Recent geopolitical events in Ukraine and the Caucasus region illuminate the strategic importance of the Black Sea to Russia and re-energized its efforts to creatively transform the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) from a moribund flotilla into a viable force capable of conducting a wide array of maritime operations. Although Russian leaders are calling for the timely modernization and rearmament of the BSF, defense budget shortfalls and higher military priorities will remain two obstacles undermining Ministry of Defense (MOD) efforts to achieve that goal. Given those realities, Russia is pursuing a dual-track approach that should bolster the BSF’s operational capabilities in the short term. At the forefront is an updated modernization plan that leverages assets in the navy’s other fleets and relies on the purchase of foreign-produced warships to compensate for shortcomings in Russia’s domestic shipbuilding industry. In concert with those efforts, Kremlin leaders also have significantly increased political and military engagement with neighboring countries seeking stronger bilateral ties with Russia.
Taken together, those steps will improve Russia’s naval prowess in the Black Sea and help set the conditions by which Moscow moves a step closer to re-establishing its historical sphere of influence over former Soviet-controlled states. If unchecked by Western powers, the Kremlin’s actions could increase the possibility of conflict between Russia and those Black Sea states still seeking greater integration with the West, such as Georgia. Additionally, Russia could be better positioned to threaten U.S. vital interests in the region, mainly democratization, regional stability, and access to energy supplies.
The Black Sea Fleet—Then and Now
The BSF, headquartered in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on the Crimea, is Russia’s Sword of Damocles in the often volatile areas of southeast Europe and the Caucasus region. As Russia’s only year-round warm-water fleet, it is steeped in military history, tracing its roots to 1783, when Russia annexed the Crimea and established the port of Sevastopol. From its inception, the fleet asserted a strong strategic presence in the Black Sea region and a quick response to any threats against the Motherland.
At its apex during the Cold War, the BSF boasted more than 300 surface ships and submarines, used primarily to counterbalance NATO maritime forces operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, defense budget cuts and a deteriorating shipbuilding industry have degraded the BSF’s operational capabilities to the point that it is but a hollow shell of what it once was. Although the fleet’s order of battle reflects more than 100 ships and submarines of varying classes, only a small percentage is capable of sustained maritime operations. With an average service life approaching 30 years, many ships are simply not seaworthy or have become nonoperational because of poor maintenance or the unavailability of replacement parts. Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava-class guided-missile cruiser Moskva. Commissioned in 1983, the Moskva is the fleet’s flagship and has deployed several times in recent years to support combat operations in Georgia and various naval exercises such as Vostok 2010 in Russia’s Far East.1
At the height of the Cold War, the BSF had up to 175,000 military and civilian personnel supporting maritime operations.2 Today, only about 25,000 officers and sailors are on duty, and plans are in place to cut the force even more.3 That cadre struggles to keep what is left of the fleet operationally ready and prepared to defend Russia’s collective maritime interests in the Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean. 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.
Resurrecting a Fleet on the Fringe
The 2008 Russia-Georgia War showcased the vital importance of the BSF to securing Moscow’s strategic interests in the Black Sea region. During the war, the fleet played a decisive role by deploying as many as 13 surface combatants to attack Georgian coastal ships and port facilities, land Russian ground forces in Abkhazia, and blockade Georgian ports.4 Since then, Russian leaders have recommitted themselves to modernizing the fleet and enlarging its maritime presence in the Black Sea; however, such an endeavor will be difficult given the emphasis being placed on keeping strategic forces—particularly ballistic-missile submarines—at a high level of readiness. Facing those realities, Russia appears to be taking several creative steps that could rapidly improve the operational capabilities of its navy and the BSF.
At a national level, it is engaging several countries in the purchase of advanced-technology military platforms and systems. In October 2010, Tel Aviv entered a $400 million joint venture with Moscow that allows Russia to indigenously produce one of Israel’s most advanced unmanned reconnaissance drones. In late December 2010, France shocked its NATO allies by agreeing to sell Russia four Mistral-class amphibious helicopter-carrying ships for nearly $2 billion. The agreement reportedly stipulates the first two ships will be built in France and the remaining two in Russia.5
The Mistral is a highly advanced ship that can transport 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters, up to 40 tanks, and nearly 500 troops.6 Although the Russians have not officially announced where the first two ships will be deployed, one likely will go to the BSF, given the potential for conflict in the Caucasus region in the coming years. The second probably will be allocated to the Pacific Fleet with the remaining two going to the Northern and Baltic fleets.
At a military level, the Russian MOD, following a directive from President Dmitry Medvedev to develop a plan for the modernization of the Sevastopol Naval Base, is considering the transfer of two Neustrashimy-class frigates, the Yaroslav Mudry and Neustrashimy, from the Baltic Sea Fleet.7 Commissioned in 2009 and 1993 respectively, both frigates are highly capable warships armed with advanced antiship and air-defense missiles. The transfer of both from Baltiysk to Sevastopol, in addition to planned physical infrastructure development projects of Sevastopol port facilities, will significantly enhance the warfighting capabilities of the fleet.
In concert with both those initiatives, Russian leaders have made vociferous calls to allocate new domestically produced warships and submarines to the BSF over the next ten years. In June 2010, Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said the fleet would receive as many as 15 new combatants, including frigates, submarines, and missile boats, by 2020. Although type of vessels and timing of their arrival was not specified, it is plausible the frigate Admiral Gorshkov and the Lada-class diesel submarine Sevastopol—both still under construction—could be tagged for the BSF.8 The Admiral Gorshkov reportedly will be armed with SS-NX-26 Yakhont antiship cruise missiles. The Sevastopol features improved quieting technology and an advanced anechoic coating on her hull.
Russia’s Strategic Engagement
Just as Russia’s leaders have increased efforts to modernize the BSF, they also appear to be taking advantage of the current geopolitical environment to make strategic inroads with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ukraine. The Kremlin understands that improved relations with those states translate into cooperative agreements that not only bolster its maritime footprint in the Black Sea region but also help Moscow move a step closer to re-establishing its historical sphere of influence over onetime Soviet states.
Georgia’s ill-fated decision in August 2008 to initiate military operations against separatist rebels in South Ossetia elicited a decisive Russian military response that has set the conditions for a long-term Russian presence in both provinces. Following the Russia-Georgia War, Moscow immediately recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and quickly concluded economic agreements that will help each to address its socio-economic problems—despite historical cultural and ethnic differences that often have created friction between Russia and the separatist provinces. Additionally, both provinces signed several agreements that will expand the Kremlin’s military capabilities. A September 2009 pact, for example, gives Russia “the right to build, use and improve military infrastructure and military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and create and maintain joint military contingents [in both republics] in times of peace and war,” Russia’s MOD says.9 Subsequently in early 2010, additional agreements were signed allowing Russia to build military bases in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, and in Gudauta, Abkhazia.
The follow-on agreement with Abkhazia is of particular significance, as the establishment of a ground base appears to be the first move in a series aimed at the eventual creation of a Russian air base near Gudauta and a new naval facility at Ochamchire. During the Cold War, Ochamchire was a Soviet naval base for border-patrol boats, minesweepers, and other support craft. A new naval base there—with close proximity to Georgia proper—would be a strategically important facility that could allow the BSF to better support maritime operations in the eastern Black Sea. While the port’s shallow waters do not allow large warships, such as the Moskva, to dock, it can accommodate smaller ships with low drafts.
In Ukraine, Russian efforts to affect the political establishment in Kiev were realized in February 2010 with the election of a pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovich. Since taking office, he has successfully realigned Ukraine’s foreign policy to one that regards improved political, economic, and military cooperation with Russia as a vital to the country’s future success. Almost immediately, Yanukovich agreed to extend the BSF’s lease of the Sevastopol naval facility until 2042—a decision subsequently approved by Parliament. Under the previous agreement, Russia would have had to remove its fleet by 2017. In return for the extended lease, Ukraine will receive a deep discount on Russian natural gas. The agreement is a clear indication of the importance Kremlin leaders place on the BSF and its role in securing Russia’s interests in the region.
Additionally, Kiev has made several significant decisions that signal its intent to develop stronger military ties with Moscow. They include:
• A decision not to pursue NATO membership.
• An agreement to stop monitoring Russian Security Service (FSB) personnel in Ukraine and to allow the return of FSB officers to Sevastopol.
• The restoration of full-scale military cooperation with Russia.
• A decision to allow Russian ships to pass through the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.10
Implications for the West
If the goal of transforming the Black Sea Fleet into a modern naval force is realized in coming years, it will have several significant strategic implications for the United States and the West. From one perspective, the establishment of a viable BSF could improve regional stability. For example, a fleet equipped with an adequate number of modern warships could better support Gulf of Aden antipiracy operations. Additionally, a modern fleet could better respond to humanitarian crises or search-and-rescue operations in the region, because ships in Sevastopol could more quickly arrive on station before assets from the Baltic or Northern fleets could deploy.
While a transformed Black Sea Fleet potentially could improve regional stability, it is more likely such a force will become a tool by which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations, especially the former Soviet-controlled states. A modern BSF with port access in Abkhazia and upgraded facilities in Sevastopol would give Russia a marked advantage over other regional maritime powers during a conflict. That inevitably would increase military tensions between Russia and Georgia, as Tbilisi likely would perceive such acts as another mechanism to pressure the pro-West government. Currently, Russia uses South Ossetia and Abkhazia as bases of operation to deploy a wide array of destabilizing tools—political subversion, information warfare, and coercive diplomacy—designed to topple the government under Mikheil Saakashvili. The establishment of a powerful BSF could well be the catalyst that makes an already volatile situation even worse.
The emergence of a Russia more inclined to employ military force to achieve its strategic objectives thus also could threaten the aforementioned U.S. vital interests: democratization, regional stability, and energy security. Increased pressure on Georgia, for example, could threaten that country’s ability to create a lasting democracy based on civil freedoms and human rights. Using Ukraine as a model, it is highly probable the Kremlin could use its growing military power to affect regime change in Georgia. If Georgia fell into chaos, that easily could create a degree of regional instability, which in turn could curtail the flow of oil and natural gas to the West. Likewise, Ukraine’s recent foreign policy volte-face puts in question whether Kiev will continue down the path of democratization. Increased military cooperation between Russia and Ukraine eventually could cause Kiev to sever its military-to-military contacts with the West. The realignment of Ukraine and Georgia under Russian influence would end any possibility of their accession into NATO and facilitate Russian actions designed to re-establish its historical influence in the region.
The most destabilizing effect to date of modernizing the BSF is the willingness of France, a founding member of NATO, to sell advanced military systems to Russia. France’s decision sets a dangerous precedent that could result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other U.S. allies in Eurasia. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia harshly criticized the French decision, which likely reinforces a growing perception among Eastern European members that their alliance partners in the West are more inclined to place domestic business interests above collective security. Russia no doubt figured into its strategic calculus the fact that the purchase of amphibious landing ships from France would create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and decision-making in a crisis—especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.
Obstacles Are Opportunities
The Kremlin’s creative dual-track approach to modernization and expansion of its maritime footprint could begin to be realized in the very near future. If that occurs, Russian leaders likely will use the fleet as another destabilizing tool to increase influence over former Soviet-controlled states such as Georgia, and to limit Western influence in the region.
But despite its re-energized efforts, Russia has a long way to go before it can deploy a naval force capable of conducting sustained regional or global maritime operations. That affords the United States and its European allies an opportunity to pursue several options to offset Russia’s improving position, and to help secure shared vital interests.
First, the United States and its allies should significantly increase their strategic engagement with Black Sea nations, including Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 visit to the region is exactly the type of action the United States must take to offset Russia’s growing influence. The biggest challenge will be sustaining such diplomatic efforts, especially because Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region will continue to take a back seat to larger strategic issues associated with Afghanistan and Iraq. While increased political and diplomatic engagement strengthen relations with Black Sea states, it must also be followed with tangible economic, trade, and military agreements to foster improved cooperation and to signal a long-term U.S. commitment to each nation.
Second, the Department of Defense (DOD) needs to reassess and modify, as appropriate, its theater security cooperation plans with Black Sea nations. This is a powerful tool that allows the United States to engage with countries in several ways: multinational exercises and training, security-assistance programs, and a host of other initiatives. Given the current changes in the geopolitical environment in the region, a re-examination of how we engage various states should be conducted immediately so DOD has time to implement needed changes that will keep it on track for constructive engagement, now and into the future.
Finally, the United States must lead an effort within NATO to prevent alliance members from selling advanced military systems and weapons to Russia. While Russia’s efforts to establish stronger economic ties with Europe provide a foundation to build better cooperative relations and increase stability, the sale of high-tech armaments and combat systems does not. Convincing France to cancel the Mistral sale will prevent Russia’s efforts to sow dissent within NATO that could potentially undermine the alliance’s ability to make timely decisions that affect overall security in Eurasia. It would also send a strong signal to NATO’s friends and partners that long-term peace and stability is a top priority.
1. “The Black Sea Fleet: The Cost of Power,” Ria Novosti, 5 May 2010, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20100505/1588 84172.html.
2. “The Black Sea Fleet: Divided and Fading,” Ria Novosti, 06 June 2010, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20100609/ 159356426.html.
3. “Russian Black Sea Fleet to have fewer personnel, better weapons - defense ministry,” Global Security, 9 June 2010, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd//library/news/russia/2010/russia-100609-rianovosti05.htm.
4. Dmitry Gorenburg, “The Russian Black Sea Fleet after the Georgia War,” Russian Military Reform, 22 September 2009, http://russiamil.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/the-russian-black-sea-fleet-after-the-georgia-war/.
5. “Russia to Pay Almost $2 Billion for French Warships,” Defense News, 30 December 2010, http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=5342338&c=EUR&s=TOP.
6. “Russia wants high-tech plus French Mistral,” UPI.com, 11 June 2010, http://www.upi.com/Business_ News/Security-Industry/2010/06/11/Russia-wants-high-tech-plus-French-Mistral/UPI-92311276279302/.
7. “Black Sea Fleet to be reinforced by two Baltic Fleet ships,” RusNavy.com, 15 June 2010, http://rusnavy.com/ news/navy/index.php?ELEMENT_ID=9731, accessed 25.
8. “Russia plans to upgrade Black Sea Fleet with new Warships,” Ria Novosti, 14 April 2010, http://en.rian. ru/mlitary_news/20100413/158563791.html.
9. “Russia Signs Military Cooperation Deal with Abkhazia, South Ossetia,” Ria Novosti, 15 September 2009, http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20090915/156135405.html.
10. Information derived from multiple press reports that have been widely publicized.