When Russia attacked Ukraine, the closest warship to a major NATO ally was in the Mediterranean. The last such ship from a major naval member of the Western military alliance has left the Black Sea – an area roughly the size of California bordering Russia, Ukraine and NATO members, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania – over a month ago.
A French warship completed a tour in early January and no major NATO naval ally has patrolled its waters since, according to Turkish maritime website Turkishnavy.net, which tracks the movements of foreign warships. Meanwhile, 16 ships from Russian naval fleets, including missile and tank-capable ships, had sailed in the Black Sea, according to Turkishnavy.net and Russian Defense Ministry statements.
As NATO scrambles to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major exposed flank is the Black Sea. Despite a declared desire to deter Russia, the alliance has failed to prevent it from establishing a presence in the region.
One main reason: divisions among members over whether to challenge the Russian Navy in the region, leading to a lack of a coherent and meaningful NATO strategy for the Black Sea, according to Reuters interviews with diplomats, intelligence officials and security sources from NATO members as well as military strategists, retired military commanders and shipping industry officials.
This includes the reluctance of some NATO members, notably Turkey, to agree to maritime patrols to avoid provoking Moscow, they said. Other factors are budget constraints and the existence of other priorities among some major NATO allies, they added.
The Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, which provides both military and economic leverage over Kiev, was disrupting Ukraine’s maritime trade even before the invasion. Ukrainian ports have seen traffic fall sharply in recent weeks, according to commercial vessel data reviewed by Reuters. After Thursday’s attack, Ukraine suspended operations at its seaports.
“It’s like a boa constrictor around Ukraine’s neck, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing,” said retired US Admiral James Foggo, who commanded the US and NATO fleets in Europe for nearly a decade to 2020. “NATO needs a maritime strategy”.
Ukraine is not a NATO ally and the alliance is not bound by a treaty to protect it.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the assault on Ukraine included Russian naval forces as well as air and ground forces. Speaking to the media, he said NATO had more than 120 allied ships “from the far north to the Mediterranean” and more than 100 jet aircraft on high alert.
NATO did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article. He has previously denied neglecting the Black Sea. Earlier this month, Stoltenberg said Black Sea security was of “vital strategic importance” to the alliance. Three of NATO’s members and two close partners, including Ukraine, have coastal borders.
NATO focused on ground boots. It plans to deploy ground combat units totaling around 4,000 troops to the Black Sea countries of Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Hungary and Slovakia, which border Ukraine. In addition, the United States is sending nearly 3,000 additional troops to neighboring countries of Ukraine, Poland and Romania.
Prior to Thursday’s invasion, Russia had amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, including in the Black Sea region, the United States said.
Russia, which has demanded an end to NATO’s eastward expansion, launched airstrikes on Ukrainian towns while advancing troops and tanks early Thursday. Putin said he authorized military action to defend against what he said were threats emanating from Ukraine, a democratic state of 44 million people.
Moscow, which says NATO should stay out of waters it claims as its own, had said the recently arrived ships were part of a pre-planned movement of military resources. Russia has long complained about what it calls a dangerous increase in military activity by the United States and its allies in the Black Sea — activities that NATO says are purely defensive.
NATO’s naval response to Russia also has implications for the West’s ability to assert its interests elsewhere, such as in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims sovereignty.
“If, with the whole world watching, we can’t deter the Kremlin, I don’t think the Chinese will be terribly impressed by anything we say about Taiwan or the South China Sea,” the general said. retired American Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army. forces in Europe from 2014 to 2017 and who met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev at the beginning of February.
The warmer waters of the Black Sea, unlike the Arctic, have been essential for Russia since at least the 17th century. “Going back to Peter the Great, Russia has always been concerned as a land power about its lack of maritime access, especially year-round ice-free access,” the British vice admiral told the Duncan Potts retired.
Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 allowed it to begin what a Western intelligence official described as the “creeping militarization” of the Black Sea. Russia has taken over or sunk many Ukrainian Navy ships stationed in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.
Russia’s military presence in Crimea and the modernization in recent years of Russia’s main naval fleets have “twisted the military balance in the Black Sea region in its favor”, said analyst Stephen Flanagan of the RAND think tank. Corporation in the United States.
Moscow currently has 18 major warships in the Black Sea, Flanagan said, giving it “tremendous strength to carry out various operations against Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, the presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea fluctuated. According to Turkishnavy.net, US naval forces spent around 180 days in the Black Sea last year, up from less than 60 days in 2016 but over 200 days in 2014. Non-littoral NATO allies deployed 31 vessels in the region in 2014. , which fell to 14 in 2016 before rising to 31 last year, according to an independent database run by a Ukrainian think tank, the Institute of Studies Monitoring Group Black Sea Strategy and BlackSeaNews.
The last major Allied destroyer, the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke, left the Black Sea in December, according to a US Navy statement. Britain’s Royal Navy has not visited the Black Sea since last summer, according to Turkishnavy.net.
Turkey, a NATO member, has a navy that operates in the Black Sea region. Other NATO allies – including the United States and France – currently have navy ships in the Mediterranean.
Ukraine relies heavily on its coastline for trade, with more than half of the country’s exports and imports traveling by sea. The Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine’s busiest port and largest oil and gas terminal, was the target of missile attacks on Thursday, regional authorities in the Odessa region said, in southern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military on Thursday suspended commercial shipping through its ports after Russian forces invaded the country, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff said.
Even before Thursday’s attack, companies were increasingly reluctant to send ships to the region due to the increased Russian naval presence, the three maritime industry officials and another said. This added to existing trade disruptions caused by global supply chain issues, which reduced the number of available vessels ready to sail in the region.
Maritime traffic had recently plummeted. The number of container ship arrivals at Ukrainian ports this month through February 20 fell to 25 visits, down sharply from 48 visits in January, according to data from tracking provider and MarineTraffic vessel intelligence, based in Greece.
Odessa had also seen the capacity of ships entering the port more than halved. For the first three weeks of February, it was 46,357 20ft container units, compared to 82,091 in January and 97,027 in December 2021, according to data from the US-headquartered Logistics Platform Project44 .
The “tied hand” of NATO
Some diplomats say that NATO should have already established a maritime patrol mission in the Black Sea.
The lack of such a presence despite regular visits by US warships has allowed Russia to declare large areas near the Romanian and Bulgarian coast off limits for months while Moscow conducts military maritime exercises, a senior official says. Western military.
NATO relies heavily on help from member Turkey; the other members of the alliance bordering the Black Sea – Bulgaria and Romania – have limited navies.
Under the Montreux International Convention of 1936, Turkey controls the passage of ships between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Ships from non-coastal states such as Britain and France can only stay for 21 days at a time. France organizes about three naval exercises in the Black Sea each year.
But Turkey must balance Ankara’s strong diplomatic ties with Moscow and its obligations as a NATO ally. Recent informal NATO talks with Ankara over a possible maritime policing mission have come to nothing, according to two Turkish government security sources and a NATO ambassador.
“We are assessing the situation to prepare for each situation,” Turkey’s Defense Ministry told Reuters on February 10. NATO has previously declined to comment directly on the possibility of a police mission in the Black Sea.
“NATO has one hand tied behind its back,” Paul Taylor, Europe analyst at the Friends of Europe think tank, referring to Turkey’s reluctance to impose more control over the Black Sea.
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