The Center for Global Studies “Strategy XXI” and an expert group, which was joined by representatives of all Black Sea countries and the Maritime Expert Platform, monitored the security situation in the Black Sea region during the year. It summarises the main trends, new challenges, threats, and signs of the deteriorating security situation in the Black Sea.
Since 2014, after the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the Black Sea region has become less stable. Current regional cooperation formats and international law no longer guarantee security. The situation is becoming increasingly unpredictable. In addition to the constant militarisation of Crimea, the Azov and Black Sea regions as a whole, the Russian Federation is producing new threats, both military and non-military (economic, energy, transport, infrastructure, etc.).
A striking example was the Kerch Bridge, which was built under the slogan of providing the population of the occupied Crimea, but became an instrument of taking the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea under illegal Russian control, which led to increased Russia’s dominance in Azov and Black Seas.
There are also other security challenges in Black Sea, such as the Turkish Stream project, increased Russian subversive activities through information and cultural activities in Bulgaria; propaganda; interference in the internal affairs of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine; “unplanned” Russian military exercises; and the closure of naval districts, etc.
General Assessment of the Security Status
The Russian Federation is implementing a strategy of dominance in Azov and Black Seas. By 2014, after the aggression against Georgia, the West had gained full control over the eastern sector of Black Sea, and after the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, it expanded its zone of de facto dominance to its central and northwestern sectors, Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait.
The capture of Crimea was strategically important for Russia: the grouping of Russian forces on the Peninsula doubled, and the ship’s fleet was replenished with 20 new combat units (including three frigates, six submarines, missile boats). At the end of 2019, the total volley of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia with missile weapons amounted to more than 80 tons, including a distance of 1,400 km and more – 40 tons.
Experts say Russia is ousting “rivals” from the Black Sea and gaining dominance at sea. At the same time, the Black Sea countries, which are members of NATO, have mainly focused their security efforts on defending their territories.
For the seventh year of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the city of Sevastopol, part of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, 7% of Ukraine’s territory remains occupied. Although Putin’s “New-Russia” project has failed, the Kremlin has not given up on its aggressive plans to annex Ukraine, which it is trying to disguise under the protection of its compatriots as a result of Ukraine’s “civil war.” However, such actions by Russia are becoming increasingly counterproductive as Russia’s guilt for resolving the conflict and destabilising the Black Sea region is recognised internationally more and more.
NATO, which is the only organisation capable of resisting Russia’s hybrid aggression, is constantly being targeted by the Kremlin. However, Europe’s slide into war can only be stopped by collective action to force the aggressor into peace. So far, this is possible by non-military means. However, this will not always be the case. Reconciliation or capitulation can only lead to the appetite of Putin’s regime and further aggression. Misconceptions that Russia will not be able to withstand two wars at the same time – those against Ukraine and in Syria have led to the fact that we now see a growing Russian military presence in Libya, Venezuela and Central Africa.
Tensions in the Black Sea region continue to rise. Of particular concern is the strategic exercise “Caucasus 2020,” scheduled for September this year, which may precede the next stage of Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine. Practically continuous exercises of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Black Sea at tactical level indicate their preparation for the blockade of the Ukrainian coast by striking Ukrainian strategic objects, and landing naval and air landings on the Ukrainian coast.
One of the Kremlin’s goals is Dnipro water from the North Crimean Canal for degrading Crimea under Russian occupation. After the so-called constitutional referendum on the “reset” of power in Russia, the internal situation in Russia is increasingly destabilised. Falling Russian incomes, unpopular pension reform, ineffective government action to combat the coronavirus pandemic, restricting the rights of federation members, and protesting against them in the regions, the burden of Russia’s participation in the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad – all sharply undermine the regime and Putin personally.
The Kremlin considers raising the foreign policy tension level a means of salvation. It is the expansion of armed aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Belarus, the final de-Europeanisation and vassalship of Moldova, the separation of northern Kazakhstan, and a possible invasion of the Baltics. This is despite the fact that Putin’s Russia is now a boiling cauldron of growing internal tensions, where the North Caucasus, the Far East, the Urals, and Siberia have a different worldview than Moscow dictates.
Nuclear Weapons as a Message for Europe
Signed by Vladimir Putin on 2 June 2020, the “Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Restraint,” which effectively lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, is another confirmation of the Kremlin’s readiness to escalate international tensions to create additional intimidation for Europe.
In fact, Russia is sending them a message that they are real targets for the “preventive” use of Russian nuclear weapons. According to the Kremlin, in case of a nuclear strike on a non-member country, the United States will limit itself to a political and diplomatic response and possible sanctions, but without the use of nuclear weapons in response.
At the same time, Moscow is constantly appealing to the West to take away sanctions, citing a coronavirus pandemic. However, the real reason is Russia’s entry into a severe economic crisis due to a sharp drop in oil prices, the collapse of the Russian ruble and the COVID-19 epidemic, the real state of which is being carefully concealed. Russia’s external aggression, especially in the Black Sea, may be aimed at distracting attention from domestic problems and putting pressure on Western countries to take away sanctions.