NATO urgently requires a Black Sea strategy.
Continued Russian aggression against NATO allies Ukraine and Georgia; antagonistic language and behaviour by Moscow against British naval patrols; Russian control of the region and their shutting down of crucial straits and coastal areas; and the use of the Black Sea by the Russian navy to springboard in to the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
These are all serious European security concerns that were not only neglected at this week’s NATO summit, but that the UK is in a strong position to show a leadership role within a NATO framework.
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Since April Russia shut down large swathes of the Crimean coast, including around the docks at Sevastopol, in addition to shutting the strategic Kerch Strait.
Whilst Russian officials declared that this was all in relation to Russian naval exercises, it has taken a rather more sinister if predictable turn.
Moscow has now deployed 15 warships to the Sea of Azov, a body of water shared by Russia and Ukraine through the now-closed Russian controlled Kerch Strait. This not only gives the Russian naval forces an expanded landing capability, threatens Ukrainian’s security further.
In addition, Russian officials have attempted to threaten and intimidate both American and British maritime patrols across the Black Sea in recent months. Moscow described a planned US patrol to the region in April as an ‘unfriendly provocation’, as it warned Washington to stay away from Crimea’s Black Sea coast.
These Russian provocations came on the back of HMS Dragon’s passage across the Black Sea in October 2020. Having exercised its freedom of navigation in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Moscow subsequently (and months later) announced that their naval forces ‘chased away’ the Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyer.
The Ministry of Defence denied that this occurred, but were it true, then it would in fact represent a gross violation of the UNCLOS by Russia.
The recent closures across the Black Sea and the Kerch Strait, in addition to Russian aspirations to restrict international maritime traffic, are all further measures by Moscow to increase Ukraine’s isolation from NATO allies, and to assert its territorial control over these strategic waters.
Britain is doing the right thing increasing maritime patrols in this increasingly important region, as HMS Defender alongside the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen from the UK-led Carrier Strike Group begin to patrol the Black Sea over the coming days in support of NATO ally Ukraine.
The benefits to UK deployments in the Black Sea are considerable. First, they send a robust message to Russia, that the Black Sea is open, and not the sole preserve of Moscow to turn off and on at whim.
Second, they show a strong level of support to Ukraine, who have witnessed considerable Russian military escalations throughout 2021, and now with the Russian anti-access and area-denial across the Black Sea and Kerch Strait, will undoubtedly feel more isolated from NATO allies.
Third, Moscow spends an inordinate amount of resources to track and monitor our maritime patrols. And fourth, it helps reinforce NATO’s vulnerable southern flank from increased Russian submarine activity.
HMS Dragon’s journey last October highlighted how important a UK presence in the region is. Russia’s objections to this journey, aired months later, demonstrates how even routine maritime crossings in the Black Sea have in effect become freedom of navigation patrols. This is even more salient since the Russian anti-access and area denial around Crimea and the Kerch Strait in April 2021.
In light of these developments, the UK should seek to incorporate the Black Sea region as a geostrategic priority. This must include joint maritime patrols with both Ukrainian and NATO allies. The joint patrol conducted with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen in the coming days is a good example of this bilateral engagement.
Building from this, the UK should develop a more permanent and consistent leadership presence, ultimately within a NATO framework. Both French and Dutch navies have recently been deployed or are soon to deploy to the Black Sea, with Turkey a major regional actor and close NATO ally. This would be a good starting point.
The remit for a larger deployment on this scale would be the safeguarding of the Montreux Convention around the Bosporus which Russia routinely violates; asserting freedom of navigation across the Black Sea; and developing Ukraine’s military capacities in key areas. All of these would further strengthen NATO’s vulnerable southern flank.
As the UK-led Carrier Strike Group deployment fulfils the vision of a Global Britain as the eminent European naval power, it is to this strategic corner of southern Europe which the UK’s and NATO’s attentions must turn, in order to counter an increasingly assertive and emboldened Russia.