- In early November, US Navy ships, including flagships of the Sixth Fleet, returned to the Black Sea.
- The visit is a sign of the growing US attention to the region, where NATO forces are spending more time.
- The increase in military activity reflects the strategic value of the sea amid tensions between NATO and Russia.
On November 12, the flagship of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, the USS Mount Whitney, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Porter arrived at the Black Sea port of Constanta in Romania after visiting Batumi, in Georgia.
The U.S. warships were operating with allies and NATO partners in the Black Sea, according to U.S. European Command, and their deployment followed shortly after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited the region.
Russia was furious at this activity.
In a meeting with Russian military leaders, President Vladimir Putin appeared to threaten US warships, saying Russian forces “can see” the USS Mount Whitney “through binoculars or through the reticle of systems corresponding defense “.
Putin’s comments come amid heightened tensions between Russia and NATO. Seven years after Russia’s capture of Crimea and with simmering tensions elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea remains a hot spot – and it could heat up.
The Black Sea occupies a strategic location, connecting the Caucasus with Europe along the southwest flank of Russia. It contains some of the only hot water ports in Russia and provides Russia with access to the Mediterranean and waters beyond.
The sea occupies a prominent place in the Russian defense and security architecture, as supremacy there is seen as vital for Russian security and to support the projection of power away from Russian coasts. It also allows Moscow to challenge NATO.
The region “is the site of the Kremlin’s tests against the credibility and resolve of the alliance, which have intensified over the past two decades in the conventional and unconventional realm,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank. in October during a hearing in the Senate.
These tests include close encounters with NATO forces at sea and in the air as well as attacks against Ukraine and Georgia, which are NATO partners seeking full membership.
NATO has stepped up its presence in the Black Sea – as evidenced by Austin’s visit and Sixth Fleet exercises – but the limits of geography and international law mean that countering Russia is not a straightforward effort.
A russian lake
After the Soviet collapse, the Russian Black Sea Fleet fell into disuse.
With Russia’s 2008 military reforms and its 2011-2020 state armaments program, the Black Sea Fleet has grown into a lighter and more agile force, capable of operating in coastal areas and surrounding waters.
The main elements of the fleet are three Admiral Grigorovich class guided missile frigates built after the Crimean Crisis of 2014, two Krivak class guided missile frigates and its flagship, the Slava Moskva class guided missile cruiser. It also includes six new and improved Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines and an older Kilo-class submarine.
These ships are supported by a host of smaller and auxiliary ships, including six missile corvettes and five missile boats, underscoring the fleet’s coastal capabilities.
The fleet is supplemented by the newly formed 22nd Army Corps, an air defense division and two aviation divisions based in Crimea, and an air defense division based in Rostov-on-Don.
Moscow is also strengthening its anti-access / denial-of-access capabilities in the Black Sea, especially around Crimea, to protect its warships and repel rival forces. In addition to the fleet’s ability to strike from a distance, 108 Kalibr cruise missiles have a maximum range of approximately 1,200 miles.
NATO members and partners on the Black Sea are at a military disadvantage compared to Russia.
Romania has a navy of three frigates, seven corvettes, a handful of auxiliary ships and an old Kilo-class submarine. Bulgaria is not doing much better, with four frigates, three corvettes and a few support ships, mostly minesweepers.
Turkey has a large and capable navy, but the warming of its relations with Russia and its estrangement from NATO have raised doubts about its commitment to the alliance.
Ukraine is rebuilding its naval force after the loss of Crimea, and Georgia, the smallest state in the Black Sea, has only one coast guard.
In the event of a clash with Russia, these countries would likely seek outside help, but there are limits to what outside countries can do.
The Montreux Convention of 1936 limits the type of ships and the number of ships that non-Black Sea countries can send to sea. It also limits their stay to 21 days and Turkey must be notified in advance of any transit to or from the sea.
These limits benefit Russia and hinder what the United States can do. Only three of the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are allowed to be in the Black Sea at a time. But an Arleigh Burke is a powerful platform. Each can carry 56 Tomahawk missiles, which have roughly the same range as the Kalibr.
While two Arleigh Burkes could fit the Kalibr complement of the Black Sea Fleet, Russia is closely monitoring their movements.
Adapt to a new landscape
The Black Sea states, alone and with NATO, are striving to improve their ability to counter Russia, adapting to the geographic and political constraints of the region.
Romania is already home to a land-based Aegis ballistic defense missile system and is expanding other facilities to accommodate more NATO troops. Bulgaria is working with the United States to expand its military capabilities. Ukraine has taken a number of steps to modernize and expand its own army.
In the weeks following Austin’s visit, area officials and U.S. lawmakers urged the Biden administration to do more to support countries there, including additional arms sales and deployments of troops. Others called for developing a clearer strategy for the region as a deterrent.
USS Mount Whitney has begun leaving the Black Sea on November 15 and the USS Porter regular November 16. Such deployments often arouse Russian anger, but the United States shows no signs of backing down, saying its presence there demonstrates “a continued commitment to the collective defense of the European region and builds the strength of the United States. NATO alliance “.
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a Masters in Security Studies and European Affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.