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Black Sea naval (im)balance

George Visan   |   Strategic Research  |   02/20/2015   |   16 Pages

black-sea-naval-imbalanceThis special report approaches energy security in the Black Sea from a naval perspective, looking into Russian assertiveness as a source of regional insecurity and the fundamentally shifted balance of power in the region in the wake of the 2014 Crimean annexation. Going forward, as Russia further develops its naval power in the Black Sea, Crimea can become a base for Russia’s short range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles[1] which could be used to threaten NATO and American military installations and facilities in the region as well as critical infrastructure such as harbors, airports, airfields, oil and gas terminals and pipelines. In a post 2014 world, the Russian controlled Crimean Peninsula is poised to become an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which it can use its air force to monitor, control and interdict naval operations in the Black Sea or from where it can launch long range strikes against neighboring countries and project power in the Mediterranean Sea, Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

Introduction and argument

The Black Sea region is one of the most dynamic areas in the world today. Oil and gas pipeline projects multiply and offshore drilling is increasing at a fast pace. The Turkish Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles) are a strategic chokepoint for energy supply, with an average of 2.9 billion barrels of oil transiting daily this narrow waterway which links the Mediterranean with the Black Sea.[2] Economic, political and security considerations are at play and simultaneously underpinning the latest regional development trends.

From a geopolitical point of view, the Black Sea region connects Western Europe with the Eurasian landmass, its shores being the dividing line between Europe and Asia, between NATO and Russia and, between the European Union and the former Soviet space.

On the other hand, Black Sea oil and gas development require a stable long term security environment, one that is conducive to normal offshore operations, may that be laying of underwater pipelines or building LNG terminals. In times of crisis, oil and gas terminals require protection and tankers require safe and secure sea-lanes. Consequently, the energy security policies of the Black Sea countries will be impacted by naval policies and will involve not just economic, but military considerations. It is therefore of paramount importance to look at energy security issues in the Black Sea region from a naval perspective as well, since the naval balance of power in the Black Sea will become an important element in the strategic and security configuration of the region.

Russian revisionism and the new security outlook in the Black Sea

Today, the Black Sea region is dominated by divergent views, by Russia standing up to NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, and increased Russian military activity. Kremlin’s ambition of controlling the “near abroad” in order to rebuild its status as a global power has been the major cause of military conflict and rising tension in the region recently. Ever since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, the Kremlin has fought an uphill struggle to reclaim its status as a first rank global power. In this process, Russia has chosen to pursue its interests in an aggressive manner, has become less and less democratic and has constantly challenged the Western and American based international order. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s attempt to undermine the statehood of Ukraine by fomenting secessionist tendencies in the east of the country represents a new chapter in Russia’s playbook for the region, one that is dangerous and that may have wide consequences at global level.

By annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and by orchestrating a military aggression against Kiev, Moscow has undermined the pillars of European security as they are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: the general prohibition against re-drawing the borders of Europe through military force and the use of force in order to settle political differences among European nations.[3] Russia has withdrawn from Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the main arms control instrument on the continent after the Cold War. In 2007, citing NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia decided to suspend its participation in the arms controls regime and then abandoned it altogether.[4] In 2014, the United States accused Russia of being in breach of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges above the threshold limits imposed by the treaty.[5]

Ukraine is the latest example of Russian military aggression in the Black Sea region, albeit the most egregious one. Before Ukraine, there was Georgia in August 2008. When Tbilisi tried to rein in by force the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and protect its citizens from ethnic cleansing at the hands of separatists[6], Moscow used overwhelming force in order to crush the small Georgian army and tried to topple Mikhail Saakashvili. As would later be the case in Ukraine, the rationale for Russia’s brutal aggression against Georgia was the latter’s attempt to join NATO and its European integration ambitions, since Russia regards the former soviet republics as part of its legitimate sphere of influence and considers any aspirations towards joining NATO and the EU as encroachments on its interests and as threats to its national security.

One thing is clear: the 2014 Ukrainian crisis has firmly established Russia as a revisionist power. The hallmark of Russian revisionism is the opposition to U.S. foreign policy. In numerous speeches and policy documents, Russian officials have vilified the United States as a unilateral power which seeks to change the political regimes of sovereign countries by military force (the 2003 Iraq war) or by fomenting civil unrest and revolution (2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia). In 2007, Vladimir Putin expressed Russia’s disillusion with the current structure of the international system:

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. (…) Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished.”[7]

Russia’s new military doctrine, published in December 2014, identifies NATO and the United States as the main threats to its national security. The new defense policy of the Russian Federation accuses NATO of violating international law through the latter’s policies of expansion and military build-up.[8] The document also castigates the United States for “the creation and deployment of global strategic antiballistic missile systems that undermines the established global stability and balance of power in nuclear missile capabilities, the implementation of the ‘prompt strike’[9] concept, intent to deploy weapons in space and deployment of strategic conventional precision weapons.[10]

Similarly, Russian revisionism is reflected in Kremlin’s attempts to discourage its neighbors from making their own sovereign decisions regarding their foreign alignments, to fracture NATO and make it irrelevant for European security and to divide the EU decision making process.[11]

Russia has opposed NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe and its foreign policy elites consider NATO’s enlargement as an American betrayal of pledges made at the end of the Cold War that, the Western alliance will not expand to include either the countries of Central and Eastern Europe or the newly independent (former Soviet) republics.[12] American foreign policy makers deny ever making such pledges during the last days of the Cold War. The Russia-NATO Foundation Act of 1997 that created the cooperation framework between former Cold War adversaries pledged only that the Western Alliance will not establish permanent military facilities or deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new alliance members, former members of the Warsaw Pact. Ironically Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine has increased the chances of NATO and the U.S. maintaining a military presence in Russia’s neighborhood.

In 2008, at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, Russia successfully blocked the granting of Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia. As a matter of fact, the main Russian strategic objective in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war was to compromise any chances Tbilisi had of joining NATO after the NATO Bucharest Summit. Moscow also meant to show other former Soviet states with ambitions of forging closer relations with the United States or European Union that Russia will use military force, in order to prevent such developments from taking place and that the West can do little to help if the Kremlin launches an aggression against them.

Despite Russian foreign policy revisionism, it is limited in nature as the Kremlin lacks for the moment the capacity to change the current status quo in Europe or at a global level.[13] It can, however, undermine the status quo and harass NATO and the rest of the Western world where it is most vulnerable: in Russia’s neighboring regions.[14] The purpose of this is to demonstrate the newer members of NATO and/or EU that, when faced with a Russian challenge, the West will not protect its easternmost allies.[15] For prospective NATO or EU members that share a border with the Russian Federation, Kremlin’s actions are finely tuned to show that it is the only regional power factor that can guarantee their security and territorial integrity. If the countries in the near abroad do not take Russia’s interests or concerns seriously, if they try to forge closer relations with the West, then these countries may end up like Georgia and Ukraine.

After Crimea’s annexation, Kremlin’s heavy handed approach in the near abroad has extended to NATO and EU member states. Russian harassment took the form of military demonstrations of power, diplomatic skirmishes and commercial blackmailing.

Box 1: Inventory of Russian heightened military activity (selection)

September 2009: during a large military exercise (Zapad-2009) held in Belarus, ostensibly based on an anti-terrorist scenario, Russian forces simulated a nuclear attack on Warsaw.[16]

July 2013: Romanian defense minister, Mircea Dușa, complained openly of incursions made by foreign aircraft flying close to Romania’s air space.[17] Although, he failed to name the nationality of aircraft involved in such incursions, the only country capable of such activity in the Black Sea region is Russia.

This type of military activity also fits the pattern faced by NATO aircraft in their missions protecting the Baltic airspace:

April 2014: the Bulgarian defense minister Angel Naidenov complained of a spike in Russian aircraft activity that required Bulgaria’s air force to launch over 30 sorties (dispatching of military aircraft to investigate possible threats to national airspace) in two months in order to protect its airspace.[18] According to Naidenov, after Crimea, Russian air activity close to Bulgarian and NATO air space increased from 3-4 flights a month to 3-4 flights a week.

October 2014: Sweden hunted for 10 days a submarine in the Baltic Sea, in an operation reminiscent of the Cold War.[19] Although it was unable to positively confirm the identity of the submarine, Stockholm pointed the finger towards Russia as the most likely culprit for the incursion[20], which elicited a strongly worded diplomatic protest from Moscow.[21]

Earlier in June 2014, Russian aircraft staged a mock strike on the Danish island of Borhnholm in the Baltic Sea.[22] Russian officials explained this dangerous action as a routine training mission.[23]

October 28-29, 2014: Russia’s greatest demonstration of force directed against NATO included large military maneuvers conducted by Russian aircraft in European airspace over the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Atlantic Ocean and North Sea.[24] Turkish Air Force fighter jets intercepted 2 Tupolev Tu-95 H strategic bombers and 2 Sukhoi Su-27 fighters flying over the Black Sea on October 29.[25] NATO has estimated that, by November 2014, it has intercepted 400 Russian military aircraft flying close to alliance airspace, a 50% increase compared to 2013.[26]

November 5, 2014: the Portuguese Navy escorted a Russian oceanographic research vessel out of its economic exclusive zone in the Atlantic.[27]

In late November, French, Canadian and U.S. aircraft along with British warships hunted for an unknown submarine off the coast of Scotland, after a periscope was sighted.[28] Given the location, near the GIUK gap (Greenland, Iceland and UK), the usual route Russian nuclear submarines take in order to enter the Atlantic Ocean from the North Sea, as well as the location of UK’s nuclear deterrent submarine base at Faslane, in Scotland, it can be surmised that the submarine in question belonged to the Russian Northern Fleet.

Source: compiled by author based on various open sources

Of all these dangerous developments, the most troubling is the blatant use of force against countries in the Black Sea region in order to settle disputes, that otherwise would have been solved peacefully. Russia’s military behavior shows, on one hand, that it feels deeply frustrated by the developments taking place in its geopolitical proximity, and, on the other hand, a willingness to brake established rules and norms in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Above all, Russia’s recent actions test the determination of Western allies, undermine the cohesion of the transatlantic link, and create friction between the established NATO and EU members (France, Italy, Germany) and its newest members (Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states).

The U.S. in the Black Sea: history flashes and post 9/11 environment

The United States has become in the recent past an important player in the region. From a historic point of view, the Black Sea region has been of limited interest to U.S. foreign and security policy. In the aftermath of World War I, the Americans sent a squadron of destroyers in the Black Sea as part of its contribution to the Allied cause and to defend its interests in the Ottoman Empire. Based in Constantinople (Istanbul), these ships helped evacuate White Russian during the Russian Civil War and Armenians, in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide.[29]

In 1946, Turkey appealed to the United States for support in a conflict with the Soviet Union over the control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. The Straits Crisis and the American intervention on behalf of Turkey represented one of the first incidents of the Cold War and was the main catalyst for the Truman Doctrine, which held that the U.S. will contain communism and support countries threatened by the expansion of communism and the Soviet Union.[30]

During the Cold War, the Black Sea was at the forefront of superpower rivalry. At Sinop, in Turkey, the United States maintained a listening post to monitor Soviet activities in the region.[31] Between 1968 and 1988 the United States sent ships in the Black Sea to assert its rights (according to the Montreaux Convention) to affirm the right of innocent passage[32] through Soviet territorial waters and to demonstrate that every state enjoys rights of freedom of navigation and flight in the Black Sea.[33] In 1988, two U.S. Navy ships (the cruiser USS Yorktown and the destroyer USS Caron) claimed the right of innocent passage for military vessels through Soviet territorial waters.[34] A confrontation ensued with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which monitored the passage of the American ships through USSR territorial waters and both U.S. ships were slightly damaged after being intentionally rammed by Soviet naval vessels.[35] Until the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, this was the gravest naval confrontation in the region after World War II.

After 9/11, the region’s proximity to the theaters of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq made it an ideal location for American transit and training bases. The new NATO allies in the region (Bulgaria and Romania) were eager to have an American military presence on their territories in order to increase their overall security. Furthermore, in the face of growing Russian assertiveness, the U.S. military deployments were interpreted by the host nations as a sort of strategic insurance, as well as a palpable proof of the United States’ commitment to the security of its new European allies. However, the current U.S. military presence in Bulgaria and Romania is temporary and rotational in essence. There are no plans at the moment to shift the American military presence in Europe from Germany to the eastern flank. Despite calls for a change of this policy, the deployment of NATO forces on the continent represents more a legacy of the Cold War rather than an outcome tailored to the current strategic context.[36]

The U.S. military has however created a forward permanent operating site at Mihail Kogălniceanu base, known in Romania as Baza Aeriană 57 (Air Base 57). The site represents the main transit point for U.S. troops exiting Afghanistan[37] and was used as a staging ground for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.[38] The location is used as the main headquarter for two rotational forces: Task Force East and Black Sea Rotational Force. In Bulgaria similar facilities exist at Novo Selo Range, Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base, Aitos Logistics Center and Bezmer Air Base.

Aside from the mission to secure the logistics chain for the theaters of operation in Afghanistan and Iraq, the object of the U.S. presence around the Black Sea has been to demonstrate American commitment to its new allies in the region (Romania and Bulgaria), reinsure traditional allies (Turkey), ensure regional stability and forge new strategic relationships (Georgia and Ukraine). In military terms, it allows the United States to train and build up the forces of its allies in the region within the NATO framework as well as on a bilateral basis. The rotational nature of the American forces in the Black Sea insure a level of political flexibility towards Russia, as Washington wants to demonstrate that it is not seeking to militarily “box in” Moscow in the latter’s “back yard”.

The U.S. presence in the Black Sea was bolstered in 2009 when the Obama Administration decided to base missile defense interceptors in Romania and Poland in order to defend the European continent from possible attacks with medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East.[39] This shift in missile defense plans for Europe has furthered angered Russia which sees as main purpose of the missile defense system the negation of its strategic arsenal. President Vladimir Putin has gone so far as to accuse the United States of deploying missile defenses in Europe, in Russia’s proximity in order to foster a regime change in Moscow by means of a “color revolution”.[40] In fact, the missile defense system based in Romania and Poland is not capable of intercepting Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles and thus poses no threat whatsoever to Moscow’s strategic arsenal. However, Kremlin fears that by deploying and developing ballistic missile defenses, the United States paves the way to further technological advances that, going forward, will allow it to dispense altogether with nuclear deterrence and thus gain a first strike capability over other nuclear capable states. Russia is especially sensitive about its nuclear arsenal as it represents one of the few attributes of a super power left after the dissolution of the USSR.

As part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the strategy outlining the missile defense of Europe, a part of the U.S. missile defense effort, will consist of naval vessels equipped with missile interceptors and the AEGIS command and control system. By 2015, four U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyers will be stationed at Rota, in Spain, and tasked with the defense of Europe from possible ballistic missile attacks.[41] These ships will patrol in the Atlantic Ocean, the western coast of Africa, in the Mediterranean and even the Black Sea. As part of their deployment to Europe, the four destroyers stationed in Rota, will engage with other NATO navies in training missions and will conduct naval diplomacy missions.

Following Crimea (2014), NATO and the United States took the decision to reinforce the eastern flank of the alliance. At the Wales Summit, the alliance approved the NATO Readiness Action Plans (RAP) for Poland, the Baltic States and Romania. NATO RAP represents “a coherent and comprehensive package of necessary measures to respond to the changes in the security environment on NATO’s borders and further afield that are of concern to Allies. It responds to the challenges posed by Russia and their strategic implications. It also responds to the risks and threats emanating from our southern neighborhood, the Middle East and North Africa.”[42] These reassurance measures were further strengthened by the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) within the NATO Response Force (NRF).[43] The VJTF is basically a fast response force built within a rapid deployment force in order to revitalize an old concept of the Alliance, the NRF, and more importantly to create a credible bulwark against Russia’s aggressive behavior on the Eastern flank of the Alliance.

Prior to the NATO Summit in Wales, U.S. president Barack Obama announced a complex reassurance package for the eastern flank of the Alliance.[44] Under the terms of this initiative, the United States will provide a 1 billion dollars military aid in the form of more rotational troop deployments, joint air, land and sea exercises and training for Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States.[45] According to the Obama’s administration plans, U.S. military assistance will be made available also to non-NATO members along the shores of the Black Sea: Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.[46]

The U.S. interest in the Black Sea region has not been limited to political and military affairs. Washington has supported regional and European efforts to achieve energy security and energy supply diversification, and has backed such projects as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Nabucco gas pipeline and AGRI (Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector). In contrast to Russia’s actions in the Black Sea region, the U.S. presence is perceived by most Black Sea countries as a factor contributing to regional stability – a necessary counterbalance to Russian assertiveness and aggression.

A historical framework

In the XX century, the Black Sea has been a battlefield during both world wars, while during the Cold War period it was virtually a ‘Soviet lake’, with Turkey being the only NATO country in the region. For Soviet naval strategy, the Black Sea and its bases in the Crimean Peninsula represented the “key” with which to unlock the Turkish Straits and break out into the Mediterranean Sea in order to challenge the American 6th Fleet, if the Cold War ever turned “hot”. The Crimean Peninsula was home to the Red Banner Black Sea Fleet and the Fifth Squadron, whose mission was to project power into the Mediterranean Sea. During the Cold War, the Black Sea Fleet accounted for 26% of the Soviet Navy’s major surface combatants, 28% of the navy’s aircraft, 19% of the personnel, but had only about 7% of the navy’s submarines, with no nuclear attack or ballistic missile submarines.[47] The Black Sea Fleet and the Fifth Squadron benefitted from having ice free ports as bases almost all year round compared to other fleets of the Soviet Navy.[48]

After the Cold War, the Black Sea Fleet was divided between the Russian Navy and the newly formed Ukrainian Navy. An agreement on the final division of ships and assets in the Crimean Peninsula as well as basing rights for the Russian Navy was signed in 1997. The partition of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the basing agreements with Ukraine never sat well with the Russian leadership which saw them as severely limiting Russia’s ability to deploy ships to the Mediterranean[49] or to adequately replace old ships.[50] Novorosiisk, the Russian Black Sea base after the fall of the Soviet Union, was not deemed satisfactory from a geographical point of view as high winds tended to damage the ships anchored in the harbor.[51] Part of the Russian military rationale of annexing Crimea had to do with this and the perception that a possible NATO membership for Kiev would have spelled the end of Russia’s military presence in the peninsula.

Box 2: 2008 – the shape of things to come

On August 10, 2008, Mirazh, a Nanuchka class corvette (Project 1234 Ovod) of the Russian Black Sea Fleet engaged and sank a patrol boat belonging to the Georgian Navy.[52] The Russian ship was part of a larger task force, headed by the guided missile cruiser Moskva (Slava class/Project 1164 Atlant) whose mission was to neutralize the small Georgian navy.[53] The Russian corvette fired one of its missiles and in a couple of minutes the Georgian patrol boat was a burning hulk. This small naval engagement marked the first time since World War II since naval vessels were engaged in fighting in the Black Sea. On August 11, 2008, Russian paratroops entered the port city of Poti and sabotaged all Georgian naval vessels moored there, while Russia’s Black Sea Fleet patrolled off Georgia’s coast.[54]

With the benefit of hindsight, the Russo-Georgian in 2008 was not a historical aberration or an isolated clash between two successor states of the USSR, merely the shape of things to come. During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian Black Sea fleet blockaded and then captured all of Ukraine’s military facilities on the peninsula. On March 24, 2014, Russian forces took over all of Ukraine’s naval vessels deployed in the Crimean peninsula[55] (over 51 vessels, of which 28 have been since returned to Ukraine[56]).

The regional balance of power in the Black Sea region has shifted dramatically in 2014. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is in a position to effectively challenge the status quo.

In strategic terms, with Crimea firmly in its hands, Russia is now free to develop the full military potential of its Black Sea Fleet, expand territorially at the expense of Ukraine,, interdict or severely restrict NATO’s access to the Black Sea, politically coerce other states in the region, and project power within the region and in the in the Mediterranean Sea.[57] Almost immediately after the annexation of Crimea, Russian defense officials announced the intention of redeveloping the Fifth Squadron of the Russian Navy which signals Kremlin’s intention of projecting power beyond the Black Sea.[58]

The 2014 developments in the Black Sea also increase the risk of maritime disputes over economic exclusive zones (EEZ) which hold the promise of more energy security and resource related revenues. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Romania and Ukraine have fought bitterly for the delimitation of their maritime borders[59] which was finally settled in 2009 at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Hague, a decision Russia may not feel bound by.[60] When Russia took over Crimea, it also took control of most of Ukraine’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Black Sea and Russian separatists have (so far) unsuccessfully tried to gain control over Odessa.[61] A renewed Russian offensive against Ukraine, may add Odessa and Ukrainian Bessarabia to its list of conquests.

Current Black Sea naval developments: legacy issues and NATO challenges

After the partition of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, Russia (as successor) had 40 ships, with an average age of 25 years.[62] The vast majority of the fleet’s vessels had been built during the Soviet era, very few ships being commissioned after 1990.[63] The naval base in Sevastopol harbored some of the oldest commissioned ships in the Black Sea Fleet, the average naval combatant being built over 32 years ago.[64] Given the fact that the average useful life span of a naval vessel is around 30 to 35 years, the vessels in the Black Sea Fleet are fast approaching their decommissioning date. Nevertheless, the Russian Navy managed to maintain operational most of its ships in the Black Sea, and upgraded them with the latest weapons and electronic systems it could develop, as these became available.

Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the economic disaster that followed in its wake, Russia managed to maintain a comparative military advantage in naval and airspace defense, anti-access and area denial weapons. The ships of the Black Sea Fleet are on average equipped with faster and longer ranged anti-ship missiles than their NATO counterparts in the region. Moreover, the air defense systems on the Slava class guided missile cruiser Moskva (the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet), are on par, if not better (at least on paper) than some of the equivalent systems present on naval vessels belonging to NATO. Please, see Table 1 and 2 below for comparison.

Table 1: Russian anti-ship missiles present in the Black Sea
Russian anti-ship missiles NATO designation Range Speed
P-15 M Termit /4K40 SS-N-2 C/D Styx 40-80 km Mach 0.8
P-120 Malakhit / 4K85 SS-N-9 Siren 120-160 km Mach 0.9
Kh-35 Uran SS-N-25 Switchblade 130 km Mach 0.8
P-270 Moskit / 3M80 SS-N-22 Sunburn 120 km Mach 3
P-800 Onyks / 3M55 SS-N-26 Strobile 120-300 km Mach 2-2.5
3M54 Kalibr SS-N-27 Sizzler 300 km Mach 0.8-2.5-2.9
P-500 Bazalt / 4K80 SS-N-12 Sandbox 550 km Mach 2.5
Table 2: NATO anti-ship missiles present in the Black Sea
NATO anti-ship missiles Range Speed
Boeing RGM/AGM/UGM-84 Harpoon 124 km Mach 0.8
MM-38 Exocet 42 km Mach 0.8
Kongsberg Penguin Mk2 Mod7 34+ km Mach 1.2
SS-N-2 C/D Styx 40-80 km Mach 0.8

NOTE: These tables list the anti-ship missiles operational with NATO and Russia in the Black Sea. Only missiles that are known to be in operational service are listed. Some of the missile listed can be launched from land based launchers, aircraft and submarines, not only naval vessels. NATO members like Bulgaria and Romania still employ Soviet/Russian made missile system because of their past membership in the Warsaw Pact. Some, but not all of the Russian anti-ship missiles are nuclear capable. The range of the missiles is given in kilometers and their speed is represented by the Mach number achieved during flight. Missile technical details are taken from the Federation of American Scientists Missile Index available at


After Crimea’s annexation, Russia embarked on a program of shoring up its military presence in the Black Sea in order to deter NATO’s military reaction to the crisis.

The Russian military deployed S-300PMU Favorit anti-aircraft missile systems[65] in order to offset NATO’s advantage in air power and Bastion-P land based anti-ship missile systems which employ the highly sophisticated P-800 Onyks missiles to deter NATO naval power.[66] Moreover, in late November 2014, Moscow deployed 10 Sukhoi Su-27SM strike fighters and 4 Sukhoi Su-30 long range interceptors at Belbek Air Base in Crimea.[67] The strength of Russian air power is set to grow in Crimea, as it is no longer hindered by the basing agreements with Ukraine. By 2016, the 22 Sukhoi Su-24M/MR Fencer strike fighters at Gvardeyskoye Air Base are going to be reinforced with 10 Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers that will extend the reach of the Russian Naval Aviation as far as the Mediterranean.[68] Tupolev Tu-142 strategic bombers, Iliushin Il-38 antisubmarine aircraft and Kamov Ka-27 and Ka-29 helicopters will also be deployed in Crimea in the near future.[69]

The increase in Russian air power based in Crimea will add pressure on NATO’s eastern flank. Romania’s and Bulgaria’s air forces are inadequately equipped to secure NATO’s air space.[70] Thus, much of the pressure of increased Russian aviation activity in the Black Sea will fall on the Turkish Air Force and other NATO members willing to contribute. (as was the case in May 2014, when 6 CF-18 of the Royal Canadian Air Force were deployed to Romania in order to bolster the NATO air defenses on the eastern flank.[71])

The 2008 economic crisis had a crippling effect on the defense budgets of both Romania and Bulgaria and the plans to modernize their air forces with multirole fighters had to be postponed. Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev has speculated that Russia is using flights close to NATO’s air space in the Black Sea to put pressure on the smaller and less technically advanced air forces of Romania and Bulgaria in order to diminish their capabilities through operational attrition.[72]

Russian defense officials have big plans for the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to add 80 new ships by 2020, according to Admiral Alexander Vitko: “Eighty ships and other vessels are expected to arrive (in Novorossiysk) before 2020. The Black Sea Fleet will have 206 ships and vessels by 2020.”[73] Such a large deployment was justified by Admiral Vitko by the fear that NATO intends to build a naval base in the Black Sea and as a response to increased allied naval presence: “NATO ships are constantly present in the Black Sea and it plans to establish a naval base in the Black Sea.[74] Considering the economic situation Russia is facing currently, those plans may be overly ambitious.[75] Furthermore, Russian naval shipbuilding has been slow to cater to the need of Russian Navy, with ships and submarines taking as much as 10 years to be completed.

Nevertheless, in the short to medium term, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is set to receive 6 new Admiral Grigorovich (Project 11365M) and 6 new Vershavyanka Class submarines (Improved Killo Class / Project 636.3).[76] The 6 new multirole frigates can launch 8 Kalibr supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and the 6 new submarines can employ torpedoes, anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles as well as mines.[77]

A large unknown in Russia’s plans for the Black Sea Fleet are the French built Mistral class helicopter landing ships. The two ships have been ordered in 2010[78] amid consternation among France’s NATO allies. The commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Alexander Vitko stated in May 2013 that a Mistral class ship may be deployed to the Black Sea:

A major development program for the Black Sea Fleet is being planned. There are very serious prospects, which are primarily linked with the fleet’s modernization, deliveries of new samples of weapons and infrastructure development. In the near future we are expecting the arrival of six advanced frigates of Project 11356, which are now being built for us in Kaliningrad, and six submarines. Evidently, a Mistral-class assault ship will be among them.[79]

The presence of such a ship in the Black Sea risks altering the naval balance in Russia’s favor even further. Protected by the aircraft based in the Crimean Peninsula and with an escort group provided by the surface combatants of the Black Sea Fleet, a Mistral class helicopter landing ship can project power virtually unopposed in the region and operate as far as the Mediterranean Sea. However, after intense diplomatic pressures from the United States and other NATO allies[80], France withheld the delivery of the first ship in September 2014[81], and later last year, Paris announced that no ship shall be delivered until the ceasefire (respected by all sides involved in the Ukrainian conflict) is fully observed.[82] The commissioning and the deployment of the Mistral LHDs remains an open question.

Table 3: Comparison of naval assets of the Black Sea states
Countries Submarines (SSK) Cruisers (CG) Destroyers (DDG) Frigates (FFG) Corvettes (K) Fast Attack Crafts Landing ships
Russia 2+1 to be delivered[83] 1 1 2 11 6 7
Turkey 14 0 0 16 8 23 4
Romania 1 (laid up) 0 0 3 4 3 0
Bulgaria 0 0 0 3 3 1 1
Ukraine 0 0 0 1 2 1 1

NOTE: Only ships known to be operational or very close to be commissioned have been taken into consideration. Combatants with a displacement smaller than 500 tons have been excluded. Mine warfare ships, mine hunters, mine sweepers as well naval auxiliaries have been excluded. Coast Guard and Border Guard assets have been also excluded. Georgia’s naval potential has not been considered because its navy has been disbanded and merged with the Coast Guard. Romania’s 7 riverine combatants have not been taken into consideration for comparison purposes as they displace less than 500 tons each. This comparative table was created using data from open government sources and the Global Security website (


Until Crimea, Turkey was considered the foremost naval power in the Black Sea region. The control of the Straits and the 1936 Montreaux Convention (which severely limits the access of outside powers in the Black Sea) ensured the military status quo with Russia. With a fleet of relatively new 14 submarines and 16 guided missile frigates and control of the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, Turkey was more than capable to deal with any challenge posed by Russia. Furthermore, Turkey with its vibrant ship building industry embarked on an ambitious program to build and design its own frigates and corvettes. Turkish shipyards will license and build the latest German designed submarines, the Type U-214, 6 of which have been ordered.[84] But, after the Ukrainian crisis, the tide has shifted in Russia’s favor. Now, the Turkish Navy has to deal not only with safeguarding Ankara’s interests in the Black Sea, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey and Greece have a longstanding territorial dispute.

Romania and Bulgaria

Romania and Bulgaria, the other NATO members in the Black Sea have small navies. Most of Bulgarian and Romanian ships are either of Soviet origin or of Soviet inspired design. When both countries joined NATO in 2004, they bought used British and Belgian frigates to make up for their weakness and to insure a minimal level of interoperability with the Alliance. However, no surface combatant or submarine has been acquired by both countries in the past decade. Romania planned to update its navy by 2015 with 4 multirole corvettes, 4 mine hunters and to upgrade the two Type 22 frigates acquired from the UK back in 2003.[85] Nothing came of these plans as Romania was forced to cut back on its defense spending in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Bulgaria planned to acquire two Gowind corvettes from France, however the acquisition was cancelled in 2009 as a result of economic troubles.[86]

Faced with the Russian challenge to the status quo in the region, Romania and Bulgaria are beefing up their militaries. Romania, in the process of acquiring a squadron of F-16 AM/BM from Portugal[87], will start upgrading in 2015 one of its Type 22 frigate[88] and may refurbish its only submarine which has been laid up for two decades for lack of funds.[89] After updating its two British built, Romania may order a light frigate or a heavy corvette in order to replace its ageing and lone Mărășesti class frigate, built in the 1980s according to rear-admiral Alexandru Mîrșu, the commander of the Romanian Navy.[90]

Bulgaria is planning to acquire new multipurpose fighter jets (since currently all Bulgarian Air Force fighter jets are Russian: MiG-21, MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-25), a new submarine and new surface ships for its small navy by 2020. In August 2014 Sofia has pledged USD 680 million to the modernization of its armed forces.[91]

Georgia and Ukraine

Russia’s position in the Black Sea is further bolstered by the weakness of the other countries in the region. The 2008 war with Georgia and the seizure of the Ukrainian ships in the Crimea effectively neutralized the naval strength of both Tbilisi and Kiev, which wasn’t great to begin with. In 1997, when the partition of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was settled, Russia got the lion’s share of the naval assets – over 80% of the fleet reverting to Kremlin’s control, while a little over 18% going to Ukraine.[92] Some of the ships received were unfinished and Ukraine could not afford to commission them in its nascent navy. Such was the case of the unfinished aircraft carrier Varyag which was sold to China in 1998 and became in 2011 Liaoning, the first Chinese carrier. Another example is the Slava class guided missile cruiser Ukrayina which was never completed. Ukraine planned to build a class of multirole corvettes to bolster its naval power, but due to the economic crisis and the civil war these plans came to naught.[93]


Meanwhile, NATO and the U.S. have dramatically increased their presence in the Black Sea. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, U.S. and NATO ships have sortied into the Black Sea 24 times.[94] American, French, Canadian, Spanish, Polish, Italian and British vessels have entered the Black Sea[95] to shore up the eastern flank. These ships patrolled the Black Sea and engaged in exercises with Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian navies as well as with Georgia’s coast guard in an effort to build up their strength and as a demonstration of NATO solidarity. The largest contribution to this political and military effort in the Black Sea came from the U.S. Navy which sent in 2014 two guided missile cruisers, three destroyers, a frigate and a command ship.[96]

The Russian response to increased NATO naval patrols in the Black Sea has come in the form of diplomatic protests concerning the observance of the Montreaux Convention[97] and military harassment. In April 2014, the American destroyer USS Donald Cook was “buzzed” (i.e. overflown) by a Sukhoi Su-24 strike fighter, in defiance of the agreed rules of conduct concerning military encounters between Russian and American assets.[98] A similar incident occurred in September 2014, when a Canadian frigate HMCS Toronto was “buzzed” by no less than three Russian aircraft while on patrol in the Black Sea.[99]

Instead of a conclusion

The Ukrainian crisis has called into question the stability of the Black Sea region in a manner not seen since World War II. On one hand, unhindered by Ukrainian sovereignty, Moscow is now free to modernize its naval and air forces based in Crimea with the aim of creating a strategic bastion[100] that will deter the U.S. and NATO from projecting power in its near abroad. On the other hand, NATO’s ability to deter Russia and project naval power in the Black Sea region is hampered by the Montreaux Convention as well as by the uneven military capabilities possessed by its members in the Black Sea region (with Russia benefitting from the military weakness of Romania and Bulgaria). Under the protection of its maritime anti-access capabilities, Russia will be able to project power effectively in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and even the Indian Ocean, provided all of its naval and military modernization plans are carried out. But, if Russia seeks to bring under its control more of Ukraine’s territory, there will be an increased likelihood of territorial disputes over maritime borders. The 2015 security outlook for the Black Sea region raises serious questions concerning the stability of the region in the near and medium term. At the moment, the region is the theater of open warfare between two neighboring states and of political confrontation between great powers. The nature of confrontation is both conventional as well as asymmetrical, with military and diplomatic tensions, strategic rivalries and territorial disputes undermining the economic potential of the Black Sea region – a potential that cannot be developed without the benefit afforded by peace and security.


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