Analysis: Strengthening NATO’s Eastern Flank. A Strategy for Baltic-Black Sea Coherence

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NATO, the most successful alliance in history, responded with speed and decisiveness after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and its ensuing illegal annexation of Crimea. NATO has steadily and quickly improved mission command structures and processes, deployed enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battle Groups, increased defense spending from every Alliance member, set up a tailored Forward Presence (tFP), and implemented numerous other capabilities to deter Russia’s aggression and, if deterrence fails, to respond and defeat it.

Deterrence requires proven capabilities and the demonstrated will to use them. This has been accomplished through increased rotational forces from across the Alliance, prepositioned equipment, and significant increases in the quantity, sophistication, and scale of NATO exercises. The unity and solidarity of the Alliance is a manifestation of the will of its members, underscored in the overwhelming support for the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, along with dramatic, if uneven, increases in the defense spending of nearly every member state, and in their commitment to improve readiness and responsiveness.

However, it is clear that much remains to be accomplished based on Russia’s continued aggression, particularly in the greater Black Sea region, as seen by its brazen attack on Ukrainian Navy vessels in November 2018 and its refusal to comply with the decision of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea to release 24 Ukrainian sailors until September 7, 2019 in a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner exchange.

NATO’s priority over the last five years has been the Baltic region, especially in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland – the countries closest to the Russian border, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. The Black Sea has three NATO Allies (Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria) and three Partners (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – by extension of its port on the Danube River). Turkey controls access to the Black Sea through the Bosporus by applying the 1936 Montreux Convention.

The Black Sea is Russia’s ‘launching pad’ for its destabilizing operations in Syria (which have contributed to hundreds of thousands of casualties in the Syrian civil war), its naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its continued occupation of approximately 20 percent of the Republic of Georgia. In many respects, the wider Black Sea region is of even greater strategic value to Moscow than the Baltic region because the Kremlin has shown willingness to use force more readily there than anywhere else along NATO’s Eastern Flank. Russia has and will continue to use force against non-NATO countries in the region—as demonstrated by the ongoing militarization of Crimea—and, if unchecked, will continue to flaunt international law with illegitimate claims to broader territorial waters and an increased Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that threatens Romania’s legitimate interests.

The Kremlin employs various means to achieve its goal of undermining the Alliance, driving wedges between northern, southeastern, and southern members of NATO. It has continued to destabilize the Balkans and Caucasus, while attempting to create a gap between Turkey and the rest of the Alliance. If one includes Russia’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and the growth of Russian military capabilities there, the result is that NATO’s key regional Ally, Turkey, is in effect surrounded by Russia’s penetration and destabilization.

Although the exact challenges and opportunities differ between the Baltic and Black Sea regions, NATO needs coherence across these two regions, with a balance of capabilities that present a united, unassailable front against Russia’s assertiveness. NATO has increased its presence in the Black Sea region in an effort to deter Moscow, to assure our Allies (Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria), and to assist our Partners (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia). But there is much to be done to increase the deterrence and defense capabilities necessary for effective collective posture and regional stability.

Improving coherence will require heightened levels of readiness and increased capabilities and improvements in several areas. These include, but are not limited to: military mobility – the ability to move as fast or faster than Russian forces; cyber defense, especially of critical transportation infrastructure such as sea ports and rail networks; seamless intelligence-sharing between Allies and Partners and across agencies to recognize looming crises in time; interoperability, as crisis response will require multinational capabilities to engage upon arrival without a long lead-time; air and missile defense for the entire theater; mission command capability in the Black Sea region, similar to what Germany has offered in the Baltic Sea; building a common air and maritime picture that includes our Partners in both regions; countering Russian disinformation; increasing diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin to comply with international law; and pursuing innovative ways to improve maritime capabilities of Black Sea and Baltic Sea Allies and Partners.

Center for European Policy Analysis made an report examines the challenges along NATO’s Eastern Flank and offers meaningful, achievable, and sustainable recommendations for building coherence along it. These recommendations can significantly improve deterrence and greatly reduce the likelihood of a tragic miscalculation by the Kremlin about NATO willpower, cohesion, and capabilities.


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