Cooperation Between European Small Navies in the Black Sea: Potential for Alternative Naval Operations


Free seafaring in the Black Sea has been limited since the Russian Annexation of Crimea. How can Europe assist its partners in the region while defusing tensions at the same time?

Map of the Black Sea and surrounding regions

Since the illegal annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, the Black Sea has become an increasingly contested, confrontational and challenging maritime domain. Not only does Russia now share a de-facto maritime border with NATO in the Black Sea, there is also growing concern that Russia is seeking to transform the Black Sea, along with the Sea of Azov, into virtual internal waterways, where it can have unfettered and unchallenged maritime control.  

To address Russia’s attempts to exert its power in the Black Sea, NATO member states have significantly increased their naval presence operations; what are termed by the US ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPS). FONOPS consist of naval operations designed to support freedom of the seas where there has been an attempt to unlawfully restrict the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea (‘Annual Freedom of Navigation Report, Fiscal Year 2018’, US Department of Defense, Report to Congress, 31 December 2018). FONOPS are therefore a particular and very specific form of maritime presence operations. In the first six months of 2019 six US warships conducted maritime operations in the Black Sea demonstrating what Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, the US 6th Fleet Commander, described as the US’s ‘dedication to freedom of navigation and our commitment to NATO allies and partners in the Black Sea.’ (Scott Wyland, ‘USS Porter enters Black Sea as Navy continues to boost patrols in tense region’, Stars and Stripes, 12 October 2019). During 2019 NATO’s Standing Naval Forces also conducted three patrols in the Black Sea, spending 20 days in July visiting Bulgaria, Ukraine and participating in exercises Breeze and Sea Breeze (‘NATO Ships patrol the Black Sea’, MARCOM Media Centre, 22 October 2019). Unlike FONOPS these more general maritime presence operations conducted by NATO member states are less explicitly about freedom of navigation, although this an important element of these operations, and more about reassuring allies and capacity building.

In theory, FONOPS and the more generic maritime presence operations in the Black Sea might be regarded as relatively benign operations. In practice, NATO and, in particular, US FONOPS have a range of unintended negative consequences in that they can create a security dilemma: these operations are perceived by Russia as threatening Moscow’s interests; Russia then responds by further increasing its aggressive rhetoric, posturing and action; this further exacerbates insecurity in an already tense region. The problem is that FONOPS by their very nature are focused and adversarial. The aim is to send a message to a particular state. Given the requirement to reassure NATO members and partners, this paper examines whether there are alternatives to FONOPS in the Black Sea.

In order to address this question, this paper is divided into three parts. The first part examines how Russia’s actions since the annexation have led to a significantly increase in NATO FONOPS in the region. The second part looks briefly at the current NATO FONOPS responses and the counter security dynamic. The third part discusses a number of possible alternatives to NATO-led FONOPS in the Black Sea.

1. Russia’s actions in the Black Sea

The first and most important reason for the expansion of NATO FONOPS in the Black Sea has been the significant increase in Russia’s military superiority and its subsequent ability and determination to project maritime power in the region (‘On Alert, Crimea to get BUK missile systems’, Sputnik International, 27 February 2017; ‘Russia deploys more surface-to-air missiles in Crimean build-up’, Reuters, 13 January 2018). Additionally, there has also been a significant increase in conflict at sea (‘Ukraine weekly views reason for Russia’s Azov Sea blockade’, Fokus, Kiev, 3 August 2018 as reported on BBC Monitoring online). In November 2018, the attack and seizure by the Russian coast guard, of three Ukrainian naval ships and 24 sailors (recently released) heading from Odessa to the port of Mariupol demonstrated Russia’s willingness to use its maritime power to ensure its control of the Sea of Azov (Olga Rudenko, ‘Russia’s attack in Black Sea, as it happened (EXPLAINER)’, Kyiv Post, 26 November 2018).

2. NATO responses

In light of increased tensions, and to reassure NATO allies and partners, NATO members have increased the number of FONOPS in the Black Sea (‘House Resolution 116’, 116th Congress, 1st Session of the House of Representatives, 8 February 2019).

There are, however, limits to NATO’s FONOPS in the Black Sea. Despite calls by the former President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, for a NATO naval presence in the Sea of Azov, NATO has not extended its FONOPS into this enclosed sea. The Sea of Azov is an inland, semi-enclosed sea and is governed by an agreement signed between Russia and Ukraine in 2003 in which it is designated an internal waterway, and forbids any foreign warship from entering without the consent of both states. As such the straits and the body of water it leads to are controlled by both Russia and Ukraine; any NATO FONOPs would lack legitimacy and perhaps, more importantly, be seen as highly provocative by Moscow. For NATO members there are also both practical and strategic costs of operations: There have been a number of well documented and increasingly aggressive Russian intercepts of NATO ships and aircraft operating in international waters or airspace over the Black Sea engaged in presence operations (Steven Stashwick, ‘Russian jet buzzes US surveillance plane over Black Sea’, The Diplomat, 1 Feb 2018). These incidents significantly increase the chances of an unintended military escalation. This problem can be compounded because FONOPS can often be viewed as a relatively low-level and benign mode of naval power, a belief that can lead to insufficient consideration of possible second and third-order effects, and under-developed strategies to cope with unforeseen consequences. At the same time, the benefits of FONOPS are difficult to quantify in objective terms, since such outcomes as ‘reassurance’ and ‘deterrence’ are inherently difficult to measure. Thus, as well as generating operational security concerns, NATO FONOPS also create unintended negative security implications and exacerbate an already strained relationship with the Russian Federation.

3. Potential alternative naval operations in the Black Sea?

Given these security challenges, what is the future of FONOPS in the Black Sea? One approach adopted by NATO has been to shift operational environments - from the sea to the air. NATO’s Air Policing South mission is a recognition of the importance of safeguarding the integrity of NATO airspace over the Black Sea (George Allison, ‘Italian Air Force conducts first NATO intercept in Romania’, UK Defence Journal, 16 June 2019). The setting up of NATO’s enhanced Air Policing in Romania demonstrates alliance solidarity and joint force, sends a clear deterrent message without the practical security costs and risks involved in maritime based FONOPS.

While FONOPS have traditionally been led by blue water or medium sized navies, a more innovative approach might be to include smaller navies in maritime presence operations. The inclusion of smaller navies or even a maritime presence operation made up of and led by smaller European navies would continue to provide the tangible benefits of having ships at sea but could go some way to mitigate the escalation-prone dynamic currently in operation in the Black Sea. While the use of smaller navies would still send a political message of support to NATO members and allies in the Black Sea, it could reduce the risk of escalation as smaller European states navies are ultimately seen as less threatening than the US Navy in particular. Examples might include Belgium, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

The use of smaller European navies, particularly those who are not NATO members, could also help in creating a less threatening environment. For instance, a maritime presence operation led by, the Irish Naval Service (INS) would have all of the benefits and a lot fewer risks (Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller (eds.) Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security, Routledge: 2019). The use of what might be seen as more neutral European state navies would demonstrate European commitment to this theatre with less risk of antagonising the Russian Federation. Other non-NATO navies could be used in this role including perhaps Finland, and Malta. The Maltese Maritime Squadron would, however, need considerable support to operate in the Black Sea as they have very limited maritime capabilities.

The adoption of ‘local solutions to local problems’, could be another alternative approach to NATO FONOPS in the Black Sea. This strategy would encourage the Black Sea littoral states to work more closely together in the maritime domain through the reactivation of the two key maritime security operations that have traditionally played an important role in confidence building prior to the Russian annexation in 2014. Turkey should be encouraged to take the lead in reactivating Operation Black Sea Harmony, a Turkish led regional maritime security operation undertaken by Black Sea littoral states, set up to address terrorism and asymmetric threats in the Black Sea, and so perform the equivalent of maritime presence operations. Romania and Bulgaria could be encouraged to reactivate BLACKSEAFOR as a vehicle for increasing NATO members’ maritime cooperation with the two NATO partners in the Black Sea.

An additional alternative to FONOPS would be for European states to further increase their support for the development of maritime capabilities of the Black Sea littoral states. Support for the Ukrainian navy could be a complementary means of allowing the development of ‘local solutions to local problems’ in the Sea of Azov. NATO members have consistently demonstrated their support for the rebuilding of the Ukrainian navy. In December 2018, the US state department announced its support for the development of Ukraine’s naval capabilities with $10 million in foreign military financing. The United Kingdom (UK) has also pledged to support and mentor the Ukrainian Navy and has deployed training teams from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army (‘After calls for Black Sea FONOPS, US to support Ukraine Navy with $10m investment’, Naval Today, 24 December 2018).

A more innovative approach might be to think about the Black Sea maritime environment in a much wider and more inclusive sense. For instance, European support for the development of a deep-water port in Anaklia in Georgia. This could prove particularly important as Russia is also building its own deep-water port in the Kerch Strait (Emil Avdaliani, ‘The US and the Black Sea: A troublesome year ahead’, Modern Diplomacy, 1 December 2019). Investment and support for this stalled project would encourage trade in the Black Sea and ultimately reduce Russian dominance. In addition, the EU and key member states could speed up the development of the blue economy of the Black Sea states as a means of reducing tension in the long term.  A strategy focused on encouraging trade, addressing common environmental issues and promoting tourism in the region would encourage the multilateral use of the sea in non-adversarial ways.

A final alternative approach to FONOPS would be to build a European maritime alliance for multilateralism in the Black Sea. The UK, France and Germany, three key European states with important interests in the Black Sea, should work closely together to take the lead in this area. This could involve maritime presence operations by their combined navies, support for smaller navies and regional maritime security initiatives discussed above as well taking the lead in supporting the multilateral use of the sea in less adversarial ways. France and Germany in particular can play an important role in promoting a more peaceful region alongside the UK as both are signatures of the 2015 Minsk Agreement aimed at resolving the conflict in the east of Ukraine.

This paper has argued that there are a number of possible alternatives to FONOPS in the Black Sea which could go some way to alleviating practical and strategic security costs. While all of these solutions have their advantages and disadvantages, there is no real effective alternative to ‘boots on the ground’ – maritime presence ultimately requires ships in theatre.  Air operations and maritime capacity building of the Ukrainian and other NATO littoral members states navies are necessary, but not sufficient. Nonetheless, there could be an opportunity and impetus for the development of a new and more innovative approach to NATO FONOPS in the near future for a number of reasons. First, the US is likely to focus increasingly on domestic issues with the forthcoming impeachment proceedings against President Trump and the Presidential elections in 2020. This more domestic focus could shift Washington’s attention away from the Black Sea – creating the space perhaps for a fresh and more innovative look at developing more inclusive, and what might be seen as less threatening, European maritime presence operations. Second, there is a high degree of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in many western capitals, although this has eased slightly with the election of President Zelensky earlier this year. Kyiv has struggled to address endemic corruption and engage in systematic economic and political reform. And lastly, there are also divisions within Europe as to how, and to what extent, NATO and the EU should engage with the Russian Federation. This debate has been particularly evident in ongoing debates amongst European states as to whether or not sanctions against Russia should be lifted.