Tag Archives: Russia

The Role of Cruisers in Promoting Russian Presence and Deterrence in Peacetime

The following is a two-part series on the role cruisers played in the Soviet and Russian Navy. The first part examined historical inspiration for developing a cruiser-focused force, concepts of employment, and strategic rationale. Part II will focus on how cruisers shaped the environment through forward presence during the Cold War, and how the nature of presence may evolve into the future. 

By Alek Clarke

The Multi-Layered Approach of Presence

“Naval losses are hard to make good. Therefore, each defeat inflicted on an enemy means not only the achievement of the goal of the given combat clash but the creation of favorable conditions for quite a long time for solving the next task.” Admiral Sergey Gorshkov1

It was not of course all about the cruisers. Even with two ‘levels’ of construction the Soviets would not have been able to devote enough resources to the construction of cruisers to sustain the number of hulls required to maintain the level of visibility that is a requisite of presence. In simple terms they hit the same problem the Royal Navy (RN) of the 1920s faced. The pre-WWI Fisher reforms sold off all the old ships which had been used as presence vessels2 – in the phraseology of that period, gunboats,3 so what to build as new build vessel for presence?

The RN in the 1920s focused on light cruisers, ships of 6,000 tons and a main armament of six to eight six-inch guns.4 Yet, still even in that period when defense budgets were able to call on far larger proportions of national funds than they can today, the RN was not able to acquire enough (even discounting the artificial strictures imposed by the arms limitations treaties5) to maintain the visibility portion of presence with only these ships. The Soviet solution to this problem was not that different to Britain’s in the 1920s; to focus efforts on the more useful ships where they could be of most benefit, and to make use of other ships to achieve the visibility aspect of the presence mission elsewhere.6

This visibility mission, often characterized as ‘Showing the Flag,’7 really started again for the Soviet Union after a 14-year hiatus that included the WWII years with a visit by a Sverdlov-class cruiser to Britain to take part in Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 Coronation Review.8 This visit was the harbinger of a busy future, and four years later another Sverdlov-class vessel, accompanied this time by a destroyer, made the first visit by a Soviet Union vessel to Latakia, Syria;9 a naval relationship which has continued to have an impact on world events to this day. The growing use of naval diplomacy by the Soviet Union in the early to mid-Cold War era is highlighted by the numerical increase in port visits: over a fourteen year period (1953-66) 37 port visits were made, 21 of which were to developed countries, yet over the next ten year period (1967-76) 170 port visits were made, of which only 30 were to developed countries,10 and 108 or 77.6 percent of which involved two or more vessels.11

What reveals more is the theater the visits were focused on: 69 went to the Indian Ocean –the highest number. Of these visits though, 29 took place during a two-year period, 1968-9, while the Soviet Navy was settling on which Indian Ocean ports to use as either a primary or secondary operational hub to support the Indian Ocean Squadron (the second forward deployed squadron the Soviet Union created), in the region.12 These visits were arguably more about testing the port facilities of allies, although they were also important for presence. In the retreating colonial atmosphere where the traditional power, Britain, was withdrawing and the new powers, America and the Soviet Union, were still integrating themselves – these visits served to foster relationships and grow connections.  

The second largest was the Atlantic, followed by the Mediterranean (which was the home of the first Soviet Union forward deployed squadron), and then the Pacific.13 The visits were very much focused at the ‘southern flank,’ and nations which belonged to NATO. They served to highlight the reach and capability of the Soviet Union to these nations in a very visible and of course ‘peaceful’ way.

Soviet Port Visits 1967-76. Source: Soviet Naval Diplomacy.14

Alongside the visibility of presence gained from port visits, these visits also provided the opportunity to build relationships and gather human as well as electronic intelligence. Whilst of course this is true of both the visitor and host, the initiation of the visit by the visitor, and rules of diplomatic etiquette (if followed by both sides), will usually serve to give the visitor an edge. This can be crucial in providing knowledge to the capability and capacity (i.e. how many ships/units can be actually made available at any time for operations) of potential opponents and allies.

Electronic intelligence and human intelligence are factors which are widely discussed,15 but still need to be highlighted. Even a ship outfitted with a moderately capable Command, Control, and Communication (C3) setup can provide significant listening capability whilst just passing through an ocean. Many nations put in far more basic equipment. This variance in electronic equipment outfit can often be a significant explanation as to the cost differences between procurements of similar vessels for different countries.

These passive sensors are nothing though compared to the turning on of more active sensor systems as both capability sets provide governments with the ability of proactively observing events within an area so that they have as much and as accurate information as possible. This capacity, when combined with the relationships that are built by ongoing diplomatic and military interaction, can provide interested nations with the ability to more accurately predict the possibility, as well as take advantage, of events or opportunities.

The Soviets at many times, but most notably in the 1975 Angolan Crisis,16 were able to build upon forces already in the area, use local knowledge, as well as on-the-spot presence to react to events. The reinforcements were carefully managed to present a deterrent to the threatened increased American involvement – which never actually materialized. Although there existed the presence of two carrier battle groups, based around the USS John F. Kennedy and the USS Saratoga in the Gibraltar/Atlantic area at the time, such involvement was a significant possibility.17

The presence of the ships combined with the airlift of mainly Cuban military personnel and Soviet equipment for which those ships provided cover secured the installation of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in power, rather than the American- or Chinese-backed organisations.18 While the warships never directly took part in combat operations, their presence allowed the Soviets to keep a very close eye on the situation.

This success is the capability which presence is an auger for. The vessel that is seen serves as a symbol and warning for all the force that might be dispatched. While there, the ships can provide more tangible benefits in terms of gathering intelligence and building relationships which could make a larger deployment unnecessary. If such larger deployments do become necessary, the information already gathered enables governments to refine and focus any such deployment to achieve the aims they desire more effectively and efficiently.

These successes were ultimately why the Soviet Navy eventually chose to procure aircraft carriers, as well as cruisers.19 It was not the pursuit of German-style ‘Risk Fleet’ strategy,20 but a realization that adding another level of presence would give them more diplomatic and operational flexibility. With the addition of aircraft carriers to its cruiser force the Soviet government was able to maintain ongoing presence within regions and raise the level of commitment if warranted, but always building upon the foundation of presence that was the ongoing feature of their policy. It was their ability to magnify the presence of Soviet forces by the addition of an organic sea-based fixed-wing component (giving the options for overflight, like the British achieved in Belize/British Honduras vs Guatemala with the Ark Royal in 197221) that was their peacetime selling point.

Future Possibilities

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming. 23

The primary question that will undoubtedly feature in future presence discussions is whether manned or unmanned systems are better value for money. Whilst those who are budget-minded will no doubt seek to replace manned with the unmanned, in reality the more sensible idea would be to consider the lessons of the past, and perhaps even the principle foundation of presence itself. It is a standard of presence that the small vessel that is seen is an active emblem for the far larger fleet that can be sent. This idea has been built upon. Helicopters have been used along with a detachment of marines/infantry to give an impression that a far larger ground force was available – as well as demonstrating their ability to appear anywhere. From all of this, there is therefore a successful precedent, whereby smaller/lower presence units are used to magnify the presence/area of effect of a higher impact unit. This is most likely to be the best option for unmanned systems, that they be part of a larger manned system or work in tandem with one so that the human side of presence is involved, while the unmanned aerial and surface systems would serve to magnify its impact.

It is as such a probability that the utility of small vessels for presence effect missions will grow; yet they will always depend, as the Russians and Soviets demonstrated, upon the strength of will encapsulated in their orders, the quality of their crew, and the foundation provided by the capable vessels they represent. This could be a basis for the promulgation of a two tier naval force, one with a strong core of warfighting vessels (aircraft carriers, destroyers, amphibious ships and submarines) kept at a high level of training and readiness, but which are deployed rarely – except to the most dangerous areas that require something more.

The second tier would be a larger number of presence/flotilla vessels, which would be almost continually forward deployed to show the flag, provide maritime security, and demonstrate interest around the world.24 Such an idea is not new:25 in fact it was the foundation of Soviet naval diplomacy and of the British Empire’s maritime policy for most of the 19th, and early 20th centuries. However, in an age where the complexity and advanced technology of weapons systems (and warships in particular) seems to be a major selling point for their procurement, such a premise may be difficult to sell.

Many countries possess both a Coast Guard and a Navy, and in the case of the U.S., the size, level of armament, and general sophistication of the Coast Guard cutters means that they are in many ways just as useful as USN ships in providing presence. This is not the case with most nations, but Britain as a nation which has a longstanding maritime history is an example of this.

In fact, Britain possesses not only a Coast Guard, but also a Border Force; both of which operate ships. Although the vessels are capable in localized maritime constabulary roles (and two of the Border Force vessels were deployed with HMS Bulwark to help with the 2015 Mediterranean Crisis26) – they are not as capable in the presence role as the River-class OPVs or minesweepers the RN currently uses for its small ship missions.

This does not mean though these Coast Guard and Border Force ships are not useful, just that they cannot be considered interchangeable with the RN ships. The British Government, which is currently procuring three more River-class vessels27 and has made an announcement to procure two further vessels, might wish to look again at the this very useful and adaptable class and see what more can be achieved from its design or could be gained by further increasing numbers in a presence context.

Conclusion

Presence matters. Events are decided by those who care enough to show up28 – not by those who sit back on the sidelines. The Soviet Navy, and to a large extent the modern Russian Navy, was not built on its wartime missions; but rather its peacetime roles – in contrast to Western navies that have prioritized warfighting constructs.

This focus is understandable when considering the constricting budgets these navies face and requirements that war would undoubtedly place on them. However, while the last year that British forces were not in action was 1968, wars which require naval forces to do more than support land forces are not that common – in fact the 1982 Falklands War was it for Britain. This does not mean the capabilities are not needed, as when they are needed they are really needed; but it does mean that in order to justify themselves navies need to be more engaged with peacetime possibilities and roles. They need to be engaged with the full role of the cruiser, the peacetime ambassador and bobby on the beat, and the warrior.  

Lack of focus on peacetime roles weakens navies in the political sense, as in a democracy the leaders respond to the public and media, who in turn largely respond to what is most visible, most immediate – not having the time to really consider the long term before the next thing comes along. This weakness was of course less of a problem for the Soviet Navy, and to an extent the Russian Navy, which has to impress a small number of stakeholders. Western navies however need to be in the public debate in order to justify the expense, whether it is for warfighting or for peacetime.

This is not because democratic governments do not care about defense, but because the nature of democracy means that that the more visible the department of government, the more it shows its relevance to the public and the harder it is to cut. The Soviet Navy (admittedly working in a less democratic national governance model) managed to build a fleet for war by mastering and building recognition from the missions of peacetime.

This is not to say that western navies need to build flotilla vessels, although they could be useful as presence and force multipliers;29 the Soviets went down that route as an offset strategy. For the carrier-centered western navies, whilst a small increase in major surface combatants would no doubt be of use to provide flexibility of presence; for pure presence missions, vessels of OPV or corvette size would be more appropriate. These vessels are often cheaper, and as with the Soviet choice of cruisers in the Cold War, would not carry the risk of provoking an arms race, and would provide the hulls necessary for nations to have presence where they need it to be.

This is important, because if countries wish to be actors more often than reactors, they need to have as accurate as possible understanding of what is going on and be able to act quickly. A small ship may not have the status of a larger vessel, but its presence as the vanguard of the larger can enable it to have an impact out of all proportion.30 Events which are caught early can often be resolved more quickly by what is already there – thus according the situation less possibility for escalation. Presence can serve to increase predictability and stability which are always good for helping to maintain peace.

Dr. Clarke graduated with a PhD in War Studies from KCL in 2014, the thesis of which focused upon the Royal Navy’s development of naval aviation and aircraft carrier design in the 1920s and 1930s. He was supervised during this by Professor Andrew Lambert. Alongside this he has published works on the 1950s with British Naval History, and has also published on current events with European Geostrategy and the Telegraph online as part of the KCL Big Question series. He has maintained an interest in digital history, and is organizing, hosting, and editing a series of Falklands War veterans interviews for the Center for International Maritime Security and Phoenix Think Tank. Recent research outputs include presenting a paper at the National Maritime Museum’s 2016 conference on the ASW capabilities of the RNAS in WWI, and will be presenting a paper on the design & performance of Tribal Class Destroyers in WWII at the  forthcoming BCMH (of which he is a member) New Researchers Conference.  

Archival Sources

TNA: ADM 1/8672/227. 1924. “Light-Cruisers Emergency Construnction Progrmme.” Admiralty 1/8672/227. London: United Kingdom National Archives(Kew).

TNA: ADM 116/4109. 1940. “Battle of the River Plate: reports from Admiral Commanding and from HM Ships Ajax, Achilles and Exeter.” Admiralty 116/4109. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).

TNA: ADM 116/4320. 1941. “Battle of the River Plate: British views on German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo harbour; visits to South America by HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.” ADM 116/4320. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).

TNA: ADM 116/4470. 1940. “Battle of the River Plate: messages and Foreign Office telegrams.” ADM 116/4470. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).

TNA: ADM 223/714. 1959. “Translation of the 1949 Russian Book “Some Results of the Cruiser Operations of the German Fleet” by L. M. Eremeev – translated and distributed by RN Intelligence.” ADM 223/714. London: United Kingdom National Archives(Kew), 02 September.

TNA: ADM 239/533. 1960. “Supplementary Naval Intelligence Papers relation to Soviet & European Satellite Navies: Soviet Cruisers.” ADM 239/533. London: United Kingdom, National Archives (Kew), November.

TNA: ADM 239/821. 1959. “Particulars of Foreign War Vessels Volume 1: Soviet & European Satelite Navies.” ADM 239/821. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew), January.

TNA: DEFE 6/51/104. 1958. “Requirement for Cruisers East of Suez.” DEFE 6/51/104. London: United Kingdom National Archvies (Kew), 21 August.

TNA: FO 371/106559. 1953. “Soviet ships off the Shetlands; visit of Soviet cruiser Sverdlov to Spithead for the Coronation. Code NS file 1211.” FO 371/106559. London: United Kingdom National Archives(Kew).

TNA: PREM 11/1014. 1955. “Reconnaissance of Soviet cruisers by HMS Wave and RAF aircraft.” PREM 11/1014. London: United Kingdom National Archives(Kew).

References

1. Sergey Gorshkov (1980), p.229

2. Lambert (2008)

3. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Political Applications of Limited Naval Force (1981)

4. TNA: ADM 1/8672/227 (1924) provides a good example of this, but for quick reference then Norman Friedman’s work British Cruisers; Two World Wars and After (2010) is also excellent 

5. Signatories of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty (2005)

6. Dismukes & McConnell (1979), p.93 & 96

7. Dismukes & McConnell (1979), pp.88-114 –this is Chapte 3, written by Charles C. Peterson, who credits much of the information used to the work of Anne Kelly Calhoun

8. TNA: FO 371/106559 (1953), and Dismukes & McConnell (1979), p.89

9. Dismukes & McConnell (1979), p.89

10. Ibid, pp.89-90

11. Ibid, p.94

12. Ibid, pp.91-2

13. Ibid, p.94

14. Ibid, p.100

15. Aldrich & Hopkins (2013), and Herman (1996)

16. Dismukes & McConnell (1979), pp.144-53

17. Ibid, pp.147

18. Ibid, pp.144

19. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), Polmar (1991), and TNA: ADM 223/714 (1959)

20. Massie (2005)

21. White (2009)

22. Pocock (2015)

23. W.B. Yeats The Second Coming

24. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Political Applications of Limited Naval Force (1981)

25. Clarke, Protecting the Exclusive Economic Zones – Part I & Part II (2014), & Clarke, October 2013 Thoughts (Extended Thoughts): Time to Think Globally (2013)

26. Ministry of Defence & The Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP (2015), and Naval Today (2015)

27. BAE Systems (2015)

28. President Bartlet (Sorkin, 2000)

29. A. Clarke, Europe and the Future of Cruisers (2014)

30. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Political Applications of Limited Naval Force (1981)

Featured Image: Soviet Navy Kirov-class cruiser. (Public Domain)

The Reawakening of the Russian Bear

NAFAC Week

By Jared Russell

The Danger of a Declining Power: Reckless Courage in the Face of Oblivion

It seems as if a day does not pass without seeing a news article analyzing the relations between the United States and Russia. It remains undisputed that Vladimir Putin has successfully solidified his position of leadership amidst the Russian hierarchy, and the world waits in wonder of what he may do next. The troubling, and occasionally overlooked, variable of this situation is that Putin is not commanding a thriving nation. Rather, Russia has experienced considerable decline in terms of market economics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, losing global power and failing to compete with the torchbearers of globalization. Thus, it is evident that Russia is not an emerging power in the global landscape, and furthermore, it is safe to assert that they are not ‘reawakening’ under any conditions. Instead, amidst their decline (or possibly even within the monotony of stability via mediocrity), the United States must be cautious of the dangers posed by a disruptive nation that acts like it has nothing to lose. Let us begin by debunking the notion that Russia is an emerging power before moving on to analyze the dangers associated with declining powers.

The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 predicts the misfortune of Russia. The report proposes in relation to Russia’s economy that it is “likely to continue [its] slow relative decline.”1 The report continues, “[A] Russia which fails to build a more diversified economy and more liberal domestic order could increasingly pose a regional and global threat.”2 The threat here would be exhibited in the form of trying to obtain resources and other market shares from neighboring countries, conflicts that may extend so far as to provoke NATO. Russia, for so long, has relied upon the oil industry to fuel its economy, failing to diversify fully into other areas within the market economy. By failing to fully embrace the liberal order of modern markets, Russia has not achieved the success of its counterparts. With the prices of crude oil currently dropping to just under $50 per barrel, it looks as if the Russian economy is far from sustainable, especially considering it is pillared on a resource that is subject to exhaustion.3

In his article, “The Illusion of Geopolitics,” G. John Ikenberry categorizes Russia as a “part time spoiler,” citing that they are not worthy of the title of “revisionist power.”4 In this context, revisionist powers are understood to be emerging authorities that seek the throne of global hegemon. These authorities would seek to abolish/revise the pluralistic, democratic, and capitalistic practices that have been established in many nations throughout the world under the tutelage of the United States—going as far to usurp the U.S. from its seat as global hegemon. Russia, according to Ikenberry in his response to Walter Russell Mead, is clearly not a revisionist power, deducing this from observing Russia’s willingness to maintain its status amongst the global institutions (i.e. the UN Security Council, IMF, World Bank, etc.). Moreover, Ikenberry notes that Russia’s stance on international relations is “mainly about the search for commerce and resources, the protection of their sovereignty, and, where possible, regional domination,” and continues, “[t]hey have shown no interest in building their own orders or even taking full responsibility for the current one and have offered no alternative visions of global economic or political progress.”5 Thus, Russia recognizes the importance of the global market system and the role that it plays in its success. Beyond trade, though, is a concern for geopolitics, preventing Russia from expanding their order to contend for global supremacy.

I believe that Ikenberry’s analysis of Russian prioritization in modernity hits the mark, but his overall optimism of the United States’ position having a certain degree of permanency is poorly founded. In attempting to solidify the position of the United States atop the global ladder, Ikenberry fails to adequately account for geopolitics as he attempts to undermine the importance of geopolitics by conceding its existence as negligible. It is on this point that I must agree with Mead in part, as geopolitics would appear to play a considerable role in global power dynamics—but, that is not to say that engaging in geopolitics warrants a position equitable to a revisionist power. Over the past several years in Crimea and South Ossetia, we have seen Russia take holdings in Ukraine and Georgia, land that was once part of the Soviet Union. This behavior, though, is not an attempt at the building of a new order. It appears to be an effort to disrupt democratic political institutions that have been established to respond to such situations. One must wonder: is this Russia’s advance at cementing their power on the global scale or is it an exhibition of a dying country that is so desperately trying to stay relevant?

If we were to accept the former, in that Russia was trying to cement its power, we would be accepting the argument of John Mearsheimer. Richard Betts weighed in on the topic, channeling Mearsheimer when he advances, “Bucking the tide of optimism, [Mearsheimer] argued that international life would continue to be brutal competition for power it had always been…[his] vision is especially telling because it is an extreme version of realism that does not see any benign actors in the system and assumes that all great powers seek hegemony: ‘There are no status quo powers…save for the occasional hegemon that wants to maintain its dominating position.”6 But does this viewpoint encapsulate the current state under which Russia operates? I am certain that Russia yearns to be the global hegemon, but all of the evidence that we have reviewed thus far suggests that they could not be farther from actualizing that goal.

Russia, even with their antics over the course of the past ten years, has been unable to disrupt the fabric of humanity. Instead, they have elected to directly challenge democratic institutions in Europe and the United States. Alas, it seems as if we have reached the pinnacle of our dilemma, and we can identify it as a continuance of a problem outlined by George Kennan during the Cold War. Kennan posits the necessary response, “it will be clearly seen that the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”7 It appears as if Russia, even in its decrepit post-USSR state, is trying to apply pressure against the free institutions of the western world. Kennan had advocated for a response that is economic and political to such disruption, as a military conflict with Russia will yield no winners—and most likely a world of losers. If the United States responds to Russia’s disruption militarily, then we may truly have a discussion about the ‘reawakening’ of the Bear.

Ultimately, we settle upon the realization that we must recognize our differences with Russia in terms of ideals, values, and institutions–transcending beyond the traditional military disputes that marked the history of our relationship until the finale of the Cold War. To say that Russia is reemerging into the global political scene as a contender for the position of global hegemon appears to be entirely fallacious. For Russia, their economy and the diversity of their resources point toward an overall declination in global power. Let it be clear, though, that reemergence is not a necessary condition of danger. As we tread into the future, we must account for Russia’s incessant desire to maintain its standing near the top of the global battleground. If Russia does, in fact, face impending oblivion, the United States must remain cautious to falling into the traps of reckless courage exuded by the falling Bear.

Jared Russel is a junior from Colorado College majoring in political science and philosophy and will be graduating in 2018.

References

1.“Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” National Intelligence Council, 2012, iv.

2. “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” National Intelligence Council,2012, ix.

3. “Crude  Oil Index,” NASDAQ, Accessed March 22, 2017, http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/crude–‐oil.aspx.

4. G. John Ikenberry, “The Illusion of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order, “ in Foreign Affairs: The New Global Context, 2015, 16.

5. G. John Ikenberry, “The Illusion of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order,” in Foreign Affairs: The New Global Context, 2015, 24.

6. Richard Betts, “Conflict or Cooperation: Three Visions Revisited,” in Foreign Affairs: The Clash at 20, 2013, 72.

7. George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in Foreign Affairs, 1947, Part III.

Bibliography

Betts, Richard. “Conflict or Cooperation: Three Visions Revisited.” In Foreign Affairs: The

Clash at 20, 69-80, 2013.

“Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.” National Intelligence Council, 2012.

Ikenberry, G. John. “The Illusion of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order. “ In

Foreign Affairs: The New Global Context, 16-24, 2015.

Kennan, George. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In Foreign Affairs, Parts I-IV, 1947.

Featured Image: Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, in this January 22, 2015 file photo. (Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko)

The Role of the Black Sea in Russia’s Strategic Calculus

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Byron Chong    

Introduction

As one of his last acts of 2015, on December 31st, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally approved his country’s new national security strategy. The content of the updated document reflected the sharp deterioration in Russia’s relationship with the West after the Ukraine crisis – it accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to dominate global affairs and described NATO expansion as a major security threat.1 When this document is analyzed together with Russia’s Military Doctrine issued the previous year, on December 25th, 2014, they provide valuable insight into understanding the Kremlin’s strategic concerns and long-term objectives. Both documents describe a country threatened by NATO’s encroachment towards its borders and its loss of influence over the ex-Soviet states on its periphery. They focus on the need to restore lost prestige and leadership over its neighbors, and halt the Alliance’s eastward expansion.2

For Russia to achieve these long-term objectives, its supremacy in the Black Sea is a critically enabling factor. The unique geography of the region confers several geopolitical advantages to Russia in its confrontation with the West. As such, the Kremlin has sought measures to strengthen its hold over the region. Firstly, it has sought to weaken NATO’s ties to the regional states, working to drive wedges into these relationships, and using military force when necessary to stop the Alliance’s expansion. Secondly, it has been expanding its military capabilities in order to challenge NATO’s presence in the region and ultimately dominate the Black Sea.

Significance of the Black Sea

The Black Sea holds a special significance in Russia’s strategic calculus for several reasons. Firstly, it is an important crossroads and strategic intersection for the entire region. Access to the Black Sea is vital for all littoral and neighboring states, and greatly enhances the projection of power into several adjacent regions. Indeed, dominating the Black Sea would allow Russia to project power toward the Eastern Mediterranean, the northern Middle East, the South Caucasus, and to the rest of mainland Europe.3 Russian military operations in Syria for instance, were supported by the naval presence it maintained in the Eastern Mediterranean – some of which were elements of its Black Sea Fleet.4 

Secondly, the region is an important transit corridor for goods and energy. Control over regional ports and sea lanes would give Russia the power to choke trade and energy routes and blackmail states into compliance. Moscow could also utilize its power and influence in the Black Sea to challenge and disrupt energy supplies via pipeline from the Caspian Basin to Europe. Such a move would weaken prospects for future energy deliveries from states like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and more importantly, undermine the European Union’s efforts to seek energy diversity outside Russia’s orbit.5 

A map of the Black Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirdly, the Black Sea region can be considered as NATO’s ‘soft underbelly’ or the vulnerable spot in its eastern flank. The region is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, and due to geographical proximity, share close historical ties with Russia.6 Historical grievances and ethnic tensions could be harnessed by Moscow as a means to interfere in its neighbors’ affairs and pressure regional governments into aligning itself with Russia. By ‘turning’ regional NATO members, Moscow could severely weaken the Alliance’s internal cohesion and undermine its credibility.7

Russia And The Littoral States

Despite the strategic importance of the Black Sea, Russia had initially lacked the political, economic, and military power to effectively assert itself over the region. This began to change in the early 2000s after major shifts in the regional political environment.8 In Georgia (2003-2004 Rose Revolution) and Ukraine (2004-2005 Orange Revolution), leaders who had been more susceptible to Russian influence were ousted and replaced with pro-Western governments.9 At around this time in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania successfully gained NATO membership – a move that Russia found itself unable to prevent. Of the six Black Sea littoral states, three – Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey – were now members of NATO, and the other two –Ukraine and Georgia – were working in close partnership with the Alliance.10 Alarmed by this turn of events, Russia sought to halt NATO’s expansion in the Black Sea by ensuring that Ukraine and Georgia would never ascend into its ranks. At the same time, it pursued policies to strengthen its own influence amongst the remaining states and weaken their relationship with NATO.11  

The invasion of Georgia in August 2008 demonstrated Russia’s determination to contain NATO in the Black Sea. At the Bucharest Summit earlier that year, the Alliance had been seriously considering Georgia’s application for membership, which greatly concerned the Kremlin.12 Thus, when Georgia sought to reclaim its two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that summer, Russia saw its opportunity. Its military moved swiftly to support the separatists and pushed back the Georgian forces. After its victory, Moscow agreed to a ceasefire. The invasion had prevented Georgia’s reincorporation, thereby keeping it in a weakened and divided state.13 More importantly, Russia kept a sizable military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, constituting a constant threat to Georgia’s stability and territorial integrity, effectively halting its progress towards NATO membership.14

Russia’s policy toward Ukraine has been similarly aggressive. In 2006 and 2009, Russia used its energy exports as an instrument of intimidation and influence, temporarily ceasing the supply of natural gas to Europe through Ukraine and increasing its energy prices.15 Bilateral relations improved when the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych became Ukraine’s president in 2010. This however, would not last. In February 2014, facing mass demonstrations calling for his removal, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. The new government was vehemently anti-Russian and had clear preference for Western institutions like NATO and the EU.16 While this was disturbing news by itself, what really concerned Moscow was the status of its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea. Officially owned by the Ukraine, the base was on lease to the Russians and home to its Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol was of great strategic importance, being Russia’s only warm water naval base and an important hub to project its naval power abroad.17 Hence, in order to ensure unrestricted access to Sevastopol, Russia moved in its forces and annexed Crimea in March 2014.18 Concurrently, it supplied arms and support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine allowing them to escalate their war against the new government in Kiev.19 In pushing the country toward civil war, Russia had sufficiently destabilized Ukraine and prevented it from becoming a Western stronghold on its own doorstep.

 Compared to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s policy towards the other littoral states has been relatively restrained. Given their status as NATO members, Moscow has been careful not to test the limits of the Alliance’s security guarantees. Instead, it has resorted to other means to exert its influence. In Turkey’s case, Russia has exploited the Erdogan government’s drift towards authoritarianism.20 Unlike most of the West which has criticized the Erdogan government for its alleged human rights abuses, the Russian leadership has remained supportive, which has earned praise and gratitude from Erdogan himself.21 Besides trying to decouple Turkey’s links to NATO, maintaining cordial relations with Ankara carries another strategic purpose for Moscow. Turkey controls the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits – the vital passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Should Ankara one day decide to close the straits, it could bottle up the Black Sea Fleet and severely limit Russia’s ability to project power further abroad.22

In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, Moscow has sought to subvert and weaken anti-Russian opposition within their governments. To that end, it has been alleged that the Kremlin has forged powerful ties to local business interests and provides support for pro-Russian political leaders and parties within both countries.23 This approach has been broadly successful in Bulgaria, as reflected in the growing support within the local political sphere to end the EU sanctions against Russia.24 Romania however, presents a bigger challenge. Although it has pursued dialogue with Russia, it has also pushed for greater NATO presence in the region. It has taken on a leadership role in the Bucharest Format – a multilateral grouping of nine NATO members created to follow up on NATO commitments.25  The country also currently hosts elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield, which has led the Kremlin to declare it “a clear threat.”26

Strengthening the Military in the Black Sea

The second effort undertaken by Russia has been to build up its military capabilities in the Black Sea. To that end, the Kremlin has embarked on a long-term rearmament program designed to establish an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) zone or ‘bubble’ over the region.27 The concept focuses on deploying capabilities that firstly, prevent forces from entering an area i.e. anti-access; and secondly, limits an opponent’s freedom of action and maneuver within the operational area, i.e. area-denial.28 Within an operational A2/AD bubble, long-range assets could be deployed to strike ground targets, interdict maritime traffic, and impose no-fly zones.29 During a conflict, such a strategy greatly increases the risk of causalities for any hostile force entering the A2/AD bubble. NATO decision-making could be undermined by the raised costs of reinforcing allies in the region, hampering their ability to exert collective defense and weakening the credibility of their deterrence.30  Moreover, NATO’s inaction would greatly enhance Russia’s prestige, demonstrating its ability to challenge the West.    

Within the Black Sea, Crimea will be the main platform for conducting A2/AD operations. Advanced defense systems have been deployed to the peninsula, such as the anti-ship Bastion-P missile system equipped with the P-800 Oniks cruise missiles, along with the anti-aircraft S-300v4 and S-400 Triumf missile systems.31 Upgrade program are underway to refurbish Soviet-era bunkers, reanimate early warning radar systems, and install high-tech electronic warfare equipment.32 Along with Russia’s other missile systems in Armenia, Krasnodar, and Latakia, its A2/AD capabilities extend over major parts of the region – covering much of the Black Sea, and parts of Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The K-300P Bastion-P (NATO reporting name SSC-5) mobile coastal defense missile systems successfully hit a surface target in the Black Sea during a drill in September 2014. (RT)

The Black Sea Fleet is also undergoing a major modernization program. Moscow plans to spend $2.4 billion by 2020 to outfit the fleet with next-generation warships, submarines, and air-defense systems. Up to eighteen new units are being commissioned and many will be equipped with the versatile Kalibr-NK missile system.33 They will be joined by new air assets such as the Su-30M naval aviation fighter and other ground/air attack fighters and helicopters. These capabilities are meant to transform the Black Sea Fleet into a force capable of denying NATO access to the Black Sea and projecting power outward to threaten NATO interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East.34

Russia’s A2/AD capabilities will also be strengthened by the deployment of the Tupolev Tu-22M3 to the region. The long-range bomber can carry Kh-15 or Kh-22 missiles designed to destroy air defense systems.35 The bomber force will be protected by Russian fighters like the Sukhoi Su-24 which can secured a vast majority of the Black Sea airspace and greatly expand Russia’s strategic aviation patrol routes in the region.36 In deploying these different capabilities together, Russia would be able to form a multi-layered, interconnecting defense network that can threaten or interdict any force within the A2/AD bubble.

Enduring Challenges

Despite the aggressive measures taken by Russia, its dominance over the Black Sea continues to face enduring challenges. Turkey for instance, controls Russia’s access between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but its full cooperation cannot always be taken as a guarantee. Fundamental disagreements exist over the conflict in Syria, with Russia supporting the Assad regime and Turkey opposing it.37 The rise in tensions after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015 similarly demonstrates the precariousness of their relationship.38 In the event of a crisis, Moscow’s priority must be to ensure that Turkey at the very least remains neutral, allowing Russia to continue resupplying its forces in the Mediterranean. Should the passage be closed by an openly hostile Turkey, Russia would find its forces in the Mediterranean in great danger. With the second most powerful military force in the region, Turkey possesses the offensive capabilities to threaten Russia’s isolated forces.39 A defeat would deal a major blow to Russia’s prestige and status as a military power. Moscow therefore, must continue to engage Ankara, strengthening bilateral ties while seeking ways to find some compromise over their differences.

Istanbul and the Bosphorus Strait (Photo from International Space Station April 16, 2004)

Romania presents another troublesome neighbor for Russia. Although its military capabilities are no match for the larger power, its eagerness to encourage NATO presence in the Black Sea is in direct contradiction to Moscow’s long-term objectives. Both states share a number of unresolved disputes, such as over the theft of Romanian treasures during WWII and over Russia’s refusal to denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.40 This may have in part, contributed to the Romanian leadership’s pursuit of Alliance membership and general distrust of Russian intentions. To neutralize Romania, Russia may promote pan-nationalist ideas such as the ‘Greater Romania’ concept. This would encourage regional disputes between Romania and its neighbors Ukraine and Moldova. Russia could also fan the flames by orchestrating demonstrations, infiltrating saboteurs, and supporting separatist activities.41 Russia could also hinder Romania’s exploration of natural resources in the Black Sea either through harassment or through legal means by claiming the territorial waters around recently annexed Crimea.42 These measures could intimidate Romania into aligning itself closer with Russia or at least distract it from seeking closer ties with NATO.

Russia’s pursuit of an A2/AD bubble in the Black Sea is also fraught with challenges. The massive rearmament programs come with a substantial price tag. Russia’s state revenues, however, have been severely depleted by the collapse of global oil prices and ongoing economic sanctions.43 In addition, Russia’s shipbuilding industry now faces a shortage of ship engines after Ukraine stopped sales over the annexation of Crimea.44  These issues throw into question how much of Russia’s modernization plans will actually be realized. The A2/AD strategy had been seen as a cost-effective measure to counter NATO’s overwhelming sea power. If Russia fails to achieve the full potential of its plans, it may seriously undermine the effectiveness and deterrence value of the A2/AD bubble. 

Conclusion

As this paper has described, Russia has pursued highly aggressive policies in order to secure its dominance over the Black Sea region. What Moscow must bear in mind however, is that control over the region is not an end in itself, but the means to achieve a greater objective – to keep out NATO interference. In this regard, Russia’s measures have somewhat backfired. Concerned over Russia’s rising belligerence, NATO at the recent Warsaw Summit pledged to increase Allied military presence in the region. Besides strengthening Allied capabilities in the air, land, and sea, there will be increased allied visits to Romanian and Bulgarian ports, and enhanced inter-Alliance training and exercises.45 While it can be argued that these are merely symbolic measures, they could signal the beginning of a gradual NATO build-up around the Black Sea. Perhaps Russia’s greatest challenge now is to find a way dominate the region without causing anxiety amongst the littoral states, as that in turn, may trigger an increased NATO presence. After all, it would be a supreme irony if Russia’s efforts to shut out NATO instead became the contributing factor for a growing Allied presence.

Byron Chong has a Masters in Strategic Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. A passion for history and international politics drew him to this field after his first degree in engineering. His research interests include security issues in Europe and the Asia Pacific.

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Endnotes

1. BBC News, “Russia security paper designates Nato as threat,” 31 December 2015, accessed March 15, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35208636

2. Olga Oliker, “Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 7, 2017, accessed March 18, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russias-new-national-security-strategy

3. Janusz Bugajski and Peter B. Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe,” Centre for European Analysis – Black Sea Strategic Report No.1 (2016): 2.

4. ibid., 3.

5. ibid., 2, 3.

6. Chris Miller, “Why the Black Sea?” Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 23, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.fpri.org/article/2017/01/why-the-black-sea/

7. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 3.

8. Corentin Laguerre, “Russia’s Self-Inflicted Security Dilemma,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 12, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017, http://cimsec.org/russias-self-inflicted-security-dilemma/29977

9. Boris Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 2, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/geostrategic-importance-black-sea-region-brief-history

10. ibid.

11. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 5.

12. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault

13. ibid.

14. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 5.

15. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

16. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.”

17. Jason Chuma, “The Mediterranean: Driving Russia’s Strategic Decisions since 1676,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 15, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017, http://cimsec.org/mediterranean-driving-russias-strategic-decisions-since-1676/30070

18. ibid.

19. Alexander J. Motyl, “Kiev Should Give Up on the Donbass,” Foreign Policy, February 2, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/02/ukraine-will-lose-its-war-by-winning-it/

20. Daniel Dombey, “Turkey’s Erdogan Lurches toward Authoritarianism,” Financial Times, May 6, 2014, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/e89e8d74-cfc1-11e3-a2b7-00144feabdc0

21. Christian Caryl, “New Model Dictator: Why Vladimir Putin Is the Leader Other Autocrats Wish They Could Be,” Foreign Policy, February 13, 2015, accessed March 16, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/13/new-model-dictator-putin-sisi-erdogan/

22. Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Naval War College Review 69, no. 1 (2016): 74.

23. Dimitar Bechev, “Russia’s Influence in Bulgaria,” New Direction – The Foundation For European Reform, May 12, 2015, accessed March 17, 2017, http://europeanreform.org/files/ND-report-RussiasInfluenceInBulgaria-preview-lo-res_FV.pdf

24. Slav Okov, “Ending Russia Sanctions Among Goals for Bulgarian Kingmaker,” Bloomberg, March 14, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-14/ending-eu-s-russia-sanctions-among-goals-for-bulgarian-kingmaker

25. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

26. Samuel Osborne, “Russia calls Romania a ‘clear threat’ and Nato outpost for hosting US missile shield,” Independent, February 9, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-romania-clear-threat-nato-outpost-us-anti-missile-shield-putin-tensions-a7571031.html

27. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 10.

28. Guillaume Lasconjarias and Alessandro Marrone, “How To Respond to Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD)? Towards a NATO Counter A2/AD Strategy,” NDC Conference Report No. 01/16, February 2016, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=480

29. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 11.

30. ibid., 9,10.

31. Loic Burton, “Bubble Trouble: Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities,” Foreign Policy Association, October 25, 2016, accessed, March 17, 2017, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2016/10/25/bubble-trouble-russia-a2-ad/

32. Bleda Kurtdarcan and Barın Kayaoğlu, “Russia, Turkey and the Black Sea A2/AD Arms Race,” National Interest, March 5, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/russia-turkey-the-black-sea-a2-ad-arms-race-19673

33. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 12.

34. ibid.

35. Burton, “Bubble Trouble.”

36. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 12.

37. Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” 79.

38. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

39. Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” 76.

40. Henry F. Carey, Romania Since 1989: Politics, Economics, and Society, (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004), 21.

41. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 9.

42. ibid.

43. ibid., 10.

44. Steve Micallef, “The Ambitions and Challenges of Russia’s Naval Modernization Program,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 13, 2016, accessed March 17, 2017, http://cimsec.org/ambitions-challenges-russias-naval-modernization-program/30008

45. Boris Toucas, ” NATO and Russia in the Black Sea: A New Confrontation?” Center for Strategic & International Studies, March 6, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/nato-and-russia-black-sea-new-confrontation

Featured Image:Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in the Crimean port of Sevastopol (Stringer/Reuters)

Resources, Limited Capabilities Challenge Baltic Navies As Russia Threat Grows

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Jeremiah Cushman

Since regaining their independence in the early 1990s, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have confronted the challenge of how to secure themselves with limited resources. Russian opposition to the Baltic States’ Western orientation has ensured that Moscow remains the primary threat. Since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the countries have become more concerned about their eastern neighbor’s intentions.

During the 1990s, the Baltic States considered three major security policy options: neutrality (Russia’s stated preference); trilateral alliance and close military cooperation with the Nordic states; and working to join NATO and the European Union.1 With a political desire to rejoin the West and ongoing suspicion of Russia, all three countries made joining Western institutions their primary goal. They achieved membership in both organizations in 2004.

With NATO’s Article V collective defense guarantee in hand, the Baltic States were free to choose their own paths to meeting their alliance obligations and homeland defense needs. Estonia has maintained a focus on territorial defense, retaining conscription and large reserves to defend the homeland, while actively participating in NATO and U.S.-led operations with its small active-duty forces. Lithuania followed a middle ground, tailoring some of its forces for missions abroad, while retaining some territorial defense capability. Latvia elected to rely almost entirely on NATO for deterrence, ensuring its forces are fully interoperable and available for alliance operations. Latvia and Lithuania both ended conscription to concentrate on professional forces. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 refocused all three countries on homeland defense, with Latvia and Lithuania re-emphasizing territorial defense capabilities. Lithuania has decided to resume conscription for at least the next five years.

All three Baltic States have focused their naval capabilities on mine countermeasures. This specialization is seen as a concrete way to contribute to NATO missions despite limited resources and to address regional maritime security concerns. The Baltic Sea contains thousands of mines and munitions left over from World Wars I and II, which continue to be cleaned up during NATO and other exercises. Additional capabilities are retained for lower-end homeland security missions.

The threat of Russian ground invasion has been the primary occupation of Baltic military establishments. All three countries nevertheless have significant coastlines on the Baltic Sea with the accompanying maritime security and defense concerns. These include search-and-rescue, exclusive economic zone security, combating smuggling, the threat of amphibious assault, and hostile submarines. The focus on land threats, expense of naval combat platforms, and limited resources have so far prevented the countries from acquiring or maintaining significant naval capabilities. What follows is an analysis of each Baltic State’s respective naval capabilities followed by trends in their combined missions and activities.

Estonia

Estonia focuses its naval forces almost exclusively on mine countermeasures. The current national defense plan, which runs through 2022, calls for modernizing its three Admiral Cowan-class (former British Sandownclass) minehunters, developing its diver group, and maintaining the auxiliary vessel Tasuja (ex-Danish Lindormenclass). The focus is on international military missions, particularly with Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCG). Local maritime security is left to other agencies.

The Police and Border Guard is responsible for surveillance, border protection, search-and-rescue (SAR) and pollution control operations.2 The Navy does not participate in such missions, but can be tasked for SAR as needed.

The Maritime Administration provides navigational security, including sea charts, hydrography, icebreaking, and maintaining a vessel traffic service. Fisheries protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, although it makes use of Police and Border Guard assets.

A 2016 report found that Estonia’s maritime security suffered from institutional fragmentation and a lack of maritime situational awareness.3 Insufficient investment and poor delineation of responsibilities left the country without the ability to identify or precisely locate unknown vessels within its waters. Should a vessel be identified as hostile, Estonia lacks the ability to engage it.

The divide between the navy and border guard has been exacerbated by domestic politics, including constraints on using defense assets for constabulary duties. The border guard has also benefited from EU investment, which cannot be used for military purposes.

With the appropriate investments, these problems could be resolved within 15 years, says the aforementioned report. This would require institutional reform and significant funding for coastal radars, additional patrol craft, helicopters, coastal defense missile batteries. It remains to be seen if the Estonian government will move forward on these proposals. Until then, it will remain vulnerable to maritime threats.

Latvia

Latvia has a significant mine-hunting capability with a fleet of five Imanta-class (former Dutch Alkmaar class) mine countermeasures ships for NATO operations. Riga also cooperates with Lithuania on mine warfare as part of the Baltic Squadron (BALTRON) program. Estonia withdrew from the unit in 2015 as it refocused its resources on its own minesweeping capabilities.4

Latvia has invested in additional multi-role and patrol capabilities with its Skrunda-class patrol boats. Each features a modular mission bay capable of supporting missions such as mine countermeasures, environmental protection, or armament up to a 35-mm cannon. The Navy has also considered anti-submarine warfare and area air defense capabilities for the class.5 Latvia has also implemented a sea coastal surveillance system (SCSS) to improve maritime situational awareness.

The Latvian Coast Guard service, a component of the Navy, is in charge of search-and-rescue, environmental monitoring, and law enforcement in national waters. The Sea Coastal Surveillance Service monitors and surveys territorial waters. The Border Guard also operates some maritime assets for border protection.

As NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic States, Latvia has proposed that the alliance set up a naval facility in the former Soviet Navy base in Liepaja.6 This facility would create a steady NATO naval presence in the immediate region, enhancing maritime security and providing capabilities the Baltic States lack. Critics note that it might also be viewed as a provocation by Moscow. As it stands, little appears to have happened on this front. The focus continues to be on landward defense.

Lithuania

The Lithuanian Navy, as might be expected of the largest of the Baltic States, has the greatest capability. Mine warfare is a core asset, including two Kursis-class (ex-German Lindauclass) coastal minehunters and two Skalvis-class (ex-British Hunt class) minehunters and the support ship Jotvingis (ex-Norwegian Vidar class). It has a capable patrol squadron consisting of four Zemaitis-class patrol ships (ex-Danish Flyvefisken class). Lithuania acquired the fourth ship, the Selis, in November 2016, in an agreement that also covered two anti-submarine warfare sonars for other ships in the class. The acquisition permitted the decommissioning of the Navy’s last Dzukas-class (ex-Norwegian Storm-class) patrol craft. It may also have been inspired by the increasing Russian threat. The Zemaitis-class ships provide the greatest combat capability of any in Baltic naval service, with modern combat management systems and a 76-mm main gun.

Lithuanian patrol ship Žemaitis (Wikimedia Commons)

The Lithuanian Navy has been described as the most balanced of the three Baltic naval services. It is tasked with monitoring and defending national waters as well as performing search-and-rescue and other maritime security missions. The sea and coastal surveillance service and maritime rescue coordination center are under the command of the navy. The Border Guard Service provides air assets for SAR operations, since the Navy does not maintain its own.

Combined Maritime Capabilities

The Baltic States face a challenging maritime environment. Russia is stepping up its operations, including increased air activity and deploying to the region two Grad Sviyazshk-class patrol craft, equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.7 For the most part, the countries lack the resources to defend themselves against serious naval threats without significant NATO assistance. All are increasing defense spending (Estonia already meets NATO’s 2 percent GDP threshold and Latvia and Lithuania are expected to reach it within the next few years), though ground capabilities remain the priority.

Russia’s capability to potentially control airspace in the region, to include fighter jets and long-range surface-to-air missile systems, poses an additional threat. NATO currently maintains an air-policing capability stationed at air bases in Estonia and Lithuania. Otherwise, the alliance is reliant on assets outside of the immediate region. The Baltic States lack significant air defense capabilities, although talks are underway on a joint procurement of NASAMS surface-to-air missile systems. Their naval platforms are without any such protection.

All three face a number of capability gaps. None has a significant naval combat capability. The Lithuanian navy is the only with ships with naval guns of any size. A mobile coastal missile capability is seen as needed by some. Elsewhere in the region, Sweden has been refurbishing its RBS 15 missile batteries, while Poland has purchased the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile. A joint procurement of such a capability by the three countries could address financial and logistics concerns.

Mine warfare is another gap. Lacking sea control capabilities, strengthening sea denial is an option for bolstering defenses. Finland has expertise in minelaying and could be a valuable partner.

Given recent incidents in Swedish and Finnish waters, some sort of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability may also be required. Lithuania is upgrading the ASW capability on its Zemaitis-class boats, while Latvia could seek such a capability for its Skrunda-class patrol craft. As unmanned systems improve, this could be another avenue for these countries to obtain an affordable ASW capability in the future.

The Baltic States also participate in wider maritime surveillance activities in the region, namely the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) program. This includes all of the states that border the Baltic Sea, except for Russia. The participants exchange information on vessel data, technical sea surveillance and views on related issues. There is also cooperation at the European Union level.

Conclusion

Despite the similarities of their challenges, the Baltic States have mostly gone their own way on naval policy. Each has a different concept for their navy and maritime security agencies, with cooperation among the states mostly limited to mine countermeasures capabilities. They have not pursued the potential for joint procurement of naval capabilities.

In this new strategic environment, the Baltic States must think carefully about how to maximize their assets, including how border and coast guard services should be utilized in a high-threat scenario. Improving coordination domestically and with their neighbors will enhance security beyond the Russian threat.

Any significant changes will take time to implement. With the increased visibility of potential threats domestically, now seems an opportune time to begin making the necessary investments. By better securing their maritime holdings and strengthening naval defenses, the Baltic States will make a useful contribution to the overall defense of the region in support of NATO and EU objectives.

Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons. He holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University and an MA in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University, where a focused on European security and the Baltic States.

Endnotes 

1. “Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces,” Piotr Szymanski, Center for Eastern Policy (Warsaw, Poland), Nov. 24, 2015.

2. “Cooperation Of Coast Guards And Navies In Baltic Sea Region,” Lt. Cmdr. Taavi Urb, National Defence Academy of Latvia (Riga), April 10, 2011.

3. “The State Needs Warships, Helicopters And Coastal Radar Network,” Oliver Kund, Postimees (Tallinn), Dec. 27, 2016.

4. “Estonia To Withdraw From Baltic Naval Squadron,” Estonian Public Radio, Jan. 8, 2015.

5. “The Commanders Respond: Latvian Navy,” Capt. Rimants Strimaitis, Proceedings, March 2012.

6. “Latvia’s Push For A NATO Naval Base,” Elisabeth Braw, World Affairs Journal, June 21, 2016.

7. “Russia Beefs Up Baltic Fleet Amid NATO Tensions,” Andrew Osborn and Simon Johnson, Reuters, Oct. 26, 2016.

Featured: Featured Image: Estonian Defense Forces, 17 April 2009. (Estonia Ministry of Defense)