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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.

Bibliography

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

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

Bugajski, J., and Peter B. Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe,” Centre for European Analysis – Black Sea Strategic Report No.1 (2016): 1-16

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

Carey, H.F., Romania Since 1989: Politics, Economics, and Society. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

Lasconjarias, G., 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, from: http://www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=480 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

The Baltic: Grey-Zone Threats on NATO’s Northern Flank

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Martin N. Murphy, PhD and Gary Schaub, Jr. PhD

Hybrid Warfare

The governments and peoples of the Baltic States recognize that, following Russia’s takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, they are once again in the Kremlin’s sights facing the prospect of Russian destabilization and even outright invasion.

NATO’s leadership termed Russian strategy “hybrid warfare,” defining it as warfare in which “a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures are employed in a highly integrated design.”1  Questions were raised immediately about the suitability of the designation, as the label NATO adopted fails to adequately capture the reality of what Russia inflicted on Ukraine—and may inflict on states in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR) in the near future.

Russian successes in Crimea reinvigorated two longstanding instruments of its power: its armed forces and its capacity for intensive information warfare.2 “Grey-zone” perhaps captures the orchestrated multidimensional nature of Russian actions calibrated to gain specified strategic objectives without crossing the threshold of overt conflict and exploit Western concepts of war and peace as two distinct conditions.3 Any conflict between NATO and Russia will likely occur at the Article 4 rather than the Article 5 level, complicating any Western response.4

Hybrid War in the BSR: Political and Information Warfare Dimensions          

It is possible to count all the fighters, bombers, troops and ships in the Baltic and arrive at a correlation of forces. But the BSR is a peripheral region, and only three things matter when it comes to its security:

  • The commitment of core NATO powers – especially the U.S. – to the region’s defense;
  • Russia’s determination to restore its sphere of influence in the region; and
  • Russia’s desire to probe for Western weakness.

Russia is interested less in territory than in effect. NATO’s focus on military measures to defend the Baltic States may overlook the challenge posed by all arms of Russian power to identify and exploit political, social, economic, and military vulnerabilities in its target states and the Western alliance.

These dimensions have been underplayed in NATO thinking, a tendency reinforced by the military nature of its Charter and institutional culture. Questions remain as to whether NATO’s own legal framework and traditional instruments are sufficient to deal with these non-military challenges, and certainly whether they can respond to a fast-changing situation. The means Russia is prepared to use in order to deceive and confuse NATO are based on the same tools it used during the Cold War, but it has adapted them to the mores of the social media age, which lacks the experience to judge the import of Russian messaging or actions.

Applying the Hybrid Model to Warfare at Sea

Russia’s high-end forces would not constitute the first movers in a hybrid conflict. They should be regarded as deterrents to local resistance and intervention by NATO and other Nordic states. It would rather pursue more ambiguous methods.

Broadly speaking, two scenarios for a Russian campaign in the BSR appear possible:

1. A low-key, possibly opportunistic, campaign that exploits real or manufactured discontent among Russian compatriots to destabilize one or more of the Baltic States, creating a “frozen conflict” that undermines NATO’s credibility; or

2. A more structured, high-tempo campaign to achieve the same objectives against NATO power in the BSR and also render Nordic defense cooperation redundant.

It is reasonable to assume that the Baltic Sea Fleet and other organs of Russian maritime power will play supporting rather than leading roles in any such conflict.

Aside from Moscow’s ability to manipulate the loyalty of Russian expatriate communities in the Baltic states, many of the points where it can apply pressure lie on or under the Baltic Sea itself. These include:

Geographically Isolated Islands and Disputed Borders

The Bornholm, Gotland and the Aland group are respectably Danish, Swedish, and Finnish islands that have considerable strategic significance in the BSR. Many are ideal as bases, supply points, staging areas, and jumping off points for SOF operations and ambushes, while bays, fjords, and peninsulas provide hiding places and launch points for fast raiders.

Map indicating large islands within the Baltic Sea. (Heritage Foundation)

Undersea Cables

Modern economies depend upon a remarkably vulnerable information and communications infrastructure. Roughly 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic—e-mails, phone calls, money transfers, and so on—pass through fiber-optic cables that “lack even basic defenses, both on the seabed and at a small number of poorly guarded landing points.”5

When it comes to the Baltic Sea particularly, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have only a few nodes that need be severed, while Estonia, the Nordic countries, and Germany have much more redundancy in their connections. Still, the economic disruption caused by severing these undersea cables would be considerable in time and cost and be difficult to mitigate, even for those countries with multiple nodes. They would therefore be a prime target in a hybrid warfare campaign.            

Energy Supplies

It has long been recognized that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland depend upon Russian energy. This exposes them to the possibility of economic coercion. These states have reduced their dependence on Russian supplies, but diversification has been difficult given the cost of replacing existing infrastructure and vulnerabilities remain.

Port and Supply Chain

Ports and ships could be subject to sabotage and strikes using SOF as part of a hybrid offensive. Yet the most serious threat could come from cyberattacks, a concern that already animates much of the landward resilience debate. Modern ports could not operate absent sophisticated computer systems, while modern ships are increasingly automated to cut crew costs. Any prolonged interference with the region’s maritime trade could severely impact industrial production flows and economic security.

Why Would Russia Disrupt the BSR?

Russia is a revisionist power. Internationally, it wants to revise the existing regional order at the least possible political and military cost to itself, diminish U.S. power, and further a multipolar world. Domestically, Putin’s government requires an enemy to divert attention from internal troubles. The Baltic States lie at the point where American power is most extended and Russian power can be concentrated most easily. As Russia is under no illusion it can fight the U.S. directly, or a coalition of America’s core allies, its challenges will stay below the level of direct confrontation.

The Soviet Union invested around fifty percent of its shipbuilding capacity in the St. Petersburg area. A second vital facility is located in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The Baltic Sea has also become a vital conduit for Russian trade. Prolonged interruptions in flows of energy and goods would inflict considerable damage on Russia’s poorly diversified economy. During 2015, 52 percent of Russian container traffic passed through St. Petersburg. Europe remains a major customer for Russian crude oil shipped by tanker from ports near St. Petersburg. On the seabed is the Nord Stream gas pipeline. A second pipeline–Nord Stream 2–has been proposed that would double the capacity. This connection reinforces the dependency and mutual interest that already exists between the EU and Russia and risks compromising Western European responses to possible Russian aggression in CEE.

The Baltic Sea Region has plentiful points of vulnerability where Russia can test Western resolve. While these are not confined to the Baltic States, the most obvious point of leverage is the Russian minorities who reside in each one with concentrations in port cities and other maritime areas.Nor are the Baltics removed from Russia’s deeply ingrained sense of insecurity arising out of its loss of strategic depth. Advancing the Russian right flank to the Baltic Sea would right a perceived wrong, prevent the encirclement of Kaliningrad, the main base of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet, and provide a platform from where Russia could threaten the entire Baltic Sea littoral.

Sweden and Finland are clearly concerned about this possibility. Sweden has returned its army garrison to the strategically important island of Gotland, while towns and cities across Sweden have been told to make preparations against a possible military attack.Conscription has also been reintroduced.However, any move by either to join NATO could “provoke Russia to launch a pre-emptive provocation in order to demonstrate the alliance’s weakness” and deter either country from proceeding with its application.9

Russian Military Capability

Despite the importance of the Baltic Sea routes, the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet is the weakest of Russia’s four fleets (Baltic, Black Sea, Pacific, and Northern). It continues to have the lowest priority for new units.

That does not mean modernization has not taken place. Since 2007, the fleet has been upgraded with two new classes of corvette equipped with land-attack missiles, a capability that is new to the Baltic Sea fleet.10 However, the fleet’s submarines have not been modernized and remain inferior to German and Swedish boats. Lacking AIP propulsion, which Russian industry is having problems mastering, they are also likely to be noisier. The fleet’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine counter-measures (MCM) capabilities are also limited.

Three Buyan-class Corvettes, seen above, are expected to augment the Baltic Fleet by 2020. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

That said, the Baltic Sea is relatively small with an average width of only 193km (120 mi). The sea and surrounding littoral can–and almost certainly would–be dominated by air power and air-deployable ground forces in any high intensity conflict. In particular, Russia is able to effectively dominate large areas of the Baltic Sea and air space using missile forces based in the Kaliningrad and Leningrad oblasts.11 The Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile is capable of hitting targets in much of Sweden and from southern Poland to central Finland, whether fixed or mobile.

NATO movement would be affected in all environments: air transports bringing reinforcements into theater would be at risk from manned interceptors and a layered, air-and-missile defensive system equipped with the S-300 and the highly-capable S-400 systems. Movements by sea would be threatened by the Bastion-P coastal defense system based on the supersonic 300km-range P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missile, which Russia has announced will shortly be deployed to the Kaliningrad Oblast.12

NATO ground forces, meanwhile, would need to travel further than Russian units to reach the capitals of the Baltic states and throughout the transit could be subjected to long-range air and ground-based bombardment.

Naval “Hybrid Warfare”

Hybrid warfare as deployed by Russia in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has received considerable analytical coverage; hybrid warfare at sea less so.13 The geography of the Crimea and Ukrainian theaters, and the circumstances of the incursions, meant the naval role was limited in both. However, Russia appears to have taken note of the success China has achieved with hybrid warfare tactics in the South China Sea, including its harassing behavior as multiple incidents have taken place on and over the Baltic and Black Seas.14 At the same time, Russia has resumed Soviet-style probing missions against NATO countries, while the Baltic states, Sweden, and Finland have all had their territorial waters and airspace compromised.15

The Chinese have made extensive use of their maritime paramilitary forces to assert maritime claims and to deny neighboring states access to waters for fishing and resource extraction purposes. The opportunities for the disruptive use of coast guard and border forces appear to be less in the BSR yet Russian behavior–for instance withholding ratification of the Narva Bay and Gulf of Finland Treaty–demonstrates that they are maintaining the potential for disruption inherent in the handful of disputes that remain.16

Mitigation Measures

Given the essentially political nature of hybrid war, mitigation measures should focus on political, economic, and information outcomes. Still, Russia needs to be convinced that all BSR states are committed to challenging Russian aggression at sea. The maritime component of NATO’s 2014 Readiness Action Plan includes intensified naval patrols in the Baltic built around the Standing NATO Maritime and Mine Countermeasures Groups, increased sorties by maritime patrol aircraft, and an expansion of the annual BALTOPS naval and amphibious exercise.17 However, BALTOPS in large measure still reflects the Alliance’s focus on high-end military operations. Changes have been made that broaden its focus and these need to be maintained and expanded in order to continuing raising maritime readiness and interoperability standards at all stages along the deterrence-to-conflict continuum. In addition, both Baltic and NATO navies need to exercise lower-end maritime security, VBSS, fishery protection, and SAR missions, while regional navies need to demonstrate they can act seamlessly with regional coast guards and border forces, port authorities and other maritime agencies, police forces and intelligence services. Furthermore, cooperation in intelligence sharing and analysis through a BSR Hybrid Threats Fusion Cell coupled with a strategic communications response capability to provide swift and consistent factual responses to false narratives would contribute to building societal resilience.

Societal resilience also requires less dependence on Russian energy supplies. A new facility for the import and regasification of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been built at Klaipeda in Lithuania. Ensuring its security is vital. Further diversification could be achieved if additional terminals were to be built in Estonia and Latvia with reversible-flow pipelines linking all three. Ideally, a trans-Baltic pipeline should be built to link the Baltic States with the Swedish system.18 These pipelines would supplement the “NordBalt” power cable laid between Sweden and Lithuania. Notably, this link was interfered with by Russian warships on three occasions during the course of its construction. Finally, BSR states need to place a strong emphasis on port and supply chain security. This must include defenses against cyber-attacks. Protecting this largely maritime infrastructure would place a premium on effective Baltic Sea maritime domain awareness (MDA).

Conclusion

Russia considers itself to be a maritime power. It has always sought to control the seas that give it access to the world ocean. The Baltic Sea is vital in this regard. Despite this perception, Russian power, when compared to its Soviet predecessor, is sadly diminished. It is therefore understandable that it should continue to augment its remaining military power with the measures of influence, deception, and covert action that were so characteristic of the Soviet approach to inter-state relations.

Any repetition of the Crimean model is likely to be a whole-of-government effort of political subversion and destabilization in which the conventional military—as opposed to SOF and proxy militia—will play a largely passive role until the last minute, or unless the political campaign fails and can only be redeemed using conventional military force. Whole-of-government aggression demands a whole-of-government response.

In this sense, there is no such thing as maritime hybrid warfare, certainly in Russian political or military doctrine or practice. What states in the BSR may be confronting even now, however, is a long-term campaign of politically motivated societal disruption, aspects of which may occur in, through, or from the maritime domain. The seaborne aspects of the campaign will be maritime rather than exclusively naval in that what takes place could involve any of the ways people use the sea, the seabed, and the airspace over the sea. It will involve warships, submarines, and military aircraft but also include fisheries, shipping and ports, coast guards, and border forces along the way. Conventional naval forces are likely to play an analogous background role in any disruptive campaign at sea in the Baltic, as they did during the Crimea invasion and Ukraine intervention.

Martin N. Murphy, PhD is a Visiting Fellow at Corbett Centre for Maritime Studies at King’s College London. He has held similar positions with CSBA and the Atlantic Council in the U.S. He is the author of three books and numerous book chapters and articles on maritime security and unconventional warfare at sea. His next book, On Maritime Power, is due for publication in 2018.

Gary Schaub, Jr., PhD, is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. Before that he held a number of academic positions in the U.S. including Assistant Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Air War College.

References

1. NATO. ‘Wales Summit Declaration’. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales, 5th September 2014.

2. Kier Giles, et al. ‘The Russian Challenge’, Chatham House Report, June 2015, p. 46. NATO Article 4 states that “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” NATO, ‘The North Atlantic Treaty’, last updated 21st March 2016.

3. For clear definitions of “hybrid” and “grey-zone” conflicts, and comparisons between the two, see Frank Hoffman. ‘The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges’. Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, 22nd March 2017.

4. Stephen F. Larrabee, et al. Russia and the West after the Ukrainian Crisis: European Vulnerabilities to Russian Pressures. Santa Monica: RAND, 2017, pp. 10-11.

5. Robert Martinage. “Under the Sea: The Vulnerability of the Commons,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 1, January/February 2015, p. 117.

6. Martin N. Murphy, Frank G. Hoffman and Gary Schaub, Jr. ‘Hybrid Maritime Warfare and the Baltic Sea Region’. Copenhagen: Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, November 2016, pp. 11-14.

7. Richard Orange. ‘Swedish towns told to “make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict” with Russia’. Daily Telegraph, 15th December 2016.

8. Daniel Dickson; and Bjorn Rundstrom. ‘Sweden returns draft amid security worries and soldier shortage’. Reuters, 2nd March 2017.

9. Edward Lucas. ‘The Coming Storm: Baltic Sea Security Report’. Washington, DC: Center for European Policy Analysis, June 2015, p. 4.

10. ‘Russia reinforces Baltic Fleet with ships armed with long-range cruise missiles in ‘worrying’ response to Nato build-up’. Daily Telegraph, 26th October 2016.

11. Kaas. ‘Russian Armed Forces in the Baltic Sea Region’.

12. ‘Russia deploys “Bastion” coastal missile complex to the Kaliningrad region’. UAWire, 22nd November 2016.

13. Charles K. Bartles and Roger N. McDermott. ‘Russia’s Military Operation in Crimea: Road-Testing Rapid Reaction Capabilities’. Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 61, No. 6, November–December 2014, pp. 46–63; Admiral James Stavridis, USN (rtd.). ‘Maritime Hybrid Warfare is Coming’. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 142, No. 12, December 2016, pp. 30-33.

14. For example, Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold. ‘Russian Warplanes Buzz U.S. Navy Destroyer, Polish Helicopter’. Wall Street Journal, 13th April 2016.

15. Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa and Ian Kearns. ‘Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters between Russia and the West in 2014’. European Leadership Network Policy Brief, November 2014.

16. ‘Russian envoy: Ratification of border treaty with Estonia obstructed by bad relations’. The Baltic Times, 9th July 2016.

17. NATO. ‘NATO’s Readiness Action Plan’. NATO Fact Sheet, May 2015; Megan Eckstein. ‘U.S. Led BALTOPS 2015 begins with heftier presence than last year’s exercise,” USNI News, 5th June 2015; Megan Eckstein.‘Foggo: BALTOPS 2016 includes more anti-sub, more challenging amphibious operations’. USNI News, 15th June 2016.

18. Milda Seputyte. ‘Lithuania grabs LNG in effort to curb Russian dominance’. Bloomberg, 27th October 2014; ‘Sweden gets new LNG terminal’. World Maritime News, 20th October 2014.

Featured Image: Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Russia’s Evolving Arctic Capabilities

By Steve Micallef

Far from the battlegrounds of East Ukraine and Syria another confrontation with Russia is brewing. As the Arctic ice retreats countries with claims in the Arctic are more willing to extract the resources found in this inhospitable location. The U.S. estimates the Arctic seabed is home to about 15 percent of the world’s remaining oil, up to 30 percent of its natural gas deposits, and about 20 percent of its liquefied natural gas. Like the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway, Russia has its own claim on a section of the Arctic which it is now looking to defend and expand. Today we are witnessing a resurgent Russia in the Arctic, deploying more troops and equipment to the Arctic in support of its claims.

The Cold History

There is a long history of territorial claims around the North Pole; Canada was the first to claim sovereignty over vast areas of the arctic in 1925. This was followed by the Soviet Union in 1926 which claimed an area stretching from Murmansk, east to the Chukchi Peninsula and north, towards the North Pole including both the Mendeleev and Lomonosov Ridges. This was followed by claims from the U.S., Norway, and Demark that where never internationally recognized until 1999 and the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, the melting ice caps, and the vast amounts of natural resources on the sea floor are the root causes of current Arctic confrontations.

Overlapping Arctic claims and resources. (TheTimes.co.UK)

Under the provisions of UNCLOS, states have ten years after treaty ratification to claim and extend territorial limits beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone provided by the convention. Russia ratified UNCLOS in 1997 and had until 2007 to apply for a concession. Whilst Russia has always looked at the Arctic as an integral part of Russian identity (indeed until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow maintained a large presence in the Arctic), it was Vladimir Putin who revived Russian ambitions in the Arctic. In December 2001, Russia applied for an extension of territory, claiming that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Siberian continental shelf and therefore entitles Russia to a bigger claim in the Arctic. However, this was inconclusive and the UN commission neither rejected nor accepted Russia’s proposal, citing a need for more research.

In the face of the melting icepack the Russian administration has declared the Arctic a region of strategic importance for Russia; due to both the potential Northern Sea Route as well as the energy and rare earth element reserves under the ice. Since 2002, Russia has sent expeditions in support of it claims over Lomonosov Ridge, including a 2007 expedition that planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Vladimir Putin has also taken the bold step of increasing Russian military presence in the inhospitable north.

Icebreaker Development

Icebreakers are the cornerstone of any capability in the Arctic. Icebreakers have multiple uses from resupplying far-flung communities and outposts to scientific exploration, search and rescue, and ensuring that sea lines remain ice-free for shipping. They are the backbone of any presence in the Arctic, both military and civilian. In this department Russian Arctic capabilities are significant, especially when compared to those of other Western claimants.

Russian President Putin views a model of Project 21900 icebreaker ST PETERSBURG (Getty Images)

Russia has as many as 40 icebreakers, both nuclear powered and conventional (see table below). Although some of these vessels are relatively old, with many of them built during the Soviet era, Russia also has various new designs under construction. In total, there are currently some 14 icebreakers of various types being built in Russia.

Class Displacement in Tons Build Qty Comments
Nuclear Powered Vessels
LK-60Ya

(Project 22220)

33,540 3 New class of nuclear powered vessels; will be the world’s largest icebreakers.
Arktika

(Project 10520)

23,000 6 Soviet era nuclear vessels- 4 remain in service.
Conventionally Powered Vessels
Project 21900 & 21900M 10,000 2 & 3 2x 21900s are in service along with 2x upgraded 21900Ms (1 additional under construction)
Ilya Muromets Project 21180 6,000 4 First one expected to be delivered in 2017.
LK-25
Project 22600
22,000 1 Largest diesel-powered icebreaker in the world; may be delivered in 2018 after several years’ delays.
Project 70202 3,8000 1 Oil spill response, fire extinguishing, and ecological monitoring vessel. Constructed by Finnish Aker Arctic Technology. A unique hull shape allows the vessel to operate efficiently sideways and backwards.
Aker Arc 130/A

 

8,699 2 Constructed for Gazprom Neft for use as support ships in Arctic oilfields. Constructed by Aker Arctic.
Arc7 ice-classed LNG carriers 80,200 14 First delivered in 2016, others are under construction in Geoje, South Korea for service in the Arctic. Able to break through 2.1m of ice.

Of particular interest are the LK-60Ya nuclear ice breakers and Arc-7 LNG carriers. Three LK-60Yas are under construction; the first (the Arktika) was launched in June 2016 and will be commissioned in 2018 with others commissioning in 2019 and 2020. These vessels are intended for use in the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast and are capable of breaking through ice over nine feet thick.

SCF Yamal/ Christophe de Margerie, the first Arc-7 Ice Classed LNG carrier. (IHS)

The development of LNG and oil carrying ice-capable tankers is an area of particular economic interest for Russia. In this area, Russia is collaborating with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering in South Korea and an international consortium for the construction of the first Arc 7 ice-classed LNG carriers. The aim is to reliably deliver the LNG produced from the Yamal LNG project in the Yamal Peninsula.

Military Development

Icebreakers are not the only things Russia is constructing to help it control the Arctic. All along its northern frontier Russia has begun rebuilding and reoccupying its military bases, some of which have not been used since the end of the Cold War. Russia is upgrading its docking facilities in Murmansk, one of the few ports which is ice free year round and home to Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet, to provide more space for the larger nuclear icebreaker and submarine fleets.

Aerial facilities are also being upgraded to improve coverage over the Arctic. Since 2015 Russia has equipped six new bases in the region, both on the mainland and on islands. These have included airbases on the islands of Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya, Wrangel Island, Kotelny Island and Novaya Zemlya. On the mainland, the facilities at Mys Shmidta, including the port and the airport, are also being upgraded.

Russian military installations proximate to the arctic.

Moreover, the Russian Navy has stepped up its presence in the Arctic with a permanent base on Kotelny Island and in 2016 when it started using new facilities on Alexandra Land. Beyond the ability to conduct search and rescue operations and support other Russian forces operating in the Arctic (mainly through the use of submarine forces), the Navy is also looking to stop infiltration by other powers into sovereign Russian territory.

Weapons-wise, Moscow has deployed two long range S-400 regiments to Novaya Zemlya and the port of Tiksi alongside short range surface-to-air Pantsir-S1 systems to protect them. Arctic bases have also been reinforced with P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles, although the number of these systems present in the Arctic remains unclear.

Ground forces are being deployed to the region as well. The 99th Arctic Tactical Group has been permanently deployed to Kotelny Island to protect and aid in the construction of the airfield and piers there. Two other formations, the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade and the 80th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, have been converted into Arctic Brigades. Both formations appear stationed in the Murmansk Oblast and seem to be equipped with two-tiered tractors, snowmobiles and other vehicles, including the DT-30P Vityaz articulated track vehicle. Allegedly, these troops receive reconnaissance, airborne, and mountain training.

All these elements are under the command of Russia’s Arctic Joint Strategic Command, recently formed in December 2014. This command is responsible for the training and operational employment of Russian assets in the region; including all combat units, radar stations, airfields and support units. Northern Fleet units based at Kotelny Island also fall under the authority of this command.

A Russian Northern Fleet warship transits Arctic waters with icebreaker escort in 2013. (RT)

Russian will continue to build new facilities in the future. A large year-round airbase is being built on the New Siberian Islands Archipelago, which will enable the deployment of Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bomber and the stealth PAK DA bomber in the future. A network of 10 Arctic Search and rescue stations, 16 deep-water ports, 12 new airfields and 10 air-defense radar stations is planned. The Russian Defense Ministry also recently announced it will build over 100 infrastructure facilities in the Arctic by the end of 2017. Together, these units and facilities will allow Russia to maintain a watchful eye over the Arctic, its oil reserves and, in the future, maritime shipping.

Conclusion

Russia has developed its Arctic capabilities to a level that was inconceivable a couple of years ago – one that has not been seen since the end of the Soviet Union. Nor is there is any sign that Russia will stop here – in November 2016 Putin called for accelerating development of the Arctic region. Whatever the outcome, these huge investments in the Arctic leave Russia in a much better position to exploit the benefits brought by the melting ice fields.

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Honors) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He currently works at Bugeja Geopolitical Consulting, Malta.

Featured Image: Russian arctic troops (Sputnik/ Valeriy Melnikov)