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The US and NATO must counter Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea

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With heightened tension in the Taiwan Strait and overarching national defense guidance emphasizing China as our top priority, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visits last week to former Soviet bloc countries remind us we must balance this focus with due attention to revanchist Vladimir Putin and the Russian coercion of neighboring states in the Black Sea. The 2008 ground war in Georgia and the 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine left Western-looking former Soviet nations to manage the crisis with minimal support. Russia’s massive mobilization along the eastern border of Ukraine this spring demonstrated the limited options to deter future aggression in the region. Secretary Austin’s affirmation of support to Ukraine, training agreement with Georgia and talks with Romania must be followed by tangible efforts to compete with Russia in the Black Sea.  

The Russian Bastion and Kalibr missiles include advanced anti-ship cruise and long-range land attack variants and provide Russia with a formidable strike capability. With this system deployed to Russian-occupied Crimea and onboard the sizable Black Sea Fleet, Russia could exercise the same anti-access/area denial (A2D2) tactics in the Black Sea for which China is positioning in the South China Sea. Additionally, Russian aircraft consistently challenge Allied presence in the Black Sea — most recently on Oct. 19 when a SU-30 reportedly escorted U.S. bombers in international airspace. Now the accepted norm is that U.S. and NATO warships in the Black Sea will be closely shadowed by Russian warships and overflown by strike aircraft. 

Commanding officers have correctly exercised restraint in potentially dangerous overflight situations where tactical miscalculations could have strategic ramifications. However, the provocative Russian actions merit concern. Adm. Robert Burke, the senior naval officer in the European Theater, stated this summer that he is “not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin,” and steps have been taken to better respond in crisis. The four Rota-based U.S. destroyers (DDGs) are being switched out with hulls featuring the newest AEGIS combat system suite to provide the most capable platforms for operations in the Black Sea. In June, the British Royal Navy warship HMS Defender demonstrated resolve from our allies when it was buzzed by Russian aircraft and possibly had objects dropped in its path. 

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden’s September meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Secretary Austin’s visits raise the visibility of commitment to the region. However, more can be done to strengthen this position.  

Operations featuring demonstrations of high-end warfare and interoperability elevate mere presence to credible deterrence. The Montreux Convention caps the warship tonnage any nation shall have in the Black Sea at a given time; however, a group of like-minded nations can produce a substantial force to overcome this limitation, as demonstrated by Exercise Sea Breeze. The U.S.-Ukrainian led multinational exercise completed its 21st iteration this past summer and has expanded to include amphibious operations and live-fire gunnery exercises. 

Likewise, NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) One and Two with rotational participation and leadership from across the Alliance can send a united NATO message supporting freedom in the Black Sea. However, there must be continued growth to add substance to this presence. Formidable Shield, a multinational exercise in the Northern European theater, culminated with the Dutch-cued, U.S.-consummated intercept of a live ballistic target. Demonstrations of higher-end capabilities with our allies and partners in the Black Sea would better counter Russia’s frequent test firings from Crimea, in which they call for oversized operating areas and use as justification to harass ships operating in international waters. 

A more drastic way to shape the Black Sea battle space is with the presence of Coastal Defense Cruise Missiles (CDCMs) with the range and quantity to threaten Russian dominance. Romania is a dedicated NATO member that exceeds minimum contributions to defense, hosts more than 1,000 rotational U.S. troops, and houses the only operational Aegis Ashore facility providing ballistic missile defense of Europe. This model Alliance behavior is undoubtedly linked to Romania’s not-so-distant memory of authoritarian rule and the direct threat Russian aggression in the Black Sea poses to their access to the world’s seas. 

In May, Romania bolstered their position by committing to purchase the Naval Strike Missile. This coastal defense system will certainly complicate Putin’s calculations in the Black Sea when operational by 2024. Alone, however, they are an inadequate counterbalance for those in Crimea. The United States and NATO should pursue additional options for Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to put the Black Sea Fleet at risk with overlapping CDCM coverage. 

Russia expanding westward and threatening NATO allies may be unlikely in the near-term future, but deterrence cannot be surged. The Black Sea battle space is largely ceded to Russia; this dominance presents a strategic threat to NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria and already has resulted in loss of territory and lives for Western-facing Ukraine and Georgia. Meaningful U.S. and NATO presence featuring high-end warfare demonstrations and CDCMs with the ability to put the Russian fleet at risk should be pursued as ways to deter continued aggression and maintain freedom of international waters of the Black Sea. 

Brian Harrington is a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a lieutenant commander surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. 

Tags Black Sea Fleet Joe Biden Lloyd Austin NATO allies Romania Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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