Forecast

  • As it rises in importance, the Black Sea will witness a buildup of naval power.
  • NATO will attempt to enhance its influence and reach in the Black Sea.
  • Russia will seek to exploit divisions in NATO to undermine the alliance’s unity of mission in the critical region.

Analysis

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the balance of naval power in the Black Sea has shifted. Ukraine has been all but pushed out of the arena as Moscow, exploiting its position on the Crimean Peninsula, has built up its fleet strength in the sea. Meanwhile, the strategic importance of the waters has risen in NATO’s eyes as the bloc seeks to bolster its deterrence against Russia in Europe.

To counter Russia’s presence, Turkey and Romania will advocate strengthening the joint NATO naval force in the Black Sea at the security alliance’s Warsaw summit on July 8-9. Their proposal will be discussed at the summit, as will the possibility of an increased NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic states and other measures to expand the alliance’s presence in the region.

But as NATO contemplates enhancing its forces in the Black Sea, it must contend with the constraints set by the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. The pact imposes limits on nations that do not border the Black Sea, restricting the tonnage of warships as well as aggregate tonnage, number of vessels and duration of stay for any single nation. A multinational force such as NATO’s, however, could circumvent those restrictions by building its fleet with ships from several nations and using force rotations. NATO could also lean on member states Romania and Turkey, which are largely exempted from the convention’s restrictions, to bulk up a Black Sea fleet.

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Not all NATO members are likely to support a naval buildup in the Black Sea, though. While Romania might be the most enthusiastic and vocal supporter of an expanded NATO presence in the strategic waters, reluctance to antagonize Russia could curb support from Turkey and Bulgaria.

Bulgaria has a long and complicated history with Russia, and it has found itself at various times either allied with or opposed to the giant to the east. Right now, the idea of further acrimony with Moscow is unpopular among Bulgarian voters. With a presidential election scheduled for October, the current government will be cautious about being perceived as hawkish toward Russia. On June 16, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov reiterated the government’s opposition to an expanded NATO Black Sea naval force. Reinforcing that sentiment, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party is pushing for a parliamentary hearing to ensure that the country will not join any such force.

Until recently, Turkey was a strong supporter of the Black Sea initiative. But in the past few weeks, Ankara has made an effort to normalize ties with Moscow, which were strained following Turkey’s November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border. In the aftermath of the incident and the Russian annexation of Crimea, it was understandable that Turkey would seek a greater NATO presence both within and near its borders as insurance against Russian military retaliation. Now that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apologized for the downed jet, though, Turkey is attempting to thaw its frosty relationship with Russia. As a result, Ankara will likely tread lightly with regard to NATO force deployments in the Black Sea.

In terms of sheer numbers of ships, Russia does not have the upper hand in the Black Sea. But the measure of naval force projection there is not strictly a numbers game, and Russia has many other military advantages that help make up for its smaller fleet size. For instance, it has a significant lead in naval aviation and overall aviation assets that it could task for Black Sea missions. It also possesses long-range anti-ship cruise missile batteries that can reach most of the Black Sea. Russia has used its position on the Crimean Peninsula to build up these advantages, and it is in the process of substantially modernizing its Black Sea surface and submarine forces as well.

Russia will have to contend with NATO’s heightened interest and more frequent forays into the Black Sea. In effect, Moscow can no longer rely on the Montreux Convention and its own naval power to dominate the region, considering Turkey’s growing naval strength and NATO’s ability to work around limits set by the convention. Nevertheless, Russia’s position on the Crimean Peninsula gives it considerable advantages, and Moscow can work to exploit divisions within the NATO alliance to press those advantages. As the two sides jockey for the strategic edge, the competition to control the Black Sea will undoubtedly heat up.

By Omar Lamrani