A de facto partition of the Eastern Flank

A de facto partition of the Eastern Flank

Octavian Manea

Research Associate at ROEC

View Profile

Octavian Manea

Bucharest, Romania


Rapid Reaction by Octavian Manea, July 12, 2016


The latest NATO summit imposed a new strategic reality. If in the early 2000s, it was fashionable to talk about New and Old Europe, after Warsaw the foundational split has shifted: the North and South of NATO’s Eastern Flank are now in different solidarity leagues.

NATO’s North Eastern Flank

Warsaw highlights a big, maybe uncomfortable, truth: the center of gravity of the NATO summit was the Northern part of the Eastern Flank. 4 multinational battalions – coordinated by Germany, United Kingdom, Canada and United States as framework nations – are going to be deployed in the Baltic States and Poland. Under the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) announced by President Obama earlier this year, 1,000 American troops will be stationed in Poland. There is pressure on them to be deployed in the most sensitive part of Polish territory to protect the famous “Suwalki Gap” – the territorial strip between Kaliningrad and Belarus – perceived as the NATO gateway for land access to the Baltic ecosystem. Last fall, while in Washington, the President of Estonia warned the Alliance: “there is a Suwalki Gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad. It separates Poland from the Baltic States. If you want to deny area-access to the three Baltic States, I would pay a lot of attention to this Suwalki gap. If I would want to do something, I would be very interested in the Suwalki gap.

In addition, Poland will host also the HQ elements of the new U.S. armored brigade (around 4,000 troops) with units to be rotated on the Eastern Flank, including in Romania. Overall the emphasis was on battle groups and deterrence. NATO displayed a lot more understanding to correct the “original sin” of the 1990s, when the first enlargement of the Alliance left the East vulnerable.

NATO’s South Eastern Flank

In contrast, the Southern picture is, alarmingly, much more modest. While in the North, the Alliance sends a message of solidarity, the Black Sea region expresses fragmentation and seems a space whose time has not yet come. Some commitments were elicited from Bulgaria and Poland to participate in populating a multinational brigade under the command of Romania, which made President Iohannis conclude that we are facing a “sensational” achievement.

But, in general, the point should have been to incentivize the commitment and the presence of Old Europe, not just to fill the regional void with the Southern neighbor, the same one who has undermined the famous maritime initiative. Is this the snapshot of a “balanced” architecture between North (tangible deterrence measures) and South (where the emphasis remains on trainings and exercises)? And what message does this posturing send to Moscow regarding a region which after 2008 became the operational theater of its revisionist impulses? One thing is very clear. The outcome is very far from an adequate “robust defense and deterrence posture at the shores of the Black Sea” as Romania wanted before Warsaw. Far from it.

As to the initiative that consumed all the time and creativity of Bucharest, that of developing an incremental naval framework in the Black Sea, the conclusion is clear: “there is no common position between allies yet“. In other words, there is no common threat perception. In the press briefing dedicated to the most important summit decisions, President Iohannis highlighted that the Alliance has approved a political-military assessment “of the security situation in the Black Sea region and its implications for NATO.” But, any concrete decision regarding the options to strengthen the sea and air presence were postponed for the October Ministerial when Bucharest hopes to bring the allies on the same page through the development of an “operational concept to make the Black Sea safer.

How realistic is such an expectation? Until October, we might see a massive realignment in favor of those who want “detente” and “rapprochement” by any means. Already, there are countries that believe that the Alliance has gone too far in terms of reassurance and deterrence measures. Indicative of this trend is President Hollande’s reaction who wanted to clarify upfront in Warsaw that for France, Russia is not an enemy or a threat, but a “partner”. Furthermore, a defense minister from the East has told the Financial Times that the French were the most obstructionist towards the “whole reinforcement process, trying to dilute all aspects of it.” In addition, the dinner of the NATO Heads of State and Government hosted by the Polish President exposed a vigorous Greek prime minister who advocated the idea that it is time to end confrontation with Moscow.

It remains to be seen what the fall will bring for Romania’s project that aimed for “more NATO” in the Black Sea and if that will meet the expectations to deliver “the kind of forward presence across all operational domains we need”, as Romanian Defense Minister Mihnea Motoc hoped that Warsaw will provide. Romania’s purpose is to “safeguard freedom of navigation” in the context of an intensive Crimean military build-up that evolved in a fully mature anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bastion. This diagnosis is embraced in the pages of the newly released Military Strategy of Romania where it is emphasized that although a Russian military aggression in Europe is a low probability, yet the existing capacity for such an aggression, bolstered by the A2/AD build-up in the Black Sea, constitutes the main threat to Romania’s national security and that of other states in the regional ecosystem. This is the very rationale for increasing NATO presence in the Black Sea through measures of counterbalancing the growing A2/AD bubble. From this perspective, Warsaw clearly remains a bridge too far and, chances are, it will remain that way. In the end, a discussion about effective countering of the regional access-denial bubble is ultimately about real capabilities, a networked posture of air-maritime-land capabilities able to deter or neutralize them.


Wider Black Sea could rapidly become a sample of regional A2/AD probing

While the whole attention is focused on the Nordic part of the Eastern Flank, the wider Black Sea area could rapidly become a sample of regional A2/AD probing. Over the past two years, the Russian fleet in the Black Sea has been significantly bolstered. And, from an access-denial perspective, the Russian systems in Crimea have created a new Kaliningrad “of the South”. If China is building “a great wall of sand” in its contested near seas, Russia is thoroughly developing a virtual A2/AD archipelago along NATO’s Eastern Frontier with an expansive Southern leg in Syria affecting the Eastern Mediterranean.[1]

Zooming out, the access-denial variable is starting to establish itself as a common denominator that should bring together Baltic and Black Seas’ ecosystems and provide the ingredients that could advance a comprehensive NATO strategy to counterbalance the new developments. Zooming in, it should trigger new intra-regional balancing alignments: “the Baltic Sea framework could very well be a model for the Black Sea. (…) the need to align capabilities together on a regional level and find a way for the U.S. to bring in high-end capabilities is very relevant”, as Magnus Nordenman, director of Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council emphasized. With each passing day, this becomes less attainable with a Turkey that becomes more Eurasian than euro-Atlantic.


A shorter version of this article was published in “22” weekly:


[1] Sinan Ülgen and Can Kasapoğlu, A Threat-based Strategy for NATO’s Suthern Flank, Carnegie Europe, June 10th, 2016, http://carnegieeurope.eu/2016/06/10/threat-based-strategy-for-nato-s-southern-flank/j1oz

Back to Top