U.S. Army paratroopers conduct training in Romania, June 14, 2019, during Swift Response, an annual multinational airborne exercise.

U.S. Army paratroopers conduct training in Romania, June 14, 2019, during Swift Response, an annual multinational airborne exercise. Army Spc. Ryan Lucas

NATO Needs to Focus on the Black Sea

William of Ockham would like a word with those who worry more about a potential Russian invasion of the Baltics than ongoing interventions in the Balkans.

“Of two competing theories, the simpler explanation” is to be preferred, wrote William of Ockham, an injunction that some Western analysts and military leaders seem to have forgotten. After Russia sent troops into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, many in NATO convinced themselves that Moscow’s next target would be the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The more logical inference is that Russia has military ambitions in the Black Sea region — and that Western Alliance members should turn their focus thence.

There are three main reasons the Baltics are not the area of strategic vulnerability that some believe. First, “Narva is not next,” and it never was. The alleged threat of separatism from Russian-speakers in the Baltics is overblown. Despite tensions in the early 1990s, which culminated with a July 1993 autonomy referendum in Estonia’s third-largest city, Baltic Russian-speakers have never been the fifth column that some imagine them to be. And despite the persistence of restrictive citizenship laws for Russian-speakers in Latvia and Estonia, both governments have done an admirable job of addressing the social and economic concerns of their Russian-speaking regions, and of giving even non-citizens the right to vote in local elections.

Next, NATO’s presence in the Baltics and Poland is the right size: large enough to present a credible deterrent to Russia, but not large enough to present an offensive military threat. NATO was right to beef up its presence in the Baltics after 2014. After all, the three tiny Alliance members are simply incapable of defending themselves alone in the unlikely event of war with Russia. But deploying seven full brigades totaling 40,000 to 50,000 troops, as some analysts suggest, would be destabilizing. Russia would doubtless perceive this deployment as an offensive threat and increase its forces in response. The four NATO battle groups currently deployed – one each to the three Baltic republics and Poland – are important for their composition as much as their size. These 5,000-plus troops could do no more than delay a Russian incursion while NATO deployed reinforcements. But the fact that 24 of the 30 NATO members contribute forces to the Alliance’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” mission makes it clear to Russia that NATO is united in its determination to defend the Baltics, and that war there means war with nearly all of NATO.

Lastly, there is no indication that Moscow has any intention of invading the Baltics. Russia has always seen the Baltics as different from the rest of the former Soviet Union. In short, when the Kremlin looks at Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania it sees Europe, and it had always played by different rules in Europe than in its self-designated “near abroad”. Anatol Lieven remarked on this Russian tendency in his book The Baltic Revolution: “A large proportion of Baltic Russians have been prepared to acknowledge that the Balts have a superior civic culture, are cleaner, more orderly and harder working. They may qualify this by saying that Russian life is ‘friendlier’, or ‘more humane’, but this is the exact reverse of the usual colonizer: colonized self-images.”

Russia’s behavior toward the Baltic States immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union made clear the extent to which it treats them differently. As it was intervening on behalf of separatist movements in Georgia and Moldova, it scrupulously avoided escalating the situation with the Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia. Despite the fact that Moscow was exceptionally unhappy with the treatment of Russians speakers there, and had military forces deployed to both countries until 1994, it always expressed its grievances through official, institutional channels instead of trying to rally the Russian-speaking minorities to violence or intervening directly as it did elsewhere.
Rather than fixate on the Baltics, where the threat is low and a deterrent force is in place, NATO should pay more attention to the Black Sea region. It is here that Russia has already intervened militarily, and is attempting to fracture the Alliance and erode confidence in its commitments. The Black Sea region also serves as the hub for Russia’s recent expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean and is critical to its efforts to support its intervention in Syria.

There are four main reasons the Black Sea region demands more attention.

First, three of the six littoral states – Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey – are NATO members and two – Ukraine and Georgia – were promised membership in 2008. Whether the Alliance should have committed to membership for Ukraine and Georgia is no longer relevant; it made the commitment and routinely reiterates it at NATO summits. Every year that the fear of Russia’s reaction delays progress on bringing Kyiv and Tbilisi into NATO erodes confidence in NATO’s other commitments. 

Next, an examination of Russian military activities in the last decade-plus leads to the conclusion that the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean is the area of greatest geopolitical importance for Russia. All of its military interventions in this period – Georgia, Ukraine and Syria – have occurred in this region, and Moscow clearly intends to challenge the West in this part of the world. NATO provides the best vehicle to meet this challenge and protect the important national interests Western states have in this region.

Third, the increasing alignment between Russia and Turkey deserves immediate and serious attention from all NATO capitals. If Moscow is able to pull Ankara into a strategic partnership that distances it from NATO, the security of the Alliance and all its members would suffer significantly. Turkey is ranked the world’s 11th-most powerful military by the Global Firepower Index. It has the second-largest overall military in NATO, after the U.S. Ankara is the second-largest land power in the Alliance, has the third-largest air force, and fields the fourth-largest navy. It is far from certain that a Russia-Turkey entente will endure: the two are on the opposite sides of the Libyan civil war, and their cooperation in Syria may still collapse over the issue of Idlib and the fate of Assad. And Ankara is an unpredictable and often frustrating ally. But neither the uncertainty of the Russia-Turkey rapprochement nor Turkey’s erratic behavior outweigh its clear strategic importance to NATO. In addition to the military power it possesses, it anchors the Alliance’s southeastern flank and hosts bases critical to the projection of NATO power in the Black Sea region and beyond.

Finally, the Black Sea is an emerging energy hub that could allow Europe to diversify its energy sources away from Russia. But Turkey is key here, as well. The Turkish port of Ceyhan is the terminus of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which brings Azerbaijani oil to the world market. And Turkey’s development of gas pipelines, storage facilities, and liquid natural gas terminals position it as a powerful middleman – and alternative to Russia – in energy supplies to Europe. With energy security an increasingly important component of national security, the emergence of the Black Sea as an energy hub provides an important opportunity for NATO members to erode Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon in its foreign policy.

NATO has it right in the Baltics. Its presence is sized for the threat – large enough to present a credible deterrent, too small to pose an offensive military threat and activate the security dilemma, causing Russia to increase its own forces in response. And NATO has been vigilant in exercising what it would take to rapidly reinforce the Baltics, through exercises like Defender 2020. Before it was scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, Defender 2020 was billed as the third-largest exercise in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Plans for Defender 2021 are already underway. 

The Black Sea region needs more attention. As Ben Hodges — former U.S. Army-Europe commander — and his co-authors argue, NATO should use the Enhanced Forward Presence model it deployed in the Baltics as a model for its Black Sea presence. This would entail beefing up the forces assigned to NATO’s Multi-National Division-Southeast (MND-SE) in Romania, deploying integrated air and missile defenses, and increasing the air policing of the region, as NATO has done in the Baltics. In order to compensate for the Montreux Convention’s limitations on the presence of warships from non-Black Sea littoral states, NATO could bolster its airborne maritime domain awareness assets deployed to the region. 

None of these steps need to detract from NATO’s presence in Poland and the Baltics – the Alliance has sufficient assets to resource both its current presence there and the enhanced Black Sea presence argued for here. Indeed, as Hodges and his co-authors argue, balancing the Alliance’s posture between the Baltic and Black seas would eliminate any gaps or seams for Moscow to exploit.