NATO countries have agreed to increase the alliance's activities around the Black Sea, including more air and naval patrols of the sea, further increasing pressure in an area Russia considers to be of vital strategic importance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision at last week's defense ministerial in Brussels. "Today, we agreed on two additional maritime measures: an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness, and a maritime coordination function for our Standing Naval Forces when operating with other Allied forces in the Black Sea region," he said.
Stoltenberg didn't provide any more specific information, but that seems to fall short of what was originally being proposed by Romania: some sort of permanent NATO structure dealing with the Black Sea. Asked for more details, a NATO official told The Bug Pit that the specifics were still being worked out, but thus far the plan involved a greater tempo of air and sea patrols, and expanding the already existing land forces brigade based in Romania:
The Black Sea is key to NATO’s security and in response to Russia’s build-up there, the Alliance is increasing its presence in the region. On land, this presence will be built around a Romanian-led multinational brigade. It will focus on the training and interoperability of allied forces. This year we also plan more air patrols over the Black Sea and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces will be in the Black Sea more frequently for training and port visits. This will increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.
In response, Russia's ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko said Moscow is "thoroughly analyzing" the move. "The decision to increase NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea is, in any case, yet another step towards escalating tensions in the regions of vital importance for Russia," he said.
Others were less diplomatic. If the U.S. tried to challenge Russia in the Black Sea, "the American ship has just a few minutes to live in the Black Sea, I tell you honestly, since the rocket complexes that the Black Sea Fleet has, will not allow them to carry out their operational and strategic missions in the Black Sea," Vladimir Romanenko, a former commander of Russia's coastal defense forces, told RIA Novosti.
"Russia has all the necessary resources, both material and moral, to maintain supremacy on the Black Sea," added Igor Kasatonov, former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, in an interview with the military network TV Zvezda. "Our fleet has enough force to oppose the NATO forces in the Black Sea; the Black Sea Fleet dominates in this region."
Of course no one forsees an open naval battle between Russian and NATO on the Black Sea, and the move is likely some combination of NATO showing force and looking like its showing force.
"The goal of NATO is to restrict our actions in the Black Sea region and to increase the political-military pressure," said Mikhael Alexandrov, of the Military-Political Research Center at Moscow's leading foreign relations school, MGIMO. "The new NATO member states in Eastern Europe are trying to attract attention and raise the issue of security guarantees against the Russian threat," added another MGIMO scholar, Ivan Timofeev. "Brussels, in response, is making symbolic steps to show that it doesn't give up its own."
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.