This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of BlackSeaFor, which was set up back in 2001 in order to enhance peace and stability in the Black Sea region, improve relations among the Black Sea littoral states and increase regional cooperation. To further this mission, BlackSeaFor conducts biannual naval exercises that include ships from all six of the Black Sea littoral states (Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria). The tasks performed during these exercises have varied over the years, but usually include some combination of search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, mine counter measures, CBRN defense and peace support operations. The concrete goal of the exercises is to promote naval interoperability among the participating countries.
During exercises and operations, BlackSeaFor is composed of 4-6 ships (usually one from each state), including one ship that acts as the command and control ship for the mission. There is no regular participation from air or army services. Units allocated to the force remain at their permanent home base locations and come together for exercises and training activities in accordance with jointly prepared programs. The member states retain full command of their ships. Therefore, ships may be withdrawn for national purposes at any time, provided that the other member states are informed. BlackSeaFor is under the operational command of the Black Sea Naval Commanders Committee, which is responsible for the overall planning of all BlackSeaFor activities. Tactical command rests with its commander, normally appointed for a period of one year.
BlackSeaFor has played an important role in increasing interaction among the Black Sea littoral states’ navies. However, its operations and exercises have generally been limited to a fairly basic level, both because of the limited tasks delineated in the political agreement on the force and because of the poor condition of most of the member states’ naval forces. While the member states decided to add counter-terrorism and anti-smuggling operations to the list of BlackSeaFor tasks back in 2005, the poor condition and lack of experience of most of the Black Sea navies has limited their ability to carry out such operations effectively.
These limitations have meant that the military commanders in the participating countries have had somewhat varying views on the program’s usefulness. Under Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine’s military saw the expansion of BlackSeaFor to include counter-terrorism tasks as a way of developing NATO interoperability through the back door, essentially by using exercises and operations with the Turkish Navy as a bridge to NATO. While I haven’t seen any direct discussion of this, I imagine that under Yanukovich, the emphasis has shifted away from the NATO focus toward a greater emphasis on regional initiatives.
Romania has traditionally been less willing to emphasize BlackSeaFor participation, with its navy arguing that it does not adequately reinforce NATO interoperability training because of the diversity of nations involved and the Ministry of Defense fearing that Russia and Turkey might seek to use BlackSeaFor to close off the Black Sea to foreign naval presence. The Bulgarian Ministry of Defense has been more favorable to BlackSeaFor and was supportive of the effort to transform it into the main counter-terrorism organization in the Black Sea.
Russia and Turkey have been the driving forces behind BlackSeaFor since its founding. Both states find it a useful venue for enhancing their bilateral relationship and prefer it to other potential naval cooperation options because it is closed to participation by navies from outside the Black Sea region. Several years ago, they sought to turn the initiative into the main counter-terrorism forum in the Black Sea. While this effort succeeded in having counter-terrorism added to the list of BlackSeaFor’s tasks, it had little practical impact on improving the participating states’ maritime counter-terrorism capabilities.
The overall impact of BlackSeaFor on regional security is also limited by its relatively short duration. On average, each activation lasts for about 20 days, which means that the task force is inactive for about 320 days a year. Most of the region’s navies do not conduct regular anti-smuggling and counter-terrorism operations in the Black Sea outside of the BlackSeaFor activations. Potential terrorists and smugglers thus merely have to make sure that their activities take place outside of the scheduled BlackSeaFor activations. Turkey’s Black Sea Harmony operation is an exception here and is likely far more useful operationally for deterring smuggling and other illegal activity in the Black Sea.
At the same time, BlackSeaFor has been useful an important role in promoting security in the Black Sea region. It is an important venue for security discussions among states that otherwise have few opportunities to meet to discuss security issues. Most significantly, it has provided a venue for the gradual reincorporation of Georgia into regional security discussions and structures. After absenting itself from participation for five years, Georgia gradually returned to BlackSeaFor over the last year. This began with the participation of two staff officers in the April 2010 activation. This year, Georgia actually sent a ship for the first time since April 2006. BlackSeaFor thus becomes the only venue where Russian and Georgian military units have to communicate and work together. This can only be seen as a positive step for long-term regional security and understanding.
Thus, while I am somewhat skeptical of the military contribution of BlackSeaFor to regional security, I think it does have significant value for promoting communication and cooperation among the diverse set of states that make up the Black Sea region. Hopefully the next decade of its functioning will lead to a measurable increase in effectiveness and consequent improvements in regional security.
Originally written for the Turkish blog Bosphorus Naval News.