For NATO, the significant build-up of Russian maritime forces, including the deployment of Bastion and Kalibr missiles in occupied Crimea and aboard the sizeable Black Sea Fleet, will provide Russia with a formidable anti-access/area (A2/AD) denial capability that essentially threatens to make the Black Sea a no-go area for NATO ships.
Lastly, while non-traditional security challenges have already slipped down the agenda in the Black Sea, a war between Russia and Ukraine, would effectively reduce what are important collective maritime security issues to white noise, hampering the ability of littoral states to address collectively ongoing softer maritime security challenges.[i]
Given the creation of a Russian controlled Black Sea, what should be the maritime response by NATO members and partners? There are three key ways in which navies can make an important contribution to security after the Russian attack on Ukraine. The first two involve a recalibration of tasks already performed: maritime presence operations; and naval capacity building. The third, engaging in counter maritime security training exercises and presence operations in the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea, involves more risks but would send a clear message.
The first response would be to make maritime presence operations smarter through increasing the tempo and demonstrating more ‘teeth’, although this approach is not without its risks and its critics. Since the annexation of Crimea, NATO members, in particular the US, have essentially stepped-up maritime presence operations in the Black Sea. Maritime presence operations, which include naval patrols, military drills and port calls are widely seen as critical in sending a deterrent signal to Russia and providing reassurance to NATO members and partners in the Black Sea. Presence operations have, however, been criticised as a flawed and destabilising approach that have so far failed to deter Russian aggression in the Black Sea and beyond. While this is an interesting observation given Russia’s recent actions, the failure to deter Russian action could be explained by many other factors, including the decline in the number of US presence operations last year and the failure of other NATO members to plug the gaps and ensure continual deployment to the Black Sea. A constant patrol of the Black Sea by NATO navies as well as the adoption of much more robust and meaningful NATO maritime operations that feature demonstrations of high-end warfare and interoperability between NATO members and partners, could also elevate presence to more credible deterrence. This would of course necessitate not only expanding the number of NATO members and partners participating in presence operations in the region, but also the use of more obviously high-end warfare platforms and capabilities in training exercises with littoral states.
Navies can also make an important contribution to security in the Black Sea by adopting a more creative approach to maritime capacity building. This could include a two-pronged approach which focuses on the forces most at need - the Ukrainian coastguard and Ukrainian navy (if they still exist and Ukraine has a coastline) - and which would also look to provide NATO members and partners with effective coastal defence systems. In the context of the ongoing threat posed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Sea of Azov, Ukraine’s coastguard is in urgent need of training in how to effectively conduct their core maritime roles while operating in a highly contested and challenging environment. Training in how to operate drones and to counter drone activity has been cited as a key training objective for the Ukrainian coastguard and would go some way to allowing them to use innovative solutions to deal with both hybrid and more conventional maritime challenges. Capacity building can also include selling or donating maritime equipment. The UK, for instance, has signed a Memorandum of Intent that focuses on developing Ukraine’s naval capabilities. Other, perhaps more radical, solutions might include working closely with NATO members, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey to shape the maritime battlespace by enhancing their coastal defence systems and their ability to counter Russian sea control with overlapping Coastal Defence Cruise Missile coverage.