The Kremlin invaders, in particular, will demonstrate their militaristic power with a military parade, announced on May 9 in the cities of the Crimea, annexed by Russia. About 5 thousand servicemen, including sailors of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, and more than a hundred units of equipment are planned to be involved in the ceremonial marches. But will the world, which stood up in support of Ukraine in the waters of the Black Sea, get scared of Russian power?
Last year, on May 9, military parades and the action “Immortal Regiment” with the participation of schoolchildren and students took place in Simferopol, Sevastopol, and Kerch. This year schoolchildren from the Russian movement “Yunarmia” will be involved in such events. However, all this is the top of the iceberg of the peninsula’s militarization, and the iceberg itself is in the transformation of the Crimea into a military base in recent years, whose missiles pose a threat to Europe and parts of Asia. The Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation is being strengthened by ships, aircraft, and personnel.
On a rotational basis
NATO also does not sleep. While the occupiers are preparing for a holiday on a peninsula, seized five years ago, with the participation of young people and professional soldiers, the North Atlantic Alliance is gradually building up its power in the Black Sea. In early April, the frigates arrived in the port of Odesa: the Royal Canadian Navy’s “Toronto” and the Spanish Navy’s “Santa Maria”. The rocket boat of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine “Pryluky” together with the frigate “Toronto” conducted joint exercises at sea, in which the students of the Institute of Naval Forces of the National University Odesa Maritime Academy were involved. Ukrainian youth is also preparing to protect their native land and waters.
On April 5, the NATO member countries, against the backdrop of Russian aggression, agreed on a new support package for Ukraine and Georgia in the Black Sea in order to enhance security in the region. On the eve, the Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg assured NATO plans to strengthen its military presence at sea. He also noted that the Organization’s ships would continue to enter Ukrainian ports.
“There will be a rotational presence of NATO ships in the region ‒ a mechanism introduced in Central and Eastern Europe in the territory of the member states so as not to violate international agreements with Russia reached after the end of the Cold War,” Taras Zhovtenko, the expert on national security, explained. “The troops of NATO member countries do not strengthen the groups in the immediate vicinity of the borders of the Russian Federation, therefore the United States used the mechanism of permanent rotation. That is, the unit does not locate in a certain area, but after staying there for some time, it is removed from the base and another one arrives in return. In fact, the military presence remains, but it is not of a permanent nature. First of all, we are talking about joint exercises and patrolling of international waters along with warships of Ukraine and Georgia. Also, the grouping of the Black Sea member countries of NATO should be strengthened on a rotational basis.”
A statement about the possibility of strengthening the defense in the Black Sea was also voiced by Kay Bailey Hutchison, the permanent representative of the United States to NATO. In general, the staying of NATO ships in the Black Sea and conducting joint exercises is a sustainable process.
“Another thing is that the subject of the exercises practically does not change: joint maneuvering, training in communications, carrying out embargo operations and joint artillery firing,” Serhii Haiduk, ex-commander of the Ukrainian Navy, told to Opinion. “Russia opposes artillery firing with missiles. In my opinion, training should be conducted on the subject of eliminating threats from the sea direction on the part of Russia, both military and non-military character ‒ counteraction against the launching of missile and air strikes, anti-landing operations, the safety of civilian shipping. Obviously, the ships and other NATO forces will not be used to ensure the integrity and immunity of Ukraine, and even more so to eliminate threats from the sea direction. For Ukraine, this is another temporary handicap to strengthen its naval abilities. Unfortunately, business and political trends in the development of the maritime industry of the state hinder the promotion of national interests.”
And what about Russia? It is not going to put up with the situation. Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defense Vladimir Shamanov promised to take the necessary measures in case of the emergence of NATO ships near the Russian coast and in the Black Sea.
“We need to look at the situation through the prism of the confrontation between NATO and the Russian Federation,” Serhii Haiduk said. “NATO strengthens the southeastern flank ‒ Russia is responding. It created a powerful grouping in the Crimea, in service of which cruise sea, aviation, and coastal bases. We should not forget about the preparation of facilities for the maintenance and storage of tactical nuclear weapons.”
After the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, Russia holds regular military exercises on the peninsula. For example, according to the information of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, 6 thousand military men and about a hundred aircraft and helicopters took part in the recent exercises. Russia can use the situation with the increased military presence of NATO in the Black Sea as an argument for an even greater augmentation of its militaristic power in the Crimea. Could this lead to conflicts, provocations?
“This is possible, and Russia is already doing it,” Taras Zhovtenko is convinced. “This is the first. Secondly, with the increasing presence of NATO, and above all, American ships, the Russians will become more cautious. It will be possible to talk not so much about provocation by the ships of the Russian Navy, but about aviation. Typical practice ‒ close flights of Russian aircraft near American warships. This is the least painful option for Russians with minimal incident risks. Although, these flights are really close. And the specificity of the American ships is such that when the aircraft is very close to the ship, the automation itself can open fire. The Russians, even in this situation, are ready to go on the edge of the abyss.”
On April 5-13, the largest multinational naval exercises of the NATO Sea Shield ‒ 19 took place in the Black Sea. 14 Romanian warships and 6 ships from Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, Canada, with the participation of more than 2 thousand soldiers, performed joint combat missions in the Black Sea region.
What about the Kerch Strait?
The Kerch Strait, controlled by the Russian Federation, remains a painful question for Ukraine. Russia practically turned the Azov Sea into an internal lake. In November last year, the Kremlin has imprisoned 24 Ukrainian sailors ‒ the Russians captured three of our warships in the Black Sea, near the strait. Without overcoming this conflict nothing can be said about the security in the Black Sea-Azov basin. Ukrainian high officials announced intentions to go through the Kerch Strait by military vessels, accompanied by international partners. In Russia, such plans were called provocation.
A clear signal was received that the North Atlantic Alliance intends to ensure the safe passage of Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait. This was stated by Ms. Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is the so-called “Black Sea Package”.
“The idea of escorting Ukrainian ships during the transition to the Sea of Azov by NATO ships was not abandoned, but now it is paused,” Dmytro Levus, the director of the Ukrainian Meridian public research center, told to Opinion. “I think the patrol of NATO ships will continue, regardless of the election results, at least until the end of this year. Meanwhile, no one thinks about what will happen next.”
The situation is not easy. The physical increase in the presence of NATO ships in the Black Sea does not mean an automatic unblocking of the Kerch Strait for Ukraine. After all, the presence of the Alliance ships in the waters did not help our sailors to avoid capture in the autumn of 2018. Are there any other ways out of the situation?
“The passage of the Ukrainian ships together with the ships of one of the NATO member countries. So that the whole group under the general leadership with the main ship could go into the water area of the Sea of Azov,” Serhii Dzherdzh, chairman of the Public League Ukraine – NATO, explained to Opinion. “This is the first option. The second is the possible presence of seafarers and officers of the NATO countries on a Ukrainian ship while carrying out a joint mission as part of an exercise and carrying out such a passage. In case if a ship is captured, citizens of NATO member countries are also hit, and this automatically draws them into the need for an adequate response for the Russian Federation. The third option is that Ukraine could purchase small ships so that they would go to Mariupol and Berdyansk on their own. So, the crews of the NATO countries onboard would bring all these vessels to the Sea of Azov, and then left them there for the Ukrainian Navy.”
However, the proposed options are only expert hypotheses. How it will actually happen and whether the Alliance will act with the Ukrainian sailors at all is still unknown. Perhaps similar plans are being considered, but they do not yet consider it necessary to make them public.
The future is in work and collaboration
To preserve the Black Sea-Azov basin for Ukraine and to feel free and safe in its waters, it is necessary to make a lot of efforts ‒ diplomatic, military, and legislative.
“Ukraine has to quickly adjust legislation, to impose its agenda on integrated modeling of opposition in the Black and Azov Seas in a more mobile manner,” Iryna Vereshchuk, the President of the International Center for Baltic-Black Sea Studies, told to Opinion. “We have a neighbor, Romania, with whom we could already develop and implement several projects in 2019: expanded joint naval exercises, exchange of databases, joint activities in the framework of NATO expansion programs. We can also cooperate with Turkey.”
Turkey and Romania, as well as Bulgaria, are NATO member states with access to the Black Sea. Ukraine should not ignore military cooperation with such neighbors, especially with a fairly strong Turkish fleet.
“Turkey has certain interests in the Black Sea, but, in any case, this is a force that can be counted on and which is also taken into account by Russia,” Dmytro Levus said. “Of course, you cannot compare the Turkish fleet with the Romanian and Bulgarian, but these forces are constantly in the Black Sea. And, despite all the internal problems, they are taken into account by Moscow. This is the potential that plays on the side of Ukraine.”
However, political processes in Ukraine, associated primarily with the elections and their results, and further cooperation with NATO, including in the Black Sea-Azov basin, will be an open question. It is about the future of Ukraine’s foreign policy, as Opinion recently wrote about.
By Viktor Tsvilihovsky