Russia in the Black Sea

In his recent article in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vladimir Socor makes the case that Russia poses a significant threat in the Black Sea region. In the aftermath of last year’s war with Georgia and given continued hostile rhetoric against Ukraine, there is certainly a case to be made for Russia posing a threat to at least some of its neighbors. But Socor argues that Russia poses a naval threat to the region, and this is certainly not the case in any way.

Most disturbingly, his discussion of the conduct and outcome of Russia’s war with Georgia in August 2008 is inaccurate or misleading on at least five major points.

1) First of all, he is wrong in stating that:

According to Russian media accounts from naval sources in the war’s aftermath, the Russian naval group moved slowly from Sevastopol in the direction of Georgia, four or five days before the August 8 assault.

Both the Russian media and independent observers in Sevastopol were quite clear that the Russian naval group left Sevastopol within 24 hours of the start of hostilities, not before they began. This was reported at the time in Vremia Novostei (August 11, 2008) and in a subsequent analysis (Flag Rodiny, October 3, 2008). Also, some of the ships headed to Novorossiisk, rather than directly toward Georgia.

2) As part of his argument for Russia’s naval threat in the region, Socor discusses the Russian attack on Georgian ships during the war, but fails to mention that the Georgian ships were heading directly for the Russian ships at the time of the confrontation, that they furthermore refused to respond to hails and warnings to turn back from the Russian ships, and only then were attacked by the Russian ships.

(My analysis of the naval deployment, the battle with Georgian ships, and the conflict’s impact on Black Sea naval security can be found here.)

On a side note, Socor neglects the fundamental fact that the war was started by Georgia. It is true that they were responding to provocations by Ossetian militias, but a frontal assault on a city is a major escalation from occasional firefights across a disputed border. Furthermore, Georgian troops attacked Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area. It doesn’t matter if the peacekeepers were there to serve as a trigger for Russian intervention. The fact that Georgian troops attacked them justified the subsequent Russian military response, although I believe that crossing the Ossetia-Georgia border was unjustified and likely in violation of international law.  Those who disagree might want to think about how the US would react if (for example) in 1999 or 2000 the Serbian army staged a deliberate military attack on Kosovo that targeted American peacekeepers in the area.

3) Socor argues that the naval operation was in violation of the 1997 basing treaty that gave Russia the right to occupy the Sevastopol naval base for 20 years. My understanding was that Russia had gone to some lengths to stay within the letter, if not the spirit, of the treaty (by sending ships to Novorossiisk before they went to Georgia). But I lack the legal expertise to follow all the intricacies of that treaty, so I will not argue that point. At the same time, analysts who are familiar with the terms of the treaty argued at the time that Ukrainian President Yushchenko’s decree “requiring the Russian Black Sea Fleet command to provide advanced notification to Ukrainian authorities in each case when its ships and personnel exit and re-enter Ukrainian territory” was not in accord with the 1997 treaty, which cannot be modified unilaterally. If this is the case, then Russia is perfectly within its rights to ignore the decree.

4) Socor condemns Russia for seeking that it “will try to prolong the stationing of its fleet beyond the 2017 deadline.” I’m not sure why this is a problem. Everyone knows that Russia would prefer to keep its fleet in Sevastopol. Furthermore, the 1997 treaty has a provision for a five-year extension. So why wouldn’t the Russian leadership press for a renewal. Given the political instability that has plagued Ukraine since the Orange revolution there is a decent chance that at some point in the next 5-6 years, there will be a Ukrainian government in place that will be on more friendly terms with Moscow and will sign such a renewal. Russia is hoping for such an outcome while also making contingency plans to remove the fleet to Novorossiisk (and perhaps other bases as well) if the renewal does not come through.

5) Finally, I should address the core of Socor’s argument that Russia’s recent activities have created a situation of maritime security weakness in the Black Sea. He complains that “the current situation in the Black Sea amounts to a Russian-Turkish naval condominium.” It seems to me that the Black Sea has been a Russian-Turkish condominium for decades, so I’m not sure what the difference is now.

Furthermore, I would argue that Russian behavior in the Black Sea is generally quite restrained, because its general goal is to work with the West, but only under conditions of respect and equality. This was shown by its resumption of cooperation with NATO in the aftermath of the Georgian war as soon as NATO was willing to do so.

In general, Russian foreign policy has two main drivers: the desire for respect in the international community and the desire for economic advantage. Everything it does can be derived from one or both of these overarching goals. In other words, Russia is fundamentally a status quo power in the international community and will not act to destabilize that community.

One final note for those who might disagree with my threat assessment above. Even if Socor is right that Russia seeks to destabilize the security situation in the region, the Black Sea Fleet is in no condition to threaten Turkey or NATO. This was clearly evident in the aftermath of the Georgia war, when the motley collection of whatever ships NATO countries happened to have nearby was clearly militarily superior to the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Since Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members, the only countries that could potentially feel threatened by Russia are Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia has already been defeated. If Russia wanted to, it could conquer the entire country in a manner of weeks, though it would undoubtedly face a guerrilla campaign for years to come. That’s not in its interests and is not going to happen. Ukraine is currently being treated in Russia as enemy #1, but much depends on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. In any case, the placement of a Russian navy base on Ukrainian territory actually makes a Russian attack on Ukraine much more difficult logistically and may well serve to stabilize the security situation in the region.

2 thoughts on “Russia in the Black Sea

  1. How would you say that Russian would define “status quo” vis-a-vis the Near Abroad? I get that Bulgaria and Turkey have little to worry about and that Georgia was defeated. But it seems that Russia can accomplish a great deal in controlling places like Georgia without actually needing to invade or “take” the country. Militarily, this may indicate maintaining a status quo, but politically, it may not.

  2. Julie,

    I think for Russia the status quo in the near abroad involves maintaining some level of influence over these states foreign policies. It doesn’t mean that they always have to do what Russia wants (witness Belarus’ recent rapprochement with the EU and Kyrgyzstan’s renewal of the Manas lease with the US). But it does mean being treated as the “elder brother,” i.e. with respect. This is what Putin et al see as lacking in Georgia and Ukraine, and why they are so hostile to the current leadership in both places. They would love for both governments to be replaced by people who treat Russia with the respect they think it deserves. And that doesn’t mean that they are under any illusions that someone like Yanukovich will always do what they want. After all, Lukashenka and Karimov certainly don’t, but Moscow continues to support them.

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