Challenges of Balancing Russia in the Black Sea – The Bulgarian debacle

Challenges of Balancing Russia in the Black Sea – The Bulgarian debacle

George Visan

Research Associate at ROEC

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George Visan

Bucharest, Romania

by George Visan, June 23, 2016

The threat

By end of 2016 Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will have deployed 3 Admiral Grigorovich guided missile frigates, 6 Kilo class submarines, and at least 2 Buyan-M guided missile corvettes. All of these surface combatants and sub-surface combatants can employ long range cruise missiles and/or supersonic anti-ship missiles. Recently, Russia has started building a new class of missile corvette at the Feodosia shipyard in Crimea. This particular development shows that Moscow plans to develop the peninsula to be more than a mere base – it will be its main geopolitical fulcrum that can effectively interdict NATO’s access to the Black Sea region through the use of A2/AD assets deployed in Crimea.

Building missile corvettes may not seem much – these ships are usually used for patrol duties inside a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – but in the future it can lead to the building of larger surface combatants (frigates, destroyers), provided that Russia develops the naval building capacity and infrastructure in Crimea. The value of these corvettes should not be discounted – in 2015 Russia’s Caspian Flotilla demonstrated the firepower of its small ships by launching 26 cruise missiles from them against targets in Syria. Russia has shown its ability to integrate on such small platforms a long range precision guided weapon system that is usually deployed on frigates and destroyers. This represents a competitive advantage against western navies which integrate cruise missile on far larger combatants, like frigates, destroyers and cruisers.

Russia is likely to use the combination of small naval combatants equipped with long range cruise missiles for sea control missions in the Black Sea and, the A2/AD means deployed in Crimea as a leverage against NATO members in the region: Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. Small ships like the Buyan-M class can operate with impunity against targets around the Black Sea under the cover of long range air defense systems, land based supersonic anti-ship missiles and air power from Crimea’s basis. Cruise missiles represent the perfect tool to counter the American missile defense system deployed in Romania, which is considered by Russia a threat to its strategic arsenal.

The Romanian response

In many ways, the state of the Romanian Navy is similar to that of the Russian Black Sea Fleet before February 2014: it is mostly made up of old ships, designed and commissioned during the Cold War, and which are now close to their decommissioning date. Romania hasn’t acquired new warships since 2003, when it bought two retired Type 22 frigates from Great Britain.

After becoming a NATO member in 2004, Romania had put forward plans to commission new ships for its navy. Four multirole corvettes and four minehunters should have been commissioned by 2015. However, the 2008-2014 economic crisis played havoc with these plans. Even the modernization of the Type 22 frigates had to be postponed on multiple occasions due to budget cuts and only in 2016 was this process finally started.  In effect, Romania has taken a naval holiday since 2003 despite the fact that it controls the mouths of the Danube, the best deep water port in the Black Sea – Constanța, and would like to develop offshore deep water energy resources.

Faced with the Russian threat in the Black Sea, Romania’s response lacks coherence. On one hand, Romanian policy makers have put forward ambitious plans concerning the security of the region while, on the other, they lack the means to make them credible.

A case in point is the recent Romanian initiative to create a “NATO Black Sea Fleet” to balance the Russian military buildup in Crimea. Details about Bucharest’s initiative are scant, but it seems to be similar to the now defunct Blackseafor. The only differences between Blackseafor and this new initiative are that it excludes Russia and is likely to include other NATO members from outside the region, on a rotational basis. However, the 1936 Montreaux Convention limits the number, type and the time naval ships outside the region can spend in the Black Sea – thus preventing the development of a NATO mission similar to Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean Sea.

The initiative is supported by Turkey and Ukraine, but not Bulgaria. Details are still murky, but when president Klaus Iohannis recently visited Bulgaria and presented Romania’s initiative to his Bulgarian counterpart, Rosen Plevneliev and to prime-minister Boyko Borisov, he was met with a mixed response. On the one hand, president Plevneliev seemed to have agreed with the Romanian initiative, while on the other hand, premier Borisov rejected it out of hand: “This is an attempt at involving Bulgaria in another conflict. Nothing requires that additional troops should be deployed to the region. I don’t need a war in the Black Sea.

The reasons for this diplomatic failure are unknown. First, we do not know the exact details of Romania’s proposition, therefore it is impossible to evaluate and identify the points that Bulgaria found objectionable. Second, it appears that Bucharest overestimated the cohesion of Sofia’s executive branch in assessing the Russian threat. And third, Boyko Borisov may have taken heed of Russia’s warning that the Black Sea will not become a “NATO lake”.

Even if Romania’s plans had not been rejected by Bulgaria, there were some glaring challenges to be overcome.

First, of the three NATO member states, only Turkey possesses a capable navy in the Black Sea. Romania’s and Bulgaria’s navies are small and less capable. The same is true for Ukraine and Georgia, the other regional actors that could have contributed to Romania’s initiative. Ukraine’s navy is recovering from the takeover of Crimea, while Georgia doesn’t have a naval service, only a coastguard. Therefore, Romania’s initiative was dependent mainly on Turkey and other NATO allies outside the Black Sea region to provide ships to buttress this effort – in effect Bucharest was borrowing forces from its allies.

Second, Romania underestimated Russia’s diplomatic abilities and influence in region. Sofia’s last minute rebuttal of Bucharest’s plans testifies to that. It further shows that the southern tip of NATO’s eastern flank is much more vulnerable than its northern tip – Poland and the Baltic States.

Searching for an adequate response

Yet, all may not be lost. Romania and Turkey will probably deepen their cooperation in the Black Sea. Bulgaria could also be convinced to change its mind concerning NATO’s naval posture in the region. Romania’s diplomatic efforts should concentrate on forging a regional response to the Russian threat. The Bulgarian debacle shows how important regional diplomacy is in this complicated security environment.

In the short run, the lack of a strong naval presence on NATO’s South Eastern flank can be compensated to some degree through airpower. NATO maritime patrol aircraft could watch over Russia’s increasing naval presence, keeping tabs on its submarines and gathering intelligence on its surface combatants. Airpower in the Black Sea is not limited or regulated by any diplomatic convention and it is also less conspicuous than ships or ground forces. Romania and Turkey could be the host nations for maritime patrol aircraft deployments in the region. NATO fighter aircraft will be needed to support these deployments, especially since Russia has deployed long range antiaircraft systems and multirole fighters in Crimea.

Romania could develop integrated antiaircraft and missile defense systems to fend off the threat of Russia’s cruise missiles. Furthermore, in cooperation with other members of the Alliance, plans should be developed in order to erode or offset the Kremlin’s competitive advantage in strategic air-defense systems.

A2/AD should not be the sole province of the Russian military on the eastern flank. Russian ships are just as vulnerable as NATO’s ships when it comes to anti-ship missiles. For example, Romania has expressed interest in acquiring land based anti-ship missile to improve its coastal defense.

A key factor in balancing the Russian threat in the Black Sea is the modernization of the Romanian navy. This is going to be a long and drawn out process, yet it will be crucial for promoting Romania’s interests and for the security of the region. Careful consideration should be given to the type of missions the navy is expected to perform and what kind of vessels are required for that mission. Romania is expected to acquire 4 multirole corvettes in the near future, probably sometime between 2018 and 2022. Given Russia’s growing naval posture in the Black Sea, the number of ships should be revised and the capabilities of these vessels reviewed.

Unfortunately, Romania has failed to grasp the full extent of the Russian threat in the Black Sea in the past two years and its response has been incoherent. Bucharest has moved too slowly and in the wrong direction over the past two years. Two important facts should have been obvious for the Romanian decision-makers: first, you can’t have a naval policy without ships and, second, effective regional diplomacy is crucial for the success of regional projects. These lessons need to be internalized fast by the Romanian national security establishment.

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