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Who needs joint NATO fleet in the Black Sea?

The key topic for the next NATO summit in July is the alliance’s activities in the Balkans. In their wish to strengthen their military presence in that region, the United States and its allies seek to convince the world community that Russia is a threat to it and that it is necessary to make NATO stronger, especially in the Black Sea. Here the Balkan governments are facing dilemma: on the one hand, they want to please the US and NATO, on the other, they are afraid of Russia’s reaction.

Quite recently, the Bulgarians refused to take part in NATO’s project to create an anti-Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said that his country was not going to join any anti-Russian fleets and promised to send there his defense and foreign ministers if they continued pushing that idea. Later Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev and Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev rejected Romania’s initiative to create a joint NATO fleet in the Black Sea. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis later explained that their initiative was misinterpreted: what they meant was organizing joint Romanian-Bulgarian-Turkish maneuvers under NATO’s aegis.

But the reality is that in early 2016 Romania suggested forming a permanent NATO force in the Black Sea. Turkey welcomed the idea. In mid May 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that the Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake and “if we don’t take action, history will not forgive us.” NATO was glad to hear this and urged its members, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, to help it to enlarge its presence in the Black Sea in order to curb Russia as a threat to NATO’s unity and territorial integrity. Ukraine also wants to take part in this project but is waiting to see what happens at NATO’s July summit. It is exactly during that summit that Romania is expected to advance the initiative. The fleet is supposed to comprise ships from Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States.

Russia’s reaction was easy to predict. Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova said that this might force them to take action to ensure own security. Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Glushko said that Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, who all have own fleets in the Black Sea, must comply with the Montreux Convention as a guarantee of regional stability and security.

The point is that none of the Black Sea fleets is a match to the Russian navy, especially now that the Russians have deployed up-to-the-minute arms in Crimea. The best the Bulgarians have is Wielingen, with the other ships still using Soviet-time arms. The Romanian navy is bigger (one torpedo boat destroyer, six corvettes, six missile and torpedo boats, one mine planter and four mine sweepers). But they too use mostly Soviet-time arms. Turkey has over 20 frigates and corvettes, Diesel submarines and naval aviation. The Ukrainians’ statement can hardly be taken seriously as they may just want to provoke the Russians. So, the initiative is not so much a project to reinforce NATO fleets in the Black Sea as the Americans’ wish to reshape the system of military presence in the region.

According to the Montreux Convention, ships of non-Black Sea states have the right to stay in the Black Sea for no more than 21 days. This prevents the Americans and their allies to enlarge their presence in the sea and to organize large-scale maneuvers. This annoys the Americans, especially now that the Russians are actively enlarging their presence in the region. The idea first appeared after Russia’s success in Syria, where the Russians effectively used their Black Sea forces. Well aware that direct pressure might provoke a conflict, NATO decided to act through its satellites.

Until now almost all NATO events in the Black Sea have been mostly demonstrative even though US and NATO member ships can regularly be seen in the region. For example, the US Porter destroyer was involved in Operation Atlantic Resolve in early June. And this is not the only ship that came from overseas to protect the interests of the Americans and their allies. Having no chance to have a permanent fleet of their own in the sea, the Americans are trying to from a NATO fleet they will be able to control and use as a weapon against Russia. Their Porter destroyer has SM-3 missiles, which according to the Russians, can pose a threat to their strategic nuclear forces in the European part of Russia. And this is just one of the problems the Russians may face if the Americans get stronger in the Black Sea.

They in Sofia, Bucharest and Ankara are well aware of the consequences this all may have. Any measure against Russia will receive a counter-measure. In fact, none of those three Black Sea states wants to spoil its relations with the Russians (just remember Erdogan’s last letter to Putin). On the other hand, they can’t oppose the Americans. So, even if the Romanians and the Turks mention the project at NATO’s July summit, it will be a bit different story. But whatever it is, it will not add stability in the region.

Yuri Pavlovets, specially for EADaily

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