April 15, 2019 Special Dispatch No. 8001

Russian Expert Golts: Rising Tension Between Russia And NATO Can Turn The Black Sea Into A Battlefield; The Balance Of Power Favors Moscow

April 15, 2019
Russia, South Caucasus | Special Dispatch No. 8001

The liberal Russian military expert Aleksandr Golts commented that the rising tensions between Russia and NATO could transform the Black Sea into a battlefield. Golts stressed that Russia has deployed BAL and Bastion coastal defense missile systems, which can be quickly redeployed to an area under threat. "The balance is not in NATO's favor… it should be acknowledged that should NATO decide on a serious military action in the Black Sea, its admirals would lack the usual military superiority," Golts wrote.

Nevertheless, Golts stressed that a new package of NATO "deterrence" measures in the Black Sea, as well as Moscow's readiness to immediately interpret the "vague" threats from Brussels as presaging a direct military confrontation provide further confirmation that the parties have entered a new cold war.

Below is Golts' article:[1]


Moscow Has Been Systematically Arming Crimea For The Entire Five Years Since Its Annexation

"Russia as a source of military threat was the main subject of the NATO Foreign Ministers [70th] 'anniversary' meeting in Washington at the end of last week [April 3-4, 2019]. Despite numerous internal conflicts that were also discussed at the summit (one of them is Donald Trump's insistent demand to reduce U.S. expenditures on European security), there is one immutable factor that ensures NATO unity. It is the opposition to what NATO members consider 'the threat from the East'.

"In the first Cold War, the Soviet Union was the source of military threat. Today, Russia is seen as such a threat, and it is the task to meet 'the threat from the East' that cements NATO unity. On the other hand, the decision to annex Crimea was not taken in Brussels, and neither was the decision to start a secret war in Donbass.

"On the eve of the summit, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, caused a considerable stir in Russia, saying that the foreign ministers had to discuss and approve a package of measures to strengthen the deterrence of Russia in the Black Sea [region]. The reason was the capture of Ukrainian Navy vessels by the Russian coast guard that occurred in the Kerch Strait in November. Hutchison detailed the package in preparation as follows: 'these measures include beefed-up surveillance, both air surveillance as well as an increase in NATO country ships entering the Black Sea to ensure the safe passage of Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Straits into the Sea of Azov. And it is very important that the security of Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, as well as Georgia, be guaranteed in the Black Sea area, and this applies both to their ships and shorelines.'

"In Russia, these statements were interpreted in no uncertain terms: the North Atlantic Alliance is determined to form joint convoys of Ukrainian and NATO warships to fight their way into the Sea of Azov. Deputy Foreign Minister (and Moscow's former envoy to NATO) Alexander Grushko said that Russia is currently conducting the planned upgrade of its Black Sea Fleet and is therefore prepared for 'any possible turns in the sphere of military security'. 'Our position is clear: any reinforced NATO presence in the Black Sea region is pointless from a military perspective,' the diplomat stated. 'It will not strengthen security in the region nor that of NATO itself, it will only involve additional military risks.'

"General Vladimir Shamanov, head of the State Duma Defense Committee, quite frankly promised NATO a shellacking: 'No matter how many of their rust buckets they thrust under our noses, we now have a self-sufficient defense force to inflict unacceptable damage upon any groups of warships that might appear in immediate proximity to our borders'.

"All sorts of pundits at once recalled that Moscow has been systematically arming Crimea for the entire five years since its annexation. In particular, Russia has deployed BAL and Bastion coastal defense missile systems, which can be quickly redeployed to a threatened area.

The [Local Military] Balance Does Not Favor NATO.

"At the same time, it should be acknowledged that should NATO decide on a serious military action in the Black Sea, its admirals would lack the usual military superiority. Of course, the [Russian] Black Sea Fleet is a far cry from the NATO forces in the region, above all the U.S. 6th Fleet deployed in the Mediterranean.

Russia has several diesel submarines, a decrepit cruiser 'Moskva', permanently under repair, three frigates, one large anti-submarine ship and two patrol ships. NATO has two or three carrier strike groups and dozens of warships. However, the balance would shifts in favor of Moscow, should NATO respect the provisions of the Montreux Convention, concluded in 1936. According to that convention, the aggregate tonnage of all non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea must not exceed 30 thousand tons (with an option of raising this maximum to 45 thousand tons in case of an increase of the naval forces of the Black Sea countries), and they are permitted to stay for no longer than 21 days. In addition to that, the number of warships belonging to non-Black Sea countries must not exceed 9. Compliance with these restrictions will reduce the NATO groups to 3 destroyers (with displacement of about 10 thousand tons) or nine frigates (3-6 thousand tons, respectively). Considering that in addition to the long-range coastal defense missile systems, an aviation division and an air defense division are also deployed in Crimea, Russia may in fact have some superiority.

"However, it should be noted that the same Montreux Convention enables Turkey, which controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, to lift these restrictions if it 'would consider itself threatened by immediate military danger'. At the moment, however, it seems unlikely that Ankara will play along with the NATO allies against Moscow. At the Washington meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Turkey was subjected to extremely harsh criticism due to its intention to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system. 'Turkey's purchase of a $2.5 billion Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system poses great danger to NATO and the strength of this alliance,' Vice President Mike Pence stated.

"But it appears that Ankara does not intend to yield to pressure. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called the purchase of the S-400 a 'done deal'. He also warned that 'neither the West nor Russia should force us to take sides between them. They did this with Ukraine, and look what happened.' Under these circumstances, it is hard to assume that Turkey will deem the armed escort of Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait so vital to its security that it will lift the restrictions of the Montreux Convention.

The Parties Have Entered A New Cold War

"The measures are symbolic, but the risks are rising. Given these circumstances, NATO had to limit itself to taking symbolic measures in support of Ukraine and Georgia. It was reported that the foreign ministers adopted a package of measures to 'improve NATO's situational awareness in the Black Sea region and strengthen support for partners Georgia and Ukraine,' i.e., to intensify aerial surveillance. No details of this package have been released. The U.S. State Department representative declined to provide specifics. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg clarified that the support for Ukraine and Georgia amounted to combat training assistance of the Navy and Coast Guard. Clearly, NATO is not going to start World War III for the Ukrainian vessels' right of passage through the Kerch Strait.

"However, the whole subject of the new NATO 'deterrence' measures package in the Black Sea, as well as Moscow's readiness to immediately interpret the vague threats from Brussels as a scenario for direct military confrontation, once again confirm that the parties have entered a new cold war. Furthermore, this conflict may not be caused by a conscious decision, but rather by the constant raising of the stakes in the confrontation. Obviously, even symbolic measures will require beefing-up the NATO military presence in the Black Sea. Since 2014, NATO warships have been regularly displaying the flag near Crimea. And now they will be most likely based there almost permanently. The capture of Ukrainian ships in November was not a pre-planned operation. The Russian coast guard and their commanders obviously lost their nerve. And no one can guarantee that this will not happen again."

[1], April 4, 2019.

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