Russia’s Black Sea Threat?

Is Russian naval expansion in the Black Sea a threat to American regional interests? Dmitry Gorenburg is skeptical.

In the latest issue of Proceedings magazine, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Mowchan of the US Army articulates a vision of Russia that is in many ways at odds with reality. For this reason, it deserves a commentary that will also act as a rebuttal.

Early on, the author refers to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) as Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over Southeast Europe and the Caucasus. If so, it’s a rusty sword indeed. Mowchan himself notes in the conclusion of that section of the article that,

Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava class guided-missile cruiser Moskva. […] If current modernization and manning trends persist, the BSF will be unable to effectively accomplish any of its assigned missions in the next five years.

So how can a fleet comprised of ancient, barely seaworthy ships serve as an existential threat to the entire region?

According to Mowchan, the threat lies in the fleet’s coming resurrection. The Russian government has announced grand plans to modernize the fleet by sending up to fifteen new combatants to the fleet by 2020. Yet in the current Russian military, such plans are rarely accomplished.

Nevertheless, I am sure that the fleet will be substantially more capable in 2020 than it is now. It will at a minimum have the two Neustrashimy class frigates (transfered from the Baltic Fleet), three new updated Krivak class frigates, and perhaps one or two new Admiral Gorshkov class frigates. A Mistral and one or two new Ivan Gren amphibious landing ships are also likely. Add in a couple of new diesel submarines and a minimum of ten new combatants seems highly likely. So in 2020 the BSF will undoubtedly be much more powerful than it is now, though it will probably still be outclassed by the Turkish Navy.

But what will Russia do with these forces? Lieutenant Colonel Mowchan believes that the fleet “will become a tool by which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations.” Well, of course, one of the main reasons countries build military forces is to increase their political power, so that statement seems fine on its face. The problem comes with the author’s assumption that security in the region (and perhaps in the world as a whole) is a zero-sum game where any gain for Russia is automatically a loss for the United States. He sees the BSF’s modernization as leading to “an increase in the possibility of conflict between Russia and those Black Sea states seeking greater integration with the West” and positioning Russia “to threaten American vital interests in the region.”

This is perhaps the core of my disagreement with this article, as I see the potential for regional security to be a positive-sum game (or, if things go badly, a negative-sum game) where improvements in regional security can help secure the interests of both sides. In my view, improvements in Russian naval capabilities will lead, inter alia, to greater and more effective cooperation with NATO and other states’ warships in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Mowchan explicitly rejects this view and that’s fine.

But I wonder, does he really think that Russia might go to war with NATO in the foreseeable future? He argues that France’s decision to sell the Mistral to Russia “sets a dangerous precedent that could result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other American allies.” He believes that Russia bought the Mistral ships in order to “create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and decisionmaking in a crisis — especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.”

Actually, I think Russia bought the ships because its leaders realized that a joint construction program was the best possible way for them to modernize their shipbuilding capacity. And besides, quoting one French source, “the Mistral is just a ferry painted grey.” It is not some dreadnought.

Again, I question the possibility of Russia and any NATO state going to war any time in the foreseeable future. But perhaps I am naive in this. If so, I would welcome those who disagree to comment with plausible scenarios that lead to military conflict between Russia and NATO — especially given the deplorable weakness of Russia’s conventional forces and the sad state of their conscripts.

Finally, there is the question of whether Russian activity in the Black Sea can “threaten American vital interests in the region.” According to the author, these include democratization, regional stability, and access to energy supplies. I would argue that the Black Sea is a fairly marginal territory for the United States. Europe may care about access to energy supplies (i.e., natural gas) from this region, but America does not get any of its natural gas and very little of its oil supplies from this area. (In fact, America gets twice as much oil from Russia as it does from all the other post-Soviet states combined.) So energy is an American interest only indirectly, via its effect on Europe. And Europe has recently focused on developing alternatives such as LNG and shale gas to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies.

Most new Caspian and Central Asian energy resources developed in the coming decade will be going to China, not Europe. Turkey gets gas from Russia through the Blue Stream pipeline that traverses the Black Sea, and may participate in the coming South Stream project across the Black Sea, neither of which the Russians are likely to cut off — they need the money.

Regional stability is important, but as I already argued, this is something that can best be achieved by working with Russia, not against it. Because of simple geographic proximity, the Black Sea will always be more important for Russia than it is for the United States, much as the Caribbean is more important for the United States than it is for Russia.

Russia will have more interest in regional politics and greater staying power in the event of political conflicts, so the only way to truly achieve regional stability is to engage in a partnership with Russia that integrates it into regional political institutions, including those in Europe, for which the Black Sea is quite peripheral.

Finally, there is democratization. As recent events in the Middle East have shown only too clearly, this is an interest for the United States primarily when nothing else gets in the way. Stability, alliances, access to resources all trump democratization. Furthermore, the governments brought in by “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) have all (in different ways) failed at building democracies in their countries. Ukraine’s leaders failed by engaging in internecine squabbling that prevented them from institutionalizing their gains and led to the return of Viktor Yanukovich as president. Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia made some early moves against corruption but has since been gradually building a populist demagogic regime that has shut down opposition media outlets and used violence against protesters. Both states are more democratic than they were prior to their revolutions, but they have certainly failed to meet the expectations with which the new regimes came to power.

This is not to say that the United States do not have one vital interest in the Black Sea. It plays an important role in transporting goods and people to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and overflights of former Soviet states. This is a network in which Russia plays a critical role and has proven quite helpful in reducing American dependence on supplying its troops through Pakistan. In other words, the most important reason for maintaining American access to the Black Sea is an area in which Russia and the United States act as partners.

Given this reality, I would recommend that the United States work to improve relations with Russia in the region by engaging it in bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities, including greater military to military contacts. Military cooperation can, over time, build trust (consider the role of military contacts with the United States in the Egyptian army’s response to the recent protests in that country). Working with the Russian navy will gradually reduce suspicions of the other’s intent on both sides. And (again gradually) this will in turn lead to greater security in the Black Sea region.