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Choppy waters ahead for UK and NATO in the Black Sea (Opinion)

29th July 2021 - 11:50 GMT | by The Clarence in London

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HMS Defender in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, June 2021. (Photo: British Embassy, Kiev)

NATO planners face a tricky challenge from a riled and increasingly assertive Russia in the Black Sea — but they cannot afford to back down.

The UK RN made global headlines in late June when reports claimed that the Russian armed forces had fired warning shots at HMS Defender in the Black Sea, while the Type 45 destroyer was en route to a Ukrainian port.  

The situation quickly became an information battle between the UK and Russian governments, both equally keen to push their version of the truth. Russian claims of shots being fired at the ship were quickly disproven by the UK, which had journalists embarked onboard for the voyage.

Although the incident calmed down almost as quickly as it had started, it is a good reminder of the geopolitical volatility of the Black Sea, and the potential for rapid conflict escalation in what is already a very tense region.

There has been a significant increase in NATO presence in the Black Sea over the last few years, reflecting both membership expansion and also the desire to support Ukraine in its ongoing struggles with Russia. Western warships are now regular visitors into the region, providing presence and a symbol of reassurance to allies about NATO’s ongoing support.

Russia has responded warily to these moves, reacting assertively to foreign warships, escorting them, conducting aggressive flypasts and at times reacting in a way that seems calculated to put the West under pressure. Such activities seem a throwback to the Cold War.

The difference between the Cold War and now, though, is that the space for these incidents to occur and for miscalculations to happen is significantly shorter. Previously it was possible for ships to have tense encounters at sea without it being filmed, or unfurling in almost real time, or with media reporters embedded giving accounts of their experience. This provided space for cooler heads to prevail and incidents to happen without necessarily public awareness or interest.

In the modern world though it is possible for events like this to dominate the media landscape in almost real time, placing huge additional pressure on local commanders. A tactical transit can quickly take on strategic ramifications, while timely media footage can shape the emotions and opinions of a nation almost before the incident is over.

This places huge additional pressure on local commanders to respond under pressure, mindful that their actions could have incredibly serious consequences. For senior officers and ministers, there is perhaps a natural desire as a result to exercise closer scrutiny of the actions of military units during transits like this — raising questions about whether ‘mission command’ is dead.

Moscow has laid down clear markers of its willingness to act in an increasingly assertive manner in contested watersThe Clarence

The incidents involving both Defender and the Dutch warship Evertsen, which was repeatedly ‘buzzed’ by Russian jets a few days later, highlight the policy challenges facing Western navies who wish to operate in the Black Sea.

Moscow has laid down clear markers of its willingness to act in an increasingly assertive manner in contested waters such as off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea). It is also willing to act in a manner that seeks and invites confrontation. For NATO planners, this poses a challenge.

The Russian acts are clearly aimed at trying to dissuade unwanted visitors from entering the Black Sea, or operating in areas deemed central to Russian interests. By putting visiting warships under significant pressure, the Russian goal seems to be to create sufficient discomfort in foreign capitals about the risks of miscalculation and mistakes that policymakers and defence planners will view a naval deployment into the Black Sea as provocative and doing more harm than good.

Arguably even the UK recognised this, judging by the leak of sensitive MoD documents accidentally left at a bus stop in Kent, which noted the likelihood of a strong Russian response to the planned transit by Defender.

If the Russians succeed in deterring NATO from the Black Sea, Ukraine would be marginalised and Western attention would turn away from the annexed Crimea — in effect legitimising in name their occupation of the peninsula, and reducing the likelihood of foreign ships being willing to sail in the waters off its coast.

For a small amount of reasonably assertive posturing, and an effective use of information operations to turn tactical activity into strategic narratives, Russia could gain effective control over the Black Sea, turning it into a mare clausum.

It is vital for other NATO powers (especially those bordering the Black Sea) to prevent this nightmare scenario, both to stand up for the interests of the Ukraine and to send a message about freedom of navigation (a highly relevant issue given the increasing territorial disputes in the South China Sea).

HNLMS Evertsen (pictured in a roll test in mid-July) accompanied HMS Defender in its Black Sea voyage  — and the Dutch frigate also received unwelcome attention from the Russians. (Photo: Royal Netherlands Navy)

This means being prepared to contemplate further operations and repeatedly sailing in this region, despite knowing that the Russian response will be aggressive and intended to stage a media showdown. Is this a price worth paying to show support, and stand up for long held principles, or does it exacerbate an already difficult situation?

At a tactical level there is a question on whether this sort of operation helps or hinders the participants. A modern air defence destroyer, assigned to track local air activity or monitor the surface situation, would activate a variety of systems and sensors that could be monitored by Russia.

The potential intelligence gain to the Russians from such a move is significant, but equally not doing so may leave ships dangerously unprepared or unable to fully understand the complexity of the situation they are in – making things worse.

For naval planners this raises the issue of which hulls to send into a complex region – the Royal Navy has mostly relied on using the Type 45s in the Black Sea, but more recently a a Batch 2 River-class OPV (HMS Trent) and Echo-class survey vessels have also been seen operating there.

The use of the River class is a challenge – while a capable offshore patrol vessel, these ships are not designed for use in complex naval engagements. Not as speedy as a major escort ship, and lacking both offensive punch and complex sensors, the River class is far more exposed than a Type 45 during riskier transits.

It is unclear whether the RN views the Defender incident as a good opportunity to push the case for modest upgrades to its River-class hulls, possibly adding additional sensors or an increase to overall weapons fit.

While the ships are exceptionally unlikely to end up in a shooting war with Russia, conducting increased operations in the Black Sea against may well call for better fits to these ships to ensure they understand the circumstances of their situation. As things stand, Russian forces would enjoy not just a military but also an information advantage over the RN OPVs.

For a small amount of reasonably assertive posturing, and an effective use of information operations to turn tactical activity into strategic narratives, Russia could gain effective control over the Black Sea.The Clarence

The worst risk for the RN and its allies in NATO is that a relatively undergunned and underequipped platform like the River class ends up outmatched and unable to cope with the pressure placed on it by the Russians – seeking to withdraw, tail metaphorically between its legs, or more worryingly, finding itself in a situation outside of its control and potentially damaged or worse as a result of poor judgement and situational awareness.

Navy planners may find themselves required to think more often about this sort of exercise in the future too, given developments in the UK’s links to Ukraine. The MoD has confirmed that two Sandown mine warfare vessels currently in Royal Navy service will be sold to Ukraine shortly, as part of a wider sales package for new ships.

While this deal is good for the UK defence industry, and helps further strengthen the ties between London and Kiev, it will increase the likelihood that Royal Navy vessels will be expected to spend more time in the region. This could see increased naval presence, particularly of similar mine warfare vessels which could be used to help train and work with the Ukrainian Navy,  which in turn could be subject to Russian interference.

With RN warships likely to be spending considerably more time in the region, to ensure they are properly protected and able to operate with minimal challenges may put pressure on both the RN and other NATO nations to provide additional force protection (such as escort vessels or maritime patrol aircraft) to support and monitor the situation. This in turn not only increases the military presence in the region, but may also raise tensions with the Russians who will regard it as provocation.

Navigating these complex waters and trying to find a compromise which will see an appropriate presence, able to handle provocation, while not being outmatched is going to be key here. In what is a tactical operation, the potential for a strategic miscalculation is high, which in turn places huge pressure on the UK and NATO commanders.

Reassuring allies, while trying to build capability in Ukraine, stick to the principles of maritime law, and also send a clear signal that NATO does not recognise Russian actions in Crimea, while also trying to avoid confrontation with Russia is going to be difficult. The potential for inadvertent miscalculation is very high.

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