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Black Sea enters access-denial age

Octavian Manea   |   Brief  |   01/22/2015   |   5 Pages


Power politics is back. Globally, revisionist actors have started developing access-denial systems aimed at the traditional comparative advantages of the U.S. power projection model. As a consequence, deterrence umbrellas and classical reassurance packages based on rapid reaction forces might no longer be adequate. Sooner or later, these trends will be felt in the Black Sea region which can become a no-go area for NATO presence due to an emerging A2/AD Russian bubble.[1]

At exactly one hundred years since the start of World War One, 2014 was a year of major tectonic shocks for the global security. It was the time when long established realities of the international system came under assault. The collapse of the frontier between Iraq and Syria, the rise of a rogue pseudo-state controlled by ISIL, the creation of separatist republics in Eastern Ukraine are some of the new facts on a shifting ground.

For some, 2014 will be regarded as the year when the end of history, the Nirvana of the 1990s and the formative mindset for many current European elites, simply ended.[2] Power politics became once again the norm of the day as shown by the annexation of Crimea. It was particularly the time when anti-Western regimes that are not responsible stakeholders and don’t recognize the rules of the road started actively to subvert them, to “question their validity in their present form and have made clear that they would work to modify them”.[3]

For others, 2014 provided a sentiment of disintegration of “any sense of a framework, an order, a system in which peace and stability could be restored”.[4] It is in this larger context that the collapse of the post-Cold War consensus, mainly the principles that created its foundation, happened. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1990 Paris Charter for Europe, the 1994 Budapest memorandum – the core features of the post-Cold War normative framework – all are in question. The problem is that “when you have a collapse of order, you can expect all kinds of things”.[5] For sure, assumptions about how we read and assess the regional security landscape need to change:

it is no longer appropriate to have a mindset that thinks in the binary world of war and peace; campaign or contingency. The world is now in a permanent state of competition. We are in an age of continuous engagement.[6]

Larger global trends

All this sense of collapsing order comes in a moment when the traditional enforcer of global rules is no longer what it used to be. The U.S. is engulfed by a myriad of internal crises and overwhelmed by calls for intervention from literally everywhere. Moreover, the insidious challengers of American power like Beijing and Moscow have started to build weapon systems able to contest the technological comparative advantages that provided U.S. the ability to control land, air, space and sea. In fact, the competition is developing a vanguard of denial capabilities – anti-ship, anti-air, counter-space, cyber, electronic warfare – aimed at U.S. traditional advantages. This is the reality that consumed the top Pentagon leadership during the past year. In September 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave a speech in Rhode Island where he highlighted the special features of the long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs assumed by China and Russia that “appear designed to counter traditional U.S. military advantages – in particular, our ability to project power to any region across the globe by surging aircraft, ships, troops, and supplies. All this suggests that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space – not to mention cyberspace – can no longer be taken for granted”.[7]

Two months later, in a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Hagel made this view the rationale for trying to develop the foundations of a new strategy designed to offset the aforementioned Russian and Chinese trends: “…while we spent over a decade focused on grinding stability operations, countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge, fielding advanced aircraft, submarines, and both longer range and more accurate missiles. (…) America must continue to ensure its ability to project power rapidly across oceans and continents by surging aircraft, ships, troops and supplies. If this capability is eroded or lost, we will see a world far more dangerous and unstable, far more threatening to America and our citizens here at home than we have seen since World War II.”[8]

The major ripple effect of this trend (under consolidation in key parts of Eurasia and East Asia) is that the U.S. traditional expeditionary model based on the ability to project power across transoceanic distances is increasingly in jeopardy. As the National Defense Panel report of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review concluded: [this] “will make it difficult for U.S. forces to gain entry to and maneuver within areas that once were relatively secure”.[9] At the same time the credibility of U.S. deterrence umbrella, but also the capability to enforce international law and the global rules of the road (like freedom of the seas) are also under question. Along the same lines, Secretary Hagel emphasized: “without our superiority, the strength and credibility of our alliances will suffer. Our commitment to enforcing long-established international law, rules of the road, and principles could be doubted by both our friends and our adversaries.”[10]

For Europe, the crisis of the U.S. expeditionary model (at the core of the Euro-Atlantic collective security system) suggests that the reassurance package adopted under the Wales summit and based on the spearhead force inside the NRF (NATO Response Force) – in itself a power projection component – is not enough. The Wales summit solution made sense in a time, such as the 1990s, when the environment that should have received the NATO reinforcements was highly permissive and Western power projection capabilities were unchallenged. Today, the assumption of a highly permissive environment no longer holds, mainly because Russia is fielding comprehensive counter-intervention capabilities that have real potential to keep the Alliance at bay. This is an emerging consensus also outside Pentagon, in the D.C. think tank community. According to Jim Thomas, VP at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA):

the A2/AD maturation suggests that there is a real limitation with the expeditionary model in the future. Everyone who has been in the power projection business faces the same problem, which is: in a crisis, to dispatch an expeditionary force may be highly destabilizing and, in a conflict, may be simply impossible because those forces would not have protected ports and airfields that they could flow into. I am very skeptical of the idea of the super rapid NATO reaction force because it fails to understand the changing military competition in the security environment.”[11]

Emerging A2/AD Russian bubble over the Black Sea

To say that the annexation of Crimea is a game-changer for the wider Black Sea balance of power has become a truism. But, it is the association of the annexation with the Russian efforts to develop a counter-intervention posture that really changes the optic. It suggests that Russia’s long term goal is to build a keep-out zone where the traditional freedom of action can be denied.

The current and prospective shopping list announced by Moscow for boosting its military assets in Crimea suggests that the Black Sea region is gradually entering in the age of A2/AD. Overall, by the end of the decade, Moscow plans to spend U.S. $151 billion to modernize its navy and the Black Sea Fleet (submarines, anti-ship, anti-surface and anti-air capabilities). At the same time, the annexation of Crimea will add long range land-based missile systems (like S-400 SAM system), S-300 platforms, but also the Iskander surface-to-surface missiles that have an operational range of 400-kilometer.[12] By the end of the decade, Russia’s Black Sea force will tally 206 ships.[13] By 2016, the Black Sea Fleet will receive six brand-new Kilo-class submarines that will be stationed in a new base at Novorossiysk.[14] In addition, Tu-22M3 long-range strategic bombers will be deployed in the region.[15] In short, the annexation of Crimea is already shifting the geography of control in the wider Black Sea region. The Black Sea which in the past used to be called a ‘Russian lake’ is now rapidly becoming an A2/AD Russian bubble.

For many observers, the trends already at play in the region spill signs of trouble. Last November, while in Kyiv, General Philip M. Breedlove, the top military commander of NATO, stressed that the announced militarization of Crimea “will bring effect to almost the entire Black Sea. (…) Costal defense cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other capabilities are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea”.[16] To James Sherr, a researcher at Chatham House in London, an unrestrained Russian fleet will have a free hand to master the waves in the Black Sea:

the Russian Black Sea fleet has, in the past, been constrained by various agreements about what it could and could not do as far as operation, modernization and the kinds of weaponry—nuclear and conventional—deployed there. Those constraints no longer exist. A massive modernization program has been announced. That includes the deployment of Russia’s most advanced long-range area denial weapons, which affect a large part of Turkish air space and extend right out to the Bosphorus. It raises new questions about the vulnerability of any surface assets that we send into the Black sea.”[17]

But why is this a threat for the regional security? Some historical cases provide persuasive evidence that, once it developed a certain sense of intangibility, a revisionist power may become more incentivized to disrupt or subvert key features of the regional status-quo. In the past, it was the case of Pakistan that under the new found nuclear umbrella started to employ sub-conventional assets aimed at India’s ability to control the Kashmir province: “nuclearization has both enabled and emboldened its use of militancy (…) The development of first a covert and then an overt nuclear capability appears to have enabled Pakistan to pursue the boldest aspects of its proxy strategy with confidence that doing so will face few, if any, important consequences.[18] More recently there is the behavior of Beijing in its own ‘near abroad’. Developments in the South China Sea (the increased Chinese assertiveness near Spratly and Paracel island groups, but also the Scarborough Reef, including the building of new artificial islands), as well as the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013 show the increased willingness of Beijing to alter the geography of the region through sub-conventional means. This slow motion expansion is happening at the same time when China is also becoming a mature A2/AD actor. For many observers, the alignment between Chinese insidious sub-conventional tactics and the massive expansion of its anti-access/area-denial portfolio suggests that, Beijing is preparing the ground to deter a potential operation of roll back: “on one side there is salami-slicing, gradual, slow accumulation of small changes creating new facts on the ground. The second part of it is the creation of certain military capabilities that make it very difficult for an expeditionary power like US to take any kind of actions to roll back Chinese accumulations”.[19]

It might be a matter of time until a Black Sea exclusion zone will join other key regions of the world where “unilateral actions by stronger powers against their weaker neighbors undermine rules like freedom of navigation”.[20] In China’s case, there seems to be a correlation between the gradual development of the A2/AD capabilities and the coercive salami-slicing tactics employed in the South China and East China Seas.[21] Consequently, as Russia becomes a mature A2/AD power, it may also employ similar sub-conventional irregular tactics inside the wider Black Sea by challenging the territorial waters of NATO littoral states through creative claims over their EEZs and energy perimeters, or through the activation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) or imposing a maritime defense identification zone (MDIZ). Over the past year, Russia has demonstrated a clear intent to become an active contester of the European security order and its core principles. Now, Russia does not have only intentions, but concrete capabilities to put in jeopardy the freedom of movement (with all the evident consequences for the energy security of the region). It definitely has the ability to transform the Black Sea in a no-go area by keeping at bay any NATO reinforcement presence.[22]

  1. This brief draws and builds on sections introduced in the chapter “The Case for the Rebalancing of NATO on the Eastern Flank”, by Octavian Manea and Paulina Iżewicz (in The European Union’s Eastern Neighborhood. Politics, Dynamics and Perspectives, edited by Valentin Naumescu and Dan Dungaciu, forthcoming at Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) and “Black Sea region in the age of low cost revisionism”, by Armand Goṣu and Octavian Manea, forthcoming, CEPA, 2014.
  2. Walter Russell Mead, “The end of history ends”, The American Interest, December 2nd, 2013,
  3. Henry Kissinger, World Order, Penguin Press, New York, 2014, p.2
  4. George Packer, The birth of a new century, Foreign Policy, November/December 2014, p. 54.
  5. Interview with Toomas Hendrick Ilves, President of Estonia, December 22nd, 2014,
  6. Speech by General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the British Defence Staff, at RUSI’s Conference on the NATO Summit, September 2014.
  7. “Defense Innovation Days” – keynote speech delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Newport, Rhode Island, Wednesday, September 03, 2014,
  8. Reagan National Defense Forum Keynote as delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Saturday, November 15, 2014,
  9. The National Defense Panel Review’s report of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, co-chaired by William J. Perry and John P. Abizaid, p. 21.
  10. Reagan National Defense Forum Keynote as delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Saturday, November 15, 2014,
  11. Personal interview with Jim Thomas, Vice President at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), October 2014, Washington, D.C.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Matthew Bodner, “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Will Get 80 New Warships to Repel NATO”, The Moscow Times, September 23rd, 2014
  14. Ibid.
  15. Igor Delanoe, “Russia’s Plans for Crimea: the Black Sea Fleet”, Russian International Affairs Council, July 23rd, 2014
  16. Press Availability of General Philip M. Breedlove, Commander, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, of NATO Allied Command Operations, Kyiv, Ukraine
, November 26, 2014,
  17. Testimony of James Sherr, Associate Fellow, Chatham House before Defence Committee, House of Commons on The Next Defence and Security Review, July 9th, 2014.
  18. More on this in C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan’s Army Way of War, Oxford University Press, 2014. Of particular interest is chapter 9, Jihad under the nuclear umbrella, p. 250/251
  19. Interview with Robert Haddick (author of a new book on this topic, Fire on the Water. China, America and the future of the Pacific, Naval Institute Press, 2014), October 2014.
  20. The National Defense Panel Review’s report of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, co-chaired by William J. Perry and John P. Abizaid, p. 11.
  21. More on this topic in “Chinese” near-seas and regional energy security, Octavian Manea and George Visan, Regional Security Paper, Romania Energy Center (ROEC), June 2014.
  22. All these different layers of long-range, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles together with the long range S-400 land-based missile systems that will be deployed in Crimea suggest a “large spectrum of capability to strike ground targets, interdict maritime traffic and impose a no-fly zone.” (in Igor Delanoe, “Russia’s Plans for Crimea: the Black Sea Fleet”, Russian International Affairs Council, July 23rd, 2014:

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