NATO allies Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey cannot agree on a joint policy towards Russia’s military build-up in the region, which leaves all of them vulnerable.
There is a feeling of disharmony as well as of opposing views between the three NATO member states, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, about NATO’s military engagement in the Black Sea.
Romania has advocated a NATO naval presence on the Black Sea since early 2016.
However, Bulgaria did not want to provoke Russia, although last year it agreed to send 400 soldiers to the multinational naval brigade in Romania.
Turkey, meanwhile, remains cautious. Ankara supports a limited, scaled-up NATO reinforcement in the Black Sea region, but only as long as it does not impact on its interpretation of the Montreux Convention, signed in 1936.
Turkey turns a blind eye also to Russia’s extensive militarisation of the annexed Crimean peninsula, even though it does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Its military involvement in northern Syria, where it seeks to keep Islamic State, ISIS, at bay, and Kurdish factions under control, would not have been possible without Russian cooperation.
Ankara’s colder relations with the European Union and the United States after the July 2016 failed coup have also pushed Turkey towards warm relations with Moscow, despite the fact that until then they were on the brink of war over Russian support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s support for some Syrian opposition groups.
The three NATO littoral countries are also wary of the other’s military presence in the Black Sea because of continued disputes over fishing rights and other issues.
Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey and their respective policies in the Black Sea resemble Ivan Krylov’s fable, Swan, Pike and Crawfish, in which the crawfish scrambles backwards, the swan strains skywards and the pike pulls toward the sea. The three states may be jolted to agree on a joint policy line only if and when Russia provokes one or all of them.
If the NATO build-up in the Baltic States is a good example of what the Alliance can do for its partners when they are united, the NATO countries around the Black Sea are divided, which leaves them vulnerable to bullying and intimidation by a belligerent Russia.
Russian military build-up in the Black Sea
In response to NATO’s increased presence in the Black Sea region, Alexander Grushko, Russia’s Envoy to NATO, said in July 2016: “The decision to increase NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea is … yet another step towards escalating [author’s italics] tensions in regions of vital importance for Russia”. Russia, he added, reserved a right to respond accordingly.
Interestingly, Dan Ciocoiu, Romanian Navy’s Deputy Chief of the Naval Operation Command, said in January 2017: “Assuming there are no radical changes to the naval potential of other countries in the region, the Russian Black Sea Fleet will soon be equal [to] or greater than the combined [author’s italics] fleets of all other Black Sea coastal states.”
Seven months later, Admiral Igor Kasatonov, former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, reiterated Ciocoiu’s assessment. In an article published in Izvestia on 21 February 2017, he said: “Russia has all the necessary resources, both material and moral, to maintain supremacy on the Black Sea. Our fleet has enough force to oppose [author’s italics] NATO force in the Black Sea.”
Both statements should have rung bells in Sofia and Ankara but the two countries see the matter differently. They see NATO’s military engagement in the Black Sea region as a provocation to Russia, not Russia’s militarisation in the Black Sea region as a provocation to NATO.
According to a multi-national WIN/Gallup International poll published in February 2017, people in Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Turkey – all NATO member states – chose Russia as their go-to-defence partner. As a result, leaders of both countries wish to remain neutral.
Thus, Russia has achieved its first tactical success with two out of three NATO littoral states without shooting a bullet. Romania’s political and military leadership remains the major focus of Russian (f)ire – and is likely to expect Russian provocations.
Russia plays by different rules
At first glance, Russian is unlikely to be eager to provoke NATO. However, Russian politicians do not talk of red lines, like their counterparts in the West; they simply cross these lines.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Commander-in-Chief, could decide to disrupt NATO naval operations in an instant. The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and Russia’s military engagement in Syria in September 2015 are examples of this fait accompli policy that can no longer be ignored, or are ignored only at the West own peril.
NATO officials might say military confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea would lead to losses on both sides. NATO may also be interested in maintaining a status quo in the region.
Moscow, however, is determined to dominate a region it deems “of vital importance”. The Russian leadership calculates the benefits of changing the balance of power in its favour and of maintaining the upper hand.
That does not mean Russian policy is in any way reckless. On the contrary, it is calculated and takes into account the potentially belated nature of any reaction from NATO member states.
A NATO counter-attack would happen within 48 to 72 hours, while Russian plans usually envisage a potential attack in less than 24 hours. But, of course, no Russian official would ever admit such a plan exists.
A military confrontation could be triggered by anything. An accident, aircraft or naval collision, could escalate quickly. There have been plenty of air incidents over the Baltic Sea and several in the Black Sea itself in past years, to prove that Russian pilots can behave recklessly.
Whether Bulgaria and Turkey are willing to admit it or not, Russia is building up its military presence in the Black Sea. A change in the balance of power in the region and the ongoing militarisation could push Russia and NATO to the brink of war.
In the worst-case scenario, a cyber attack, accompanied by a propaganda and disinformation campaign, followed by economic sanctions on the three littoral states, would first the cripple the national currencies and banking institutions. A military operation would then be swift.
It may not happen right now and can all still be avoided. But Russia’s leadership is not predictable and that needs to be taken seriously.
Eugene Kogan is a defence and security expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
This article was originally published in the European Security and Defence magazine.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Baltic Post.