Strengthening NATO in the Black Sea Region

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO prioritized the Baltic Sea region, where several NATO allies share a border with Russia. NATO therefore deployed “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to deter further Russian aggression.1 In in the Black Sea region, however, NATO chose a “tailored Forward Presence” (tFP) – that is to say, a smaller and less capable force, yielding the initiative there to the Kremlin.

Moscow values the Black Sea region at least as much as the Baltic Sea region. The Black Sea is Russia’s “launching pad” for its destabilizing operations in North Africa and the Middle East. This includes Syria, where the Kremlin has propped up the murderous Assad regime and sent millions of refugees fleeing to Europe.2

Moscow also has its own territorial objectives in the Black Sea region, as demonstrated by Russia’s ongoing militarization of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s continued occupation of Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.3 The Kremlin has engaged in serious provocations in the Kerch Strait and flaunted international law with illegitimate claims to territorial waters around Crimea and Romania’s Exclusive Economic Zone.4 When NATO forces fly and sail where international law permits, Moscow often challenges them.5

While the threat from China garners the most attention in Washington, the 2018 National Defense Strategy makes clear that Russia remains a top threat and that maintaining NATO readiness is still the best way to respond.6

In assessing NATO’s eastern borders with Russia, several general concerns emerge. They include: (1) a perceived lack of cohesion, which could invite Russian aggression; (2) inadequate readiness levels among some allies; (3) inadequate integration of air and missile defense capabilities; and (4) shortfalls in military mobility. These issues must be addressed.

At the broadest level, however, Washington must raise the priority of the Black Sea region and develop a strategy that puts the Black Sea in the middle of Eurasia’s geostrategic map. Accordingly, NATO should declare all capabilities across the alliance’s eastern flank as “Forward Presence” vs “enhanced” and “tailored.”

Moreover, NATO should improve mission command, intelligence sharing, and its physical presence in the Black Sea region. That should start with a Graduated Defense Plan, similar to what was approved for the Baltic region. NATO should also establish a joint, three-star headquarters for the Black Sea region. This command would utilize intelligence from all sources, improving situational awareness, and enhancing “speed of recognition” in the Black Sea region.

This is particularly important based on the lessons of Moscow’s hybrid invasion of Crimea. That episode made it clear that NATO needed to improve its speed: (1) speed of recognition of Kremlin intentions despite Russian cyberattacks and disinformation efforts as well as exercises and movements; (2) speed of decision making at all echelons of the alliance and/or national forces; and (3) speed of assembly to prevent or respond to a potential crisis. Training and resourcing, therefore, should focus on rapid, effective, and fast responses.

In terms of physical presence, NATO should strengthen the defense of the western Black Sea with unmanned maritime systems and ground-based systems, including anti-ship missiles, drones, and rotary wing attack aviation. Similar to the NATO Air Policing mission in the Baltics,7 the alliance should conduct persistent maritime policing missions with a non-littoral NATO naval presence. NATO should also establish an Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence in Romania.

To support these forces, the alliance should improve communication, mission command, transportation, intelligence, fuel, ammunition storage, and assembly area infrastructure in the Black Sea region. The October 2020 codification of a 10-year road map for U.S.-Romania defense cooperation represents a positive step. Romania has been modernizing the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the Black Sea.8

This increased physical presence must, of course, be protected from attack. That requires enhancing and integrating air and missile defense (AMD). These AMD capabilities must be layered for maximum defense. Romania hosts a U.S. Aegis Ashore system and has already taken delivery of a Patriot air defense system.9 Still, additional AMD resources are needed in the region. Furthermore, to ensure and maintain readiness, the alliance should conduct regular theater-wide AMD exercises, command post exercises, and live-fire exercises.

These forward elements must also be fully integrated into the larger Supreme Allied Commander Europe area of responsibility. Forward elements in the Black Sea region should be supported by transcontinental transportation infrastructure, more frequent logistical and deployment exercises, and improved military mobility.

All of this will certainly draw the attention of Moscow. This means cyber protection must be a priority, given Russia’s reliance on this asymmetric warfare tool.

While there is clearly much work to do, the good news for Americans is that much of this new Black Sea region military posture need not consist of U.S. forces. Washington should certainly encourage and help lead the effort, but a majority of the forces can and should come from other NATO members – once again highlighting the value of the alliance for Americans.

Strengthening military posture within the NATO alliance, however, is not enough. The United States should adopt a more assertive strategy in support of Ukraine and Georgia. That means providing more support to Ukraine’s navy. It also means encouraging European and NATO nations to ban from their ports all Russian naval and merchant vessels that sail from any Crimean ports. NATO, with American leadership, should also intensify cooperation with Georgia under existing initiatives, including the modernization of Vaziani military airfield.

To encourage enhanced security in the Black Sea region, NATO should adopt a more nuanced approach in measuring whether an ally is carrying its fair share of the defense burden. The 2 percent metric currently does not account for or incentivize some of the things the alliance most needs. Examples include contributions toward improved military mobility and cyber protection of transportation infrastructure.

NATO has made significant progress along its eastern flank since 2014. This includes increased rotational forces, more prepositioned equipment, and significant increases in the quantity, sophistication, and scale of NATO exercises. Much of this progress, however, has occurred in the Baltics and Poland. It is now time to address vulnerabilities and gaps in the Black Sea region.

If democracies have learned anything in recent years, it is that Russian President Vladimir Putin views such vulnerabilities as a green light for aggression.10