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. 


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


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.

HMS Dragon and a Romanian frigate in the Black Sea.

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. 

HMS Defender, USS Laboon and HMNLS Evertsen take station for close proximity sailing as a Russian warship watches from afar (rear of picture) whilst on maritime operations in the Black Sea.

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. 

The UK Carrier Strike Group at sea

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.   

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Julian
Julian
3 months ago

Blimey. This is a timely and prescient article. I give you this from literally minutes ago – “Russian ship fired warning shots at Royal Navy destroyer, Moscow says” …
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/23/russian-ship-fired-warning-shots-at-royal-navy-destroyer-hms-defender-moscow-says

Roy
Roy
3 months ago

First, Ukraine and Georgia are not “allies” of NATO or the UK – i.e. there is no treaty obligation by NATO or the UK to defend these states. This is important since you have to know what your ultimate objective is in addressing Russian aggression in the Black Sea. You have to know how far you will go since the Russians have total escalation dominance in the Black Sea. In other words, their ability to escalate will always exceed the capacity of the UK and NATO to do so, other than in the scenario of a general war and in… Read more »

Paul.P
Paul.P
3 months ago
Reply to  Roy

Indeed Russia will be able to escalate their forces in the Black Sea more easily. I think that is why we have just signed the Babcock agreement to build new attack craft and frigates for Ukraine. I believe that after today’s kerfuffle off the Crimean coast HMS Defender is on her way to Georgia. It will be interesting to if any defence agreements are discussed. Romania owns 2 ex RN Type 22s. My own view is that a practical strategy is to make sure the other nations with Black Sea coastlines have strong naval forces and that Nato continues their… Read more »

Roy
Roy
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul.P

NATO can certainly make things more costly for the Russians. That may be worthwhile to cause sober second thought and to deter any idea on the Russian side that they can move without consequences. But, in the end, NATO also has to accept that if the Russians move, there is nothing NATO will be able to do without risking general war. Since the Russians regard this area as part of their vital security interests, they will not accept either Ukraine or Georgia in NATO. Were NATO ever to make that offer, the Russians are almost certain to act and NATO… Read more »

Paul.P
Paul.P
3 months ago
Reply to  Roy

Well, agree everyone needs to be careful. In the last 2 weeks we have seen UK and French OPVs in the Black Sea and the meeting of Biden with Putin. This week we see the signing of the UK Ukraine naval deal. Today the avoidable harassment of HMS Defender on her way from Odessa to Georgia, both formerly within the Soviet Union. Next week there are joint naval exercises between the USN and Ukraine. As I see it having met the man Biden has given Nato leave to turn the screw on Putin who has indulged in systematic provocation of… Read more »

Meirion X
Meirion X
3 months ago
Reply to  Roy

“NATO also has to accept that if the Russians move, there is nothing NATO will be able to do without risking general war”

The answer to your comment, is it requires conventional deterrence to stop Russia making moves in that region. NATO needs to allocate resources to the Black Sea region for deterrence to work, such as to establish airbases with a considerable number of aircraft based there including F-35A’s, and naval forces based in countries adjacent to the Black Sea. A strategy similar to the time of the Cold War with forces based in West Germany.

Last edited 3 months ago by Meirion X
Roy
Roy
3 months ago
Reply to  Meirion X

Ok. So the Russians have clearly said that Ukraine and Georgia are strategically vital to them. So now you would have NATO declare the same. Is such a declaration credible? Do you believe that the NATO alliance collectively is prepared to fight a war with Russia over these states? I doubt if you asked the Germans whether they are prepared to trade Berlin for Tblisi they would respond with an enthusiastic yes. By making things costly for the Russians, one has the option of better arming the Georgians or the Ukrainians or providing training. But putting the West in a… Read more »

Є Ть
Є Ть
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul.P

to be able to escalate something need to have something
but only ruSSia has, it is old rotten wasthubs

Glenn
Glenn
3 months ago
Reply to  Roy

No, but both are formal partners (Partnership for Peace members). But then, so is Russia. I’ll dig my own hole!

Є Ть
Є Ть
3 months ago
Reply to  Roy

F..cked ruSSIan trolls are everywhere

Eufster
Eufster
3 months ago

Great article. And very timely given recent events.

Last edited 3 months ago by Eufster
Glenn
Glenn
3 months ago

Can you give us any information about Russian violations of the Montreux Convention, please?

Chris
Chris
3 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

The convention prevents the ‘routine’ transit of submarines, this article seems to suggest they’re stretching, if not explicitly breaking the terms of the agreement:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/06/23/image-shows-russian-submarine-appearing-to-break-international-treaty/?sh=6cf7866d57b8

Glenn
Glenn
3 months ago
Reply to  Chris

Thank you. Naughty!

Klonkie
Klonkie
3 months ago

A report on NZ morning radio that a RN “Battleship” had warning shots fired at it. Congratulations to the RN on their stealthy fleet expansion!

Frank62
Frank62
3 months ago
Reply to  Klonkie

There really should be laws against misinformation in journalism. Such sloppy standards we put up with today.

Something Different
Something Different
3 months ago
Reply to  Klonkie

In fairness most news caters to the general public, many of whom cannot distinguish between one warship type or another. For some battleship is just another term for warship much like hoover is for vacuum cleaners. Also, so much military terminology changes over time it’s understandable that there is confusion. For instance, a modern destroyer is in form and function more akin to a WWII cruiser than its Great War namesake.

Tom Keane
Tom Keane
3 months ago

Terrible behaviour by the Russians! I think it’s high time the West ramps up the pressure on them, maybe start being a little more ‘abrasive’ in our comments to them!

dan
dan
3 months ago

NATO hasn’t done much of anything to help Ukraine. Sailing a few ships in the Black Sea and providing a couple “defensive” weapons isn’t deterring comrade Putin.

Meirion X
Meirion X
3 months ago
Reply to  dan

Remember, the ex-POTUS sided with the Russians against Ukraine, and denied them assistance, not too long ago!

Frank62
Frank62
3 months ago
Reply to  Meirion X

Threw into sharp releif just how fragile U.S. democracy actually is.

John Hartley
John Hartley
3 months ago

I think it a shame that the FRUKUS meetings stopped some years ago. It allowed retired & later serving naval officers from France, Russia, UK, US to meet & understand each other, to avoid confrontation at sea. I doubt anyone wants WW3 by accident.

David Steeper
David Steeper
3 months ago

Interesting reading your comments but some of you are overestimating russian military. After Syria and Nagorno Karabahk Russians are well aware how far behind Turkey they are. No way underestimating how good Turks are they don’t have the most advanced kit in NATO. Russia has 2nd division conventional forces and they know it.

criss whicker
criss whicker
3 months ago

i know not, but wish to ask simply two questions, concidering costing the russians more expence may or may not work.

1, why not a NATO navy base in the black sea,
or
2, just block the entrance to the black see at its narrowest point,,
just an amaturest idea, and may be totaly wrong.

Watcherzero
Watcherzero
3 months ago

NATO is helping them rebuild their navy with lots of donations of small ships and training assistance. The UK announced during the visit that it was donating two Sandown class minehunters upon their decommissioning. HMS Defender was also on a trade mission to Ukraine and a memorandum was signed with a trade deal reportedly deal close to being signing for the UK via Babcock to supply 8 patrol ships similar in size to the Province class supplied to Oman in the 80’s armed with anti-ship missiles, and frigates which will be built in Ukrainian shipyards modernised by Babcock. The UK… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Watcherzero
lofty hulme
lofty hulme
3 months ago
Reply to  Watcherzero

History can be useful –I recall as lad ,the UK declaring war on Germany over Hitler’s invasion of Poland about which the UK could actually do nothing . Then the British Army was routed in France and fortunately survived via Dunkirk . France surrendered .The Hitler invaded the USSR ( that included the Ukraine ) and eventually the Red Army marched into Berlin . The following the Berlin Air Lift . we ( that incudes me in RN submarines) put up a strong non-aggressive front called the Cold War . We eventually won that war of nerves with the collapse… Read more »

David Steeper
David Steeper
3 months ago
Reply to  lofty hulme

Relations with Russia are awful because that’s the only thing keeping Putin in power and palaces.

Meirion X
Meirion X
3 months ago
Reply to  lofty hulme

The West’s rearming is in response to Russia’s actions over the past few years, and their rearming.

Last edited 3 months ago by Meirion X
lofty hulme
lofty hulme
3 months ago
Reply to  Meirion X

The West has been steadily rearming since Stalin and the Berlin Airlift . Britain limited by the cost of Lease Lend repayments still managed to develop the innovative Vulcan Bombers to deliver nuclear bombs –only one target . Missiles were developed and tested in Australia , The Lightning fighter came into service . The RN was left with a lot of destroyer moored in various waterways with handful of caretakers . Then the RN converted them to then modern ASW frigates . The RN built experimental HTP submarines and modified WW2 S/Ms . Experiments with ASW noisy screws>HMS Scotsman –… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
3 months ago

There was a brief almost throw away mention in the Defence Command Paper that Russia was the greatest threat the UK faced. This was followed by the plan for more forward basing and dispersal of forces and the tilt to Asia Pacific. That made no sense to me at the time and it makes even less sense in the light of recent events in the Black Sea. We are treaty bound to assist NATO members in the area and that should define and limit what we try to do. Whilst the UN does not recognise Russia’s occupation of Crimea, it… Read more »