, the United States and its NATO allies must be more aggressive in response to Russian moves, continue to exercise free passage in the Black Sea region, and patrol the eastern Mediterranean.

Freedom of navigation is not a given; it must be established in practice. The West has not forgotten about Russia’s land grab in Crimea. It must not abandon the sea either.

Commander Tony Chavez is the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A decorated navy aviator, he has served in every U.S. Navy fleet around the Globe. Among many posts, he served as Sixth Fleet Air Operations Director, advisor and liaison to Commander Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and as Commanding Officer of a Maritime Strike Squadron in the Pacific. All views, thoughts, and opinions expressed belong solely to the author and are not views of the U.S. Navy or the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.