While its current disposition in Crimea is mainly defensive in nature, Russia's military build-up on the peninsula could soon turn the Black Sea region into a security black hole.
On 20 February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian special forces and airborne troops to reinforce covert military intelligence assets on the Crimean Peninsula. Together, they staged a takeover of regional political infrastructure – including the parliament building, radio and TV stations, and other administrative facilities – on the then-autonomous peninsula. By mid-March, Russia had completed the annexation of Crimea with a referendum on whether to join the country. Since then, Moscow has maintained its deployments of Russian forces on the peninsula, while formally treating it as Russian Federation territory.
For the Kremlin, protecting the Black Sea from foreign influence remains more important than competing with the West in other regions.
During the five-year occupation, Russia has had many difficulties in supplying the peninsula and in providing jobs and other opportunities to its population. In effect, the only tangible economic progress Russia has achieved in Crimea has come through its overhaul of the peninsula’s long-neglected air-, sea-, and land-based military infrastructure. The continuation of this effort throughout the next decade – to date, Russia has brought roughly half the infrastructure back into operation – will turn the peninsula into a military outpost that has a significant impact on European security.
Russian deployments in Crimea already include one reconnaissance brigade; two naval infantry brigades; one artillery brigade; one nuclear, chemical, and biological defence regiment; one coastal defence missile brigade; three fighter regiments; one helicopter regiment; and two air-defence missile regiments. Moscow is now working to deploy further air, sea, and land forces on the peninsula. At first glance, current deployments seem defensive, as they primarily concern coastal-defence assets such as the P-500 Bazalt, P-700 Granit, and P-800 Oniks anti-ship missiles; the S-300 and S-400 air-defence missile systems; and naval infantry brigades capable of combined-arms manoeuvres.
For the time being, Russian troops based on Crimea are unable to conduct major offensive operations such as those to establish a land bridge from the peninsula to the rest of Ukraine or to invade a NATO member with an amphibious assault. Indeed, the strip of land connecting Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland is very narrow, while Ukrainian forces are no longer the disorganised assembly of light infantry they were in 2014. Moreover, the Ukrainian army has sizable mobile mechanised reserves and is prepared to defend the isthmus. There are several small lagoons along the edge of Ukrainian-controlled territory, but Russian forces could only cross them with extensive support from engineer units. Such an effort would be time-consuming, allowing Ukraine to throw a great number of reserves into battle. Moreover, the Sea of Azov is very shallow, preventing most Russian naval ships from operating freely within it. Russia’s Serna-class fast landing crafts (three of which are in service) can access most of the sea, but they are small, carrying roughly 50 tonnes of cargo each. These vessels were made to land special operations forces in enemy territory rather than to conduct large-scale amphibious assaults.
With its current deep-water amphibious assault capacity, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet could deploy roughly one naval infantry regiment from Crimea. This would be a powerful force to deploy in an assault on a non-NATO state such as Georgia, but insufficient to challenge NATO head-on (if the alliance’s forces were alerted in time). And, in launching a surprise attack on Ukraine, Russia has much better options than to deploy its forces from Crimea. However, Moscow will soon complete its submarine and missile-craft modernisation programme for the Black Sea Fleet, after which yard capacity to build newer, more capable amphibious assault ships will become available.
Nonetheless, the presumably defensive nature of Russia’s current military disposition in Crimea provides the basis for its aggressive activities near the peninsula. Russia’s littoral gunboats and Federal Security Service border patrol craft can operate freely within range of its shore-based missile units and air defence assets. If any other power wanted to assert freedom of navigation in the area, it would have to destroy these shore-based forces. As this would mean striking assets in what Russia considers to be its own territory, this would have grave political and strategic consequences. Furthermore, penetrating Russia’s Crimean fortress – which is still possible, in theory – would require direct and substantial US military support. On their own, none of the Black Sea states can confront Russia nor even hedge against further Russian brinkmanship.
Moscow’s claims on Crimea and manipulation of public administration in line with this – seen in Russian enterprises’ exploitation of undersea resources near the peninsula, as well as the Russian authorities’ tolls on international waterways and arbitrary inspections of coastal shipping – constantly irritates and provokes its neighbours. Russian-Ukrainian disputes on the Sea of Azov, and Russia’s de facto blockade of the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, provide the most high-profile examples of this. Russian forces’ interference with oil rigs west of the Crimea is also cause for concern, as the Russian navy once closed sea routes to Odessa. Russia’s capture of Ukrainian naval vessels in international waters off the coast of Crimea and its decision to subject their crew to a show trial in Moscow resemble the kind of state-orchestrated piracy unseen in Europe since the demise of the north African corsair states.
However, there are some signs of détente as well. In March, Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty on fishing rights in the Sea of Azov, which set quotas and established bilateral consultations on related issues. (Although the treaty came about partly due to Ukraine’s detention of Russian fishermen for violations of Ukrainian fishing quotas, it appears that some sort of privateering could become the new normal between the states.)
Russia has been further enhanced its freedom of movement in the Black Sea through its growing strategic understanding with Turkey. While Moscow and Ankara are still at odds over their endgames in Syria and Iraq, they have kept their disagreements in check. Both want to prevent the US from increasing its presence in Black Sea and prefer to resolve their strategic disputes through direct negotiations. Although it does not recognise or endorse the annexation of Crimea, Turkey has no desire to be a counterweight to Russia. Yet, as the guardian of the Turkish Straits, Ankara is entitled to constrain the foreign military presence in the Black Sea. As such, it limits non-Black Sea states’ naval presence there: they can either deploy a squadron of warships in the sea for a maximum of three weeks, or they can deploy only one warship there at a time.
Many geopolitical analysts emphasise the importance of the Black Sea Fleet to Moscow’s great-power games in the Mediterranean and Africa: the fleet actively supports Russian operations in Syria, as well as those in Libya, the Central African Republic, Senegal, and other countries. However, one needs to remember that Russia is primarily interested in its neighbourhood, and conducts most of its high-profile naval missions further afield using the Northern Fleet.
Thus, for the Kremlin, protecting the Black Sea from foreign influence remains more important than competing with the West in other regions. The Kremlin may soon achieve this goal. Among Crimea’s 13 airfields and airstrips, three have been reconstructed, two are under civilian use, and four are undergoing reconstruction or expansion. Several naval and land bases await reconstruction. Equally, Russia is restoring and rebuilding storage sites, ammunition dumps, and fuel depots to supply larger military contingents and improve its electronic intelligence-collection facilities on the peninsula. From Crimea, Russia can monitor radio communications and other electronic emissions deep in Ukraine and the Black Sea Region. Over time, this will strengthen the Russian military’s understanding of the deployments, procedures, and readiness levels of other nations, including NATO members.
Russia’s naval build-up in the Black Sea initially looks unspectacular. Yet despite delays in Russia’s deep-water shipbuilding programmes, the Black Sea fleet will receive a further three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates (joining the three already in service) as its new main surface combatants, and Buyan-M-class missile boats for littoral operations, as well as patrol gunboats, minesweepers, tenders, and workboats. With the unsinkable Crimean peninsula serving as a kind of aircraft carrier, they are quite capable of quickly defeating any other Black Sea state’s navy or – in peacetime – denying it naval or commercial access.
This means that the Kremlin can prevent Georgia, Ukraine, and even Romania and Bulgaria from using their sea lines of communication and exclusive economic zones. For now, only the United States has deployed forces capable of stopping the Black Sea from slipping into a security black hole. The US regularly deploys large surface combatants to the sea and ensures that they visit friendly ports as a demonstration of force. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has deployed F-15 fighters and P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft to Romanian city of Constanta, to monitor Russia’s growing military presence in the region.
The Black Sea states’ will only be able to protect their maritime rights with outside assistance in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; coastal defence; and patrol operations. Be they NATO allies or otherwise, none of their navies is in a position to compete with the Black Sea fleet on its own. European nations are reluctant to follow the US in deploying warships to the Black Sea – although, given the restriction of the Montreux Convention, a multilateral fleet would be the only feasible way to establish a permanent international presence in the Black Sea. This is a pity, as it demonstrates Europe’s dependence on Washington in security matters. And, with further possible conflict over territorial waters looming in the Arctic, Europeans should not leave Moscow with the impression that they lack solidarity and can be divided in matters of international law, maritime rights, or access to international waters.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.