The Naval Power Shift in the Black Sea
Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of a special series in collaboration with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Black Sea’s Back.”
Russian maritime dominance in the Black Sea is back. The shift was made possible by Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and subsequent buildup of combat and maritime law enforcement capabilities in the region. The Nov. 25 seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels off the coast of Crimea has underlined this return, which is one of the most important changes in the region’s maritime security relationships in the last decade. The operation was carried out by coast guard vessels under the Federal Security Service, while Su-25 fighters and Ka-52 combat helicopters from Crimea provided a showy enforcement of the blockade of the Kerch Strait leading into the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian sailors remain detained in Moscow, and Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, has vowed that Ukrainian ships will return to the Kerch Strait.
This shift in the Black Sea has been clear for some time. After observing a series of naval exercises conducted by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in September 2016, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, announced that “Several years ago the Russian [Black Sea] fleet’s combat capabilities were in stark contrast with that of the Turkish Navy. Some even said that Turkey was in full command of the Black Sea. Now it’s different.” Different indeed. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Black Sea Fleet suffered through over two decades of steep decline, operating only a very small handful of aging vessels that spent nearly all of their time tied up to rented piers at Sevastopol in Crimea. In 2015, after six years of thoroughgoing military reform followed by the seizure of Crimea, Moscow began placing new, advanced surface combatants and submarines in the Black Sea Fleet, alongside a massive shore-based buildup of air defense and coastal defense cruise missiles. A more capable and confident fleet then steamed into the Mediterranean to support Russia’s successful intervention to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Three years later, in 2018, Russia still possesses the Black Sea region’s dominant maritime military. Moscow is using that force in an attempt to fulfill its strategic goal of, “reshap[ing] the geopolitical and geo-economic balance of the Black Sea region” in its favor.
Official state documents emphasize the centrality of developing the Black Sea’s strategic potential. Russia’s maritime doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015, notes:
In the Black and Azov Sea, the foundation of the National Maritime Policy is the accelerated modernization and comprehensive reinforcement of the strategic position of the Russian Federation, while maintaining peace and stability in the region.
Specifically, the doctrine emphasizes the improvement of naval capabilities through infrastructure development in Crimea and along the coast of Krasnodar. Additionally, Moscow’s Naval Fundamentals, published in 2017, emphasizes the improvement of the Black Sea Fleet’s combat capabilities by focusing in part on improving its ability to conduct joint operations with other military branches operating in Crimea.
Both efforts are proceeding apace. In November 2017, Gerasimov noted that Russia has established a “self-sufficient military formation” consisting of an air defense division, an aviation division, a naval base, and an army corps. While Russia still has a long way to go before achieving a fully integrated capacity to conduct joint warfare, its military has made great strides after its poor performance in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. In addition, Moscow has shifted some of its most advanced anti-air and anti-surface weapons to Crimea to reinforce its naval forces there. In the Black Sea region, this growing fusion of shore- and sea-based capabilities is the fulcrum upon which the maritime balance in the Black Sea has tipped in Russia’s favor.
The shore-based force in particular is the key to Russian military superiority in the region. The seizure of Crimea has allowed Russia to use long-range, land-based anti-air and anti-ship systems, such as its well-known S-400 SAM and Bastion-P coastal defense cruise missile system, to cover virtually all of the Black Sea. The S-400 missile system has medium- and long-range variants, and, with ranges up to 250 kilometers, it is one of the most lethal on the planet. Prior to the Nov. 25 Kerch Strait incident, there were four battalions of S-400s in Crimea. Moscow moved a fifth battalion to Dzhankoi after the incident, but this deployment had probably been planned since at least September. They are complimented by the S-300 SAM and Pantsir-S1 point defense system. Similarly, the P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, part of the Bastion-P system, has a range of up to 300 kilometers and travels at nearly mach 2.5, making it extraordinarily difficult to defeat with kinetic means. Further, the mobility of the transporter erector launchers and other equipment associated with these systems makes them highly survivable.
Weapons cannot shoot what they cannot target, however. An equally important military consequence of the seizure of Crimea is that Russian over-the-horizon sensor systems are able to cover nearly all of the Black Sea. When Russian surface-to-air missiles began streaming into Crimea in 2014 and 2015, air defense radars, including long-range early warning, target acquisition, and target engagement radars, began proliferating as well. “There are air defense systems on every cape here,” one Crimean villager told a Reuters reporter in 2016. Moscow also moved in the Monolit-B radar system, an active and passive search and targeting radar that provides coverage of nearly the entire Black Sea when it is positioned at Sevastopol. It has a passive detection range of some 450 kilometers and provides the Russian military with an excellent real-time picture of the positions of foreign surface vessels operating in the Black Sea.
Increased numbers of fixed-wing combat aircraft are also stationed at Belbek Airport near Sevastopol and elsewhere in Crimea. The first deployment of these aircraft took place in November 2014, when 14 Su-27SM and Su-30 fighters and fighter-bombers landed at the airfield. Russian combat aircraft are also stationed at Novofedorivka on Crimea’s west coast, as well as at Gvardeyskoye in central Crimea. These aircraft play an important power projection role in the region. They can carry more than twice the number of anti-surface weapons than a Bastion-P anti-ship missile launcher, and they allow Moscow to actively demonstrate against the U.S. presence in the Black Sea by conducting intercepts of reconnaissance aircraft and overflights of surface vessels. In the winter of 2015, for example, Russian fighters from Novofedorivka conducted mock attacks on U.S. ships in the Black Sea, and intercepts of American P-8 patrol aircraft over international waters have become common.
Notably, the potential for Russian electronic warfare in the Black Sea has also increased. In June 2016, a massive GPS spoofing event took place in the eastern Black Sea (in October and November 2018, Russia reportedly jammed GPS signals during NATO’s Operation Trident Juncture exercise in the Norwegian Sea). The U.S. Coast Guard reported that ships operating off the coast of Novorossiysk received GPS locations that were 25 nautical miles off, near the municipal airport. The incident has led some observers to conclude that Moscow was experimenting with electronic warfare measures to either spoof munitions that use GPS guidance or to confuse U.S. drone flights. In March 2017, Russia also began operating the brand new Murmansk BN system in Crimea, which is designed to collect electronic intelligence and jam high-frequency communications at long ranges. In 2015, Ukrainian observers also spotted the Krasukha-4 in Crimea, a ground-based jammer capable of fouling space-based, airborne, and ground radar readings at a range of some 300 kilometers.
This “counter-navy,” rather than the Black Sea Fleet naval forces themselves, is the backbone of the maritime challenge in the Black Sea basin. The combination of Crimea-based, active, and passive mobile, long-range, over-the-horizon radars allows for excellent air and surface situational awareness. The anti-air and anti-surface missile batteries are among the most advanced on Earth, and their mobility makes them extremely difficult to target and destroy. Because they are land-based, they can also operate on interior lines of communication and are more readily resupplied than are ships at sea. Further, the presence of several dozen tactical fixed-wing strike and fighter aircraft particularly augments Russia’s anti-surface firepower in the Black Sea. In short, compared to surface warships and submarines, these systems offer excellent detection capabilities, a comparatively similar amount of punch, and a higher degree of survivability for a fraction of the cost. On their own, they are a significant sea denial challenge, but when coupled with the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s recently improved capabilities, they tip the regional military balance firmly in Moscow’s favor. If Gerasimov was correct in 2016 that Turkey once had the region’s dominant navy, then that navy, even with U.S. help, would face a monumentally difficult task in taking on Russia in the Black Sea in 2018.
So What about the Black Sea Fleet?
Moscow’s objectives in the region are not merely limited to the Black Sea basin. While the Black Sea Fleet assists with the defense of southern maritime approaches to Russia, it also allows Moscow to use the Black Sea as a jumping off point into the eastern and central Mediterranean. From Moscow’s perspective, these activities enable its diplomacy and power projection into areas where Russia previously had limited influence, and they retard what Russia believes are U.S. and NATO efforts to destabilize its partners in places like Syria.
The fleet, with its so-called “Permanent Operational Formation” in the eastern Mediterranean, is the power projection lynchpin. The annexation of Crimea has allowed Russia to place increasing emphasis on fleet development as an instrument of regional power. What was once a Russian naval backwater is now the centerpiece of Russian power projection into the Mediterranean. Indeed, setting aside the nuclear deterrent mission carried out by the Northern and Pacific Fleets, the Black Sea Fleet has proven to be the most operationally and tactically successful of Russia’s four major fleets.
In the decades following the Soviet collapse, the Ukrainian government had stipulated that Russia could not base new ships at Sevastopol, and only one ship, the Moskva guided missile cruiser, was even capable of operating for extended periods of time. The annexation obviated that arrangement, and Russia has been moving quickly to rebuild the fleet, planning to add up to six new Adm. Grigorovich guided missile frigates, a handful of classes of missile corvettes, and six improved Kilo 636.3 submarines, all armed with the Kalibr family of anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. In the summer of 2018, the Russian navy also transferred five ships from the Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of Azov, raising fears that Moscow may use naval force to support the uprising in Donetsk or further restrict shipping to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.
In addition to basic power projection, the Black Sea Fleet has proven its ability to provide significant operational military benefits. Enabled in part by the fleet, expeditionary operations like that in Syria, once considered unthinkable, have been deftly executed. The Moskva, for example, provided air defense for Russian units in the early days of the Syrian operation. Most importantly, the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla have demonstrated Russia’s new proficiency with long-range land-attack cruise missiles, a capability that was once monopolized by the United States and which Russian military strategists place huge value on. While Russia can muster nowhere near the salvo size of cruise missile launches that the United States can (the U.S. military launched more cruise missiles in one strike in April 2018 than Russia has launched since it entered the conflict), it has nevertheless proven that it is proficient at long-range, high-precision, standoff warfare. This has been a military-technological goal for Moscow since at least 1991, when the first Gulf War showed that precision strikes could cripple a military’s ability to fight effectively.
Black Sea Rivalries
Russia’s resurgence in the Black Sea has not come without cost, however. One effect of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea was a significant extension of its 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea, and Russia now shares a de facto maritime border with NATO in the region. This left Moscow’s maritime neighbors in NATO uneasy. Despite lingering domestic challenges amid overt and covert Russian diplomatic and political measures, these countries are slowly beginning to respond in an attempt to even the balance.
Turkey, despite its rapprochement with Russia in the wake of the 2015 shootdown of a Russian Su-24 on its border with Syria, seeks to boost its naval presence in the Black Sea. While Moscow has seen some success in its efforts to create daylight between Ankara and NATO, Turkey has apparently not, at least officially, abandoned the goal of containing Russia in the region. Ankara maintains the largest navy among the Black Sea riparian states, and has declared its intention to pursue a sea control strategy in the case of a conflict. It is also in the process of modernizing its navy with newer frigates, fast patrol boats, and amphibious assault ships. What Turkey lacks, however, is a potent shore-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability, as well as a long-range strike capability similar to that in Crimea. Its navy will be increasingly torn between littoral security operations and competing with its rival on the north shore of Black Sea.
While Turkish rapprochement with Russia has raised concerns in NATO, Romania has begun improving its naval capabilities and tightening its alliance relationships. Bucharest’s navy is comparatively small and, with most of its platforms built in the 1970s and 1980s, is old. Its capabilities lag well behind Russia’s. Recognizing this, the Romanian government has announced plans to buy four new surface combatants and three submarines for operations in the Black Sea, and Defense Minister Mihai Fifor declared 2018 “dedicated to the Romanian Navy.” Bucharest also hopes to offset this weakness by deepening its relationship with NATO. Its navy’s participation in the Sea Breeze multinational exercise has markedly increased, and Bucharest has also agreed to host NATO’s newest regional headquarters, Multinational Division Southeast. Romania is also one of the few NATO nations, it should also be noted, to have committed to spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, though it did not hit that mark in 2017.
Bulgaria, long caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of NATO and Moscow, has also made moves toward a modest reinvestment in its navy. In April 2016, the government approved a $1.4 billion purchase program for new aircraft and naval vessels, including at least two modern, multi-functional corvettes and 16 fixed-wing tactical aircraft. Last year, Sofia also completed a modernization program for its fleet of (Russian-made) Mig-29 fighters. While the acquisition of less than a handful of new corvettes may not appear at first glance to be a major investment, their upgraded capabilities will allow the Bulgarian navy to forge closer ties with NATO navies through participation in a variety of NATO maritime exercises. Nevertheless, Bulgaria’s commitment to NATO is still less than Washington or Brussels would like it to be, as it has fallen far short of the 2 percent of GDP threshold for member nation defense spending.
The growth of Russian military force in the Black Sea has shifted regional naval dominance in Moscow’s favor. However, Russia’s seizure and re-militarization of Crimea has resulted in a reemerging security dilemma in Moscow vis-à-vis NATO nations in the Black Sea. Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, despite widespread overt and covert Russian influence campaigns, recognize that they require a modernized force to counter Moscow and are fitfully attempting to pull the balance closer to their favor. Nevertheless, in the short term, given the emplacement of Russia’s impressive “counter-naval” force in Crimea, regional navies will remain heavily dependent on their NATO allies, particularly the United States, for military assistance. Ukraine, meanwhile, is likely to have its subjugation continue.
Michael B. Petersen is the director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions presented here are his own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.