A Georgian coast guard vessel at its base in Poti. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
When NATO officials announced last month that they were planning to increase the alliance's presence on the Black Sea, they noted that the details of what that would look like are still being worked out. Since then, Georgia and Ukraine have offered creative solutions about how they might chip in -- with NATO's help, of course.
The Black Sea has become one of the most dynamic sites of confrontation between Russia and NATO since Russia's annexation of Crimea, with both sides substantially stepping up their military activities in, around, and over the sea. But one limitation to an expanded NATO presence in the sea is the Montreux Convention, the 1936 international agreement that regulates the use of the Bosphorus straits. It restricts the presence of warships from non-littoral states to 21 days in the Black Sea. That affects all NATO countries other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. But NATO aspirant Georgia had one idea.
"One of the possibilities for strengthening the capabilities of NATO in the Black Sea is frequent visits of alliance warships, but there is a restraining factor here -- the Montreux Convention," said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia, Georgia's chief of general staff. "One possibility is if NATO helps Georgia and Ukraine strengthen their military fleets, which costs a lot of money. Or, for example, create a coast guard base on Georgia's coast." He suggested that such a base could be "near Poti -- a port with strategic significance."
An S-400 missile defense system in use by Russian armed forces. (photo: mil.ru)
Senior Turkish officials say that Russia is now the leading contender in its seemingly never-ending competition to pick a multi-billion-dollar air defense system. The news will surely come as an annoyance to Turkey's NATO partners, which may be precisely the point, some analysts say.
To review: in 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for its multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, Ankara eventually abandoned the procurement and in 2015 announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
The crux of the NATO objection to the Chinese pick was that it would expose sensitive alliance data to Beijing. Turkey countered that only China was willing to give Turkey the production information with which it would eventually be able to manufacture the system on its own -- a key demand in Ankara's tender -- and at a much lower cost than western offers, to boot. Analysts generally saw Turkey's gambit as a means of bargaining with its American and European partners so that the latter might sweeten their deals.
Now that story seems set to repeat all over again, this time with Russia instead of China.
"It seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country's need at the moment,'' Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on February 22.
The issue will likely be discussed, if not finally decided, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia next month.
"The talks are continuing on the S-400," Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin,
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting NATO exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO countries have agreed to increase the alliance's activities around the Black Sea, including more air and naval patrols of the sea, further increasing pressure in an area Russia considers to be of vital strategic importance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision at last week's defense ministerial in Brussels. "Today, we agreed on two additional maritime measures: an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness, and a maritime coordination function for our Standing Naval Forces when operating with other Allied forces in the Black Sea region," he said.
Stoltenberg didn't provide any more specific information, but that seems to fall short of what was originally being proposed by Romania: some sort of permanent NATO structure dealing with the Black Sea. Asked for more details, a NATO official told The Bug Pit that the specifics were still being worked out, but thus far the plan involved a greater tempo of air and sea patrols, and expanding the already existing land forces brigade based in Romania:
The Black Sea is key to NATO’s security and in response to Russia’s build-up there, the Alliance is increasing its presence in the region. On land, this presence will be built around a Romanian-led multinational brigade. It will focus on the training and interoperability of allied forces. This year we also plan more air patrols over the Black Sea and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces will be in the Black Sea more frequently for training and port visits. This will increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.
President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia will try to enlist its post-Soviet allies in shoring up its western border against NATO, a senior security official has said. Those allies, however, have shown little interest in getting dragged into Russia's fight with the West, setting the stage for a rupture between Moscow and its ostensible partners.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military alliance, will discuss how to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe at its next summit, scheduled for December 26. That's according to Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO's general secretary, in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
"We should understand precisely what is happening around our borders, why NATO is bringing in weapons, creating infrastructure," Boryuzha said. "It's transferring an additional four battalions [toward Russia's borders], why are they doing this? And how is the security situation changing in general? How to react, so as to not be too late... This is what the conversation will be about. We shouldn't be quiet and do nothing, seeing how the countries around us are crammed with weapons, units are being deployed."
It's not clear what response Bordyuzha had in mind, as he said it would not entail a military buildup. "We have sufficient forces," he said.
It's also not possible to tell how out of context these statements are, and how high a priority NATO will in fact be for the CSTO. But it's also perhaps telling that on the same day that Bordyuzha's interview was published, the CSTO's own website republished another article from a Russian news website -- a rare thing to see on the CSTO site -- headlined "Is the CSTO Turning Into a NATO Opponent?"
"This decision is the result of internal budget considerations and doesn't have any political character," Puglisi said. "There has been no pressure from Uzbekistan or from other states working with our office. On the contrary, we've always had a warm reception in the region."
NATO opened the Tashkent office in 2013, and used it to coordinate the alliance's activities in the region. That meant, primarily, the logistics of moving war materiel in and out of Afghanistan, the then-special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, said at the time.
The office was tiny -- only four staff members, including two local administrative assistants -- but its departure still seems to represent a further Western military retreat in Central Asia that has been going on for several years.
The American guided-missile destroyer USS Carney enters the Black Sea via Istanbul. (photo: Yörük Işık)
NATO has agreed to come up with a "coordination body" to manage activity in the Black Sea, a step toward formalizing a NATO presence in the region that Russia considers to be its sphere of influence.
Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey -- the three NATO members on the Black Sea -- have been tasked with coming up with a plan to increase the alliance's naval and sea patrols in the region, Romanian Defense Minister Mihnea Motoc said on October 27. That decision was made following a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
“The political decision is to task the allied forces to come up by the end of January with 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,” Motoc said.
Turkey has reportedly invited Russia to bid on an air defense system that has become a sort of geopolitical bellwether, suggesting that Ankara may be using its rapprochement with Moscow to send a message to its Western partners.
On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Turkey since the two countries fell out over Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border last year. And after Putin met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia was "invited" to take part in the air defense tender, Defense News reported, citing Turkish diplomatic and procurement sources.
This would appear to revive the epic saga of Ankara's multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program. In 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for the program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, eventually abandoned the procurement and last year announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
Since then, though, Ankara has been quietly negotiating with the original American and European bidders, Defense News reported. And now Russia makes it a three-way competition.
Russia was one of the bidders in the original competition, with an export version of the S-300VM, but it was the least attractive of the four options: it shared the high price of the Western systems (reportedly double the price the Chinese offered) with the security risk of the Chinese. The crux of NATO's objection to the Chinese system was that it couldn't be securely intregrated with NATO's system; a Russian system would surely be just as dangerous from that perspective.