'No NATO country will taunt the Russians' in the Black Sea

Daniel Mihailescu, AFP | NATO ships manoeuvring in the Black Sea in March 2015.

Washington is working on a plan to send new NATO ships to the Black Sea in response to the November armed clash between the Russian and Ukrainian navies off the annexed Crimean Peninsula.


On April 3, the United States announced its intention to strengthen NATO's military presence in the Black Sea by sending new ships. "We will ensure that we have the capacity to deter a very aggressive Russia," said US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison. She assured that the US proposal was aimed at "ensuring that there is a safe passage for Ukrainian ships through the Kerch Strait".

This plan comes in the wake of the November naval incident between Ukraine and Russia when Russian coastguards boarded Ukrainian warships trying to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait separating it from the Black Sea. Three people were injured in the incident and 24 Ukrainian sailors have since been taken prisoner.

Is the situation in the Black Sea region getting worse?

Quentin Lopinot, an associate researcher at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the American initiative is primarily a response to the deteriorating situation in the Black Sea region: "Russia is on a mission to modernise its fleet and infrastructure there in a major way, and is marking its territory much more aggressively. Washington does not want to turn a blind eye to this development, fearing that Moscow will therefore succeed in controlling de facto, or dominating the Black Sea region. The challenge is therefore also to ensure that the Black Sea remains an international space, where ‘freedom of navigation’ is respected."

Yves Boyer, an associate researcher at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS), believes that it’s primarily a question of good communication. "We need to make announcements. The Americans want to reassure Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia. There’s also perhaps the idea of helping Ukrainian President Poroshenko, who is in a bad position before the second round of the presidential elections," he explains.

Russia responded by indicating that it viewed the American plan "in a negative way". "We don't understand what they mean by this. The situation in the Kerch Strait and navigation there is well known," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov.

Boyer believes Russia is within its rights to view the American plan as provocative: "It's like tickling a bear under its chin, thinking that it will impress him, but it’s completely ridiculous. The shore of the Sea of Azov is completely Russian. It's like telling Americans to stay out of business in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The strategic Kerch Strait

Before the naval clash, however, for months Kiev and the West had already accused Russia of deliberately "obstructing" the navigation of commercial ships through the Kerch Strait.

Russia has claimed control of the Kerch Strait since its annexation of Crimea, which allows it to control both sides of the strait. "This strait is important for Moscow because it establishes physical continuity between the Crimean peninsula and Russian territory. The control of the strait thus makes it possible to consolidate the annexation of the Crimea," says Lopinot.

This strait is also crucial for Kiev because it allows entry into the Sea of Azov, where there are several Ukrainian ports of great importance to the country, including Berdyansk and Mariupol.

‘Russia is not just any old country’

Several border countries belonging to NATO, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, are naturally permanently present in the Black Sea.Other military transit in the region is subject to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates free movement in the Black Sea.

"American, French, British and German ships regularly enter the Black Sea under this convention," says Boyer. "In 2018, four American destroyers sailed there and France is due to send three ships in 2019," says Lopinot. "But the novelty lies not so much in increasing the volume of ships present in the area, as in better coordination of resources between allies. The challenge is not to accumulate military assets in this area, but rather to use them better to be more effective."

Boyer believes military confrontation is unlikely. "No NATO country will taunt the Russians too much in the Sea of Azov,” Boyer says. “We must not forget that Russia is not just any old country, it is the second largest nuclear power in the world."

This article was translated from the original in French.

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