MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: The Russian military build up near Ukraine is happening at sea too

Russia has “been very thoughtful about how they’ve been ramping up their level of activity” in the Black Sea, said Bryan Clark, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.JUSTIN KATZ February 03, 2022 BREAKING DEFENSE

–  HMS Defender makes it way up the river Clyde past Braehead in Glasgow, Scotland. The crew of the Defender was subject to increased Russian aggression while transiting the Black Sea last summer. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON: The build-up of land forces at the border between Russia and Ukraine has captured the world’s attention for the last two months. But what has gone less noticed in the national discussion are Russia’s activities in the Black Sea, a body of water with a history of international contention and strict laws governing maritime activities.

Analysts have tracked increased naval activity in and out of the Black Sea since the start of the Ukraine crisis, with researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies having found that Russia has increased its amphibious assault ship presence in the region by what amounts to an additional 1.5 battalion tactical groups. (A Russian BTG usually numbers around 800 personnel.)

But while speaking in Washington this week, Adm. Pierre Vandier, the top officer in the French navy, posited that naval activity in the region is following the status quo, despite the tensions at the border.

“I think much of the concern is ashore. It’s land forces. Hospitals, tanks and so forth,” Vandier said Monday during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So, on the naval side, we didn’t see a very abnormal pattern of life of the Russians. They still send some ships at sea… The Russian pattern of life is not very different from what it used to be before.”

The admiral’s comments may elide another reality of the situation. Speaking at an event a day later,  Bryan Clark, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va, both agreed that the Russians have been slowly and steadily ramping up their activity and aggression in the Black Sea for the past decade. Put another way: The number of forces Russia has positioned in the Black Sea may not seem strange in 2022, but it certainly would stand out if it happened in 2012.

Russia has “been very thoughtful about how they’ve been ramping up their level of activity,” Clark said at the event, in response to a question about Vandier’s statement. “We’ve become acclimatized to it. And now, yes, today isn’t that much different than it was maybe three months ago, but that’s a much higher level of naval activity [than what] existed 10 years ago.”

The Black Sea is a unique body of water compared to most places in the world. Almost completely encircled by a small handful of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, the only routes to enter or exit the region are a pair of straits controlled by Turkey. The Montreux Convention, a 1936 agreement granting Turkey that authority, promises civilian ships free passage in and out of the region during times of peace, but the laws governing what kinds of warships may enter the Black Sea and how long they linger are much stricter.

Those rules, which differ somewhat depending on whether a country has borders lining the Black Sea, were a point of contention in the 1930s as the former Soviet Union and other countries jockeyed for strategic advantages in the run up to World War II.

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One way Russia undermines those rules is through port calls, Clark said. As a Black Sea nation, the country can feasibly claim certain warships that would otherwise not be allowed into the region may enter it under the auspices of returning to a home port.

“There’s a lot of activities they’ve been undertaking that are skirting the existing rules and ramping up their presence in a way that allows them to establish a position of naval superiority in the Black Sea relative to other players,” Clark said.

Seth Jones, a researcher at CSIS involved in observing satellite imagery of Russian forces, told Breaking Defense he agreed with Clark’s assessment about Russia’s increased presence in the Black Sea over the long term, but also emphasized the primary threat to Ukraine right now remains on the ground.

“While we have seen an increase in BTGs into the Black Sea that could be used for amphibious assaults,” he said, “it’s not at the same level that we’re seeing in other areas.”

Luria, a former Navy commander, said she has taken notice of Russian warships’ increased aggression when encountering foreign vessels, citing her time as a surface warfare officer when she would hear the formal statements US commodores made to foreign ships when they approached.

Those statements would “essentially [be] about maintaining safe operations and distance, but they’ve [Russia] been really aggressive with their aircraft and their surface ships and how they operate relative to the US, others — I have seen videos of British ships as well,” Luria said.

“They’ve certainly moved away from the more collegial nature that we saw during the Cold War,” Clark added.

The BBC in June 2021 reported on one such incident where Russian ships, accompanied by military aircraft, fired warning shots at the Royal Navy’s HMS Defender, while the British destroyer transited the Black Sea. The confrontation stemmed from HMS Defender entering waters that the international community recognizes as Ukrainian. Following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia was attempting to assert those same waters as its own.

Luria raised questions about whether the Montreux convention still makes sense in the world today.

“Are we still able as the United States and as NATO countries to have access to the Black Sea?” she said. “Those limits that have been placed under that convention — do they still make sense and at what point should we question or examine that?”

The answer Luria has received to those questions, she said, is that the United States’ ability to transit the Black Sea remains sufficient. But Clark noted the US and other NATO allies have made more frequent overtures to Black Sea nations such as Romania for permission to station intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in country to improve maritime surveillance in the region.