Russia’s Black Sea Dominance Strategy—A Blend of Military and Civilian Assets
On November 14, during the Third International Conference for Maritime Security, in Odesa, Ukrainian Navy commander Admiral Ihor Voronchenko said that a Russian Tu-22M3 (Backfire) had been observed simulating the launch of a missile strike on this coastal city (Dumskaya, November 14). Voronchenko added that Russian bombers had made several similar attempts during exercises on July 10, conducting a virtual airstrike 60 kilometers from Odesa. The Ukrainian naval chief also stressed that the Russian Federation has dramatically increased its military presence in Crimea after having illegally annexed the peninsula in 2014. For example, the number of warships stationed there grew from 34 to 49, while the number of submarines increased from 1 to 7. Moreover, most of these Russian vessels are being modernized and armed with 3M-54 Kalibr-type (SS-N-27 Sizzler and SS-N-30A) cruise missiles.
Besides improving its naval power, the Kremlin has tested various other means of exerting pressure in the Black Sea. One of these methods has been the periodic blocking of expansive maritime areas for allegedly military exercises. Every Black Sea littoral state has the legal right to conduct military drills, including live fire exercises, in this body of water. International law, however, requires that the government of the responsible state must send an official request to international maritime services before doing so. In the summer of 2019, Russia blocked many areas without having first filed any such requests, thus interrupting navigation and nearly blocking international shipping to and from Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. For example, on July 24, Russia blocked off 120 thousand square kilometers—nearly 25 percent of the entire Black Sea surface (Mil.in.ua, June 26). Yet, it is important to point out that Russia does not possess sufficient locally stationed naval forces to both conduct exercises over such large areas while also guaranteeing satisfactory security there.
These blockades do not only have an economic impact but are likely designed with a political purpose in mind. Most of the Russian actions to restrict maritime traffic have coincided with regional exercises led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): for example, Sea Breeze 2019 (in Ukraine) and Agile Spirit 2019 (in Georgia). And in both instances, Russian warships engaged in aggressive behavior, provoking NATO and Ukrainian vessels. One such provocation was filmed by a Ukrainian team of military journalists as part of the Ukrainian delegation participating in Agile Spirit 2019 (Ukrainian military TV YouTube channel, Episode 1, Episode 2, October 14). During their trip to Georgia and while in neutral waters, the Ukrainian crew of the Pereyeslav received a warning over the radio from a Russian navy ship. The Russians warned that the Ukrainians needed to turn away because the area was allegedly blocked. International coordinators did not confirm that fact, so the captain of the Pereyaslav decided to maintain the vessel along its original course. Soon thereafter, the Kasimov, a large Russian anti-submarine corvette (Project 1124M/Grisha V-class) was spotted near the Ukrainian ship. The Russian corvette’s aggressive behavior only ceased when a Turkish reconnaissance plane arrived close to the Pereyaslav. Similarly, in July, Russian ships entered an area closed by NATO for the Sea Breeze 2019 exercises and engaged in aggressive behavior.
The Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, adjoining the northeastern sector of the Black Sea, also regularly witness confrontational activity by Russian forces. Notably, Russian authorities have repeatedly used force to block maritime navigation through the strait linking the Azov and Black seas, or at least to force vessels to wait longer in the queue to transit through. For example, the average wait time for one ship in July 2019 was 19 hours. In August, it had increased to 39 hours, and in September, to 48.5 hours (Blackseanews.net, October 17). That precipitated further economic losses for Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, which, as of February 1, 2019, had already reached $360 million (see EDM, February 12). One of the “official” reasons Russian authorities gave for the navigation obstacles was purportedly poor weather conditions. But it bears pointing out that during this time, the Russian Ministry of Transport attempted to implement an order to prohibit free navigation near the Kerch Strait Bridge (Regulation.gov.ru, October, 17).
Besides such pseudo-legal blockades, the Kremlin continues to develop its anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) zone in the Black Sea by expanding the capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet and anti-aircraft units in occupied Crimea and in nearby Krasnodar Region. It has even been using civilian objects for such explicitly military purposes. According to Ukrainian Vice Admiral Andriy Tarasov, speaking at the Third Security Forum in Lviv, Russia had deployed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment on the “Godovanets” and “Ukraine” floating drilling rigs, which were stolen from Ukraine in 2014 (Ukrinform, November 4). This has essentially converted those originally civilian platforms into an effective tool for controlling air, surface and subsurface environments throughout the Black Sea. Such measures are necessary for Russia to safeguard its offshore natural gas pipelines, TurkStream and Blue Stream, currently under construction along the Black Sea bottom.
Indeed, the head of the Ukrainian think tank Strategy XXI, Michailo Honchar, observes that the underwater routes of those pipelines largely overlap with the areas blocked by Russia in the Black Sea (Geostrategy.org.ua, July 30). And these conclusions are in line with certain activities observed during Russian military exercises last summer. According to the Ukrainian Navy, from July 14 to July 21, Russian Black Sea Fleet units tested a new type of mine barrier, “Shelf,” near Anapa, in the Krasnodar Region—conspicuously close to the TurkStream pipeline’s route. In Honchar’s opinion, the Kremlin could soon use the same tactics in the Baltic Sea to prevent access to another pipeline currently under construction—Nord Stream Two. Considering the extreme density of maritime traffic in the Baltic, the consequences would be potentially devastating.