Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered snap drills to be held by the Aerospace Forces and other branches to evaluate its preparedness against potential aggression. The exercise started on February 7.
Some Western media have accused Moscow of preparing to start an aggression. In reality, the action is taken in response to NATO and Ukraine’s provocative activities in the Black Sea. 16 warships, a submarine and 10 warplanes along with some 2,800 troops from Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Canada, and the US are taking part in exercise ‘Sea Shield 2017’ scheduled to run between February 1 and 11 in the proximity of Russian borders.
HMS Diamond of the UK Royal Navy is sent to participate in the event. It’s a rather symbolic move. This is the first time since the Cold War that a British naval vessel entered the waters of the Black Sea. According to British Defense Minister Michael Fallon, this is the way that the British government confirms its support of Ukraine – a hostile act towards Russia. After the NATO exercise, the ship will visit Odessa to hold bilateral drills with Ukraine. The destroyer has 60 Special Boat Service and Royal Marine commandos on board. It’s logical to expect amphibious landing to be part of the exercise.
According to the Daily Mail, HMS Diamond will lead a NATO task force and help protect 650 British troops who are involved in secret exercises in Ukraine. There is ground to believe that something is cooking up.
NATO defense ministers will meet February 15-16 in Brussels to discuss a package of measures aimed at bolstering military presence in the Black Sea. The proposals on two basic elements for the maritime component – a strengthened training framework and a coordination body for the Black Sea that reports to the specialized NATO command – are expected to be submitted for consideration.
The organization plans to build NATO’s Black Sea presence on land around a Romanian-led multinational framework brigade in the process of formation. Nations who have pledged to contribute include Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the United States. The unit is intended to facilitate the deployment of reinforcements. Georgia and Ukraine will be fully involved in the plans.
Romania calls for a regular trilateral format of joint naval exercises in the Black Sea, along with Turkey and Bulgaria, with the eventual participation of non-littoral NATO members.
The UK, Canada and Poland will send aircraft to be based in the Romanian southeastern Mihail Kogalniceanu air base. Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are also expected to come forward with a plan to increase naval and air patrols. Romania and Bulgaria will host aircraft designed to carry out surveillance missions.
Last September, US and Bulgarian aircraft launched joint regular patrols in the Black Sea. The patrolling mission greatly increases the risk of an accident, especially with the Russian S-400 long range systems stationed in Crimea. Russian aircraft deployed in the Northern Caucasus and Rostov region are capable of controlling the whole Black Sea. President Putin has already warned NATO about the consequences such policy would lead to.
There has been a surge in airspace violations and instances where aircraft are scrambled to intercept foreign jets amid a sharp rise in tensions in the region. For instance, Sea Shield-2017 exercise started with an incident. Ukraine accused Russia of firing at its An-26 cargo aircraft on a training flight. The plane flew provocatively low over an oil rig. A security guard gave flash signals from a signal pistol to prevent the plane from crashing into the drilling tower.
Non-Black Sea NATO members cannot stay in the Black Sea more than 21 days, according to the Montreux Convention. NATO has three members with Black Sea ports in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as two more aspiring members in Ukraine and Georgia.
Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Georgian navies have limited capabilities. It brings to the fore the possibility of major NATO sea powers hand over some of their own warships to them. The ships could be reflagged to beef up permanent naval capabilities in the theater. US warships frequent the Black Sea to provide NATO with long-range first strike capability.
Romania hosts a ballistic missile defense (BMD) site believed to be capable of launching long-range surface-to-surface cruise missiles what constitutes a violation of INF Treaty. Aegis Ashore uses the naval Mk-41 launching system capable of firing such weapons. Located near Caracal in south central Romania, Aegis Ashore is part of the second phase of the so-called «European Phased Adaptive Approach» (EPAA) to an overall NATO missile defense architecture.
Bulgaria also plays a prominent role in NATO’s plans to bolster the bloc’s military presence in the region. This year, Novo Selo, a US military base in Bulgaria, is expected to host more American and NATO troops. The first of three six-month rotations of about 150 US Marines, part of the Black Sea Rotational Force, is due at Novo Selo in September. US Army soldiers come to Bulgaria for training on a rotational basis. Under the 2006 defense cooperation agreement, the United States has access to three Bulgarian military bases.
The US plans to deploy up to 2,500 troops at Novo Selo; the base can hold as many as 5,000 during joint-nation exercises with NATO allies. The facility’s construction is almost finished; the plans are on the way to upgrade the training ranges this year. The upgrade includes adding a helicopter landing zone and an air operations building. The base is expected to host US heavy tanks. A NATO maintenance support area is to be built in Sliven or Plovdiv.
For the US, the Black Sea is a remote region where it has no interest. It’s different for Bulgaria as 80 percent of Bulgarian exports and imports transit the Black Sea and tourism contributes heavily to the country’s economy, increased maritime militarization could have a widespread negative economic impact in case of accidents or clashes.
Nothing justifies the whipping up of tensions by NATO in the Black Sea region. Too provocative and too dangerous. An incident may spark a fire. The INCSEA agreement appears to be dead as the events in the Baltic Sea demonstrate.
While the Islamic State poses a threat to the very existence of NATO members, the alliance is engaged in provocations to intimidate Russia – its natural ally in the fight against the common enemy. Does it meet the interests of the alliance members? It would stand NATO defense chiefs in good stead if they asked themselves this question at the February 15-16 meeting.