Russian military reform russia’s black sea threat.docx
Russian Military Reform
Tracking developments in the Russian military
Russia’s Black Sea Threat?
February 8, 2011 by Dmitry Gorenburg
piece by LTC Mowchan in the current issue of the USNI Proceedings. The article articulates a vision of
Russia that is in many ways at odds with reality. For this reason, it deserves a commentary that will also
act as a rebuttal.
Early on, the author refers to the Black Sea Fleet as Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over southeast
Europe and the Caucasus. If so, it’s a rusty sword indeed. Mowchan himself notes in the conclusion of
that section of the article that:
Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava-class guided-missile cruiser Moskva…. If current
modernization and manning trends persist, the BSF will be unable to effectively accomplish any of its
assigned missions in the next five years.
So how can a fleet comprised of ancient, barely seaworthy ships serve as an existential threat to the
entire region? According to Mowchan, the threat lies in the fleet’s coming resurrection. As readers of this
blog well know, the Russian government has announced grand plans to modernize the fleet by sending
up to 15 new combatants to the fleet by 2020. However, readers also know that in the current Russian
military, such plans are rarely accomplished. Nevertheless, I am sure that the fleet will be substantially
more capable in 2020 than it is now. It will at a minimum have the two Neustrashimyi-class frigates
(transfered from the Baltic Fleet), three new updated Krivak-class frigates, and perhaps 1-2 new Admiral
Gorshkov-class frigates. A Mistral and 1-2 new Ivan Gren amphibs are also likely. Add in a couple of
new diesel submarines and a minimum of 10 new combatants seems highly likely. So in 2020 the BSF
will undoubtedly be much more powerful than it is now, though it will probably still be outclassed by the
But what will Russia do with these forces? LTC Mowchan believes that the fleet “will become a tool by
which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations.” Well, of course, one of the main
reasons countries build military forces is to increase their political power, so that statement seems fine
on its face. The problem comes with the author’s assumption that security in the region (and perhaps in
the world as a whole) is a zero-sum game where any gain for Russia is automatically a loss for the United
States. He sees the BSF’s modernization as leading to “an increase in the possibility of conflict between
Russia and those Black Sea states seeking greater integration with the West” and positioning Russia “to
threaten U.S. vital interests in the region.”
This is perhaps the core of my disagreement with this article, as I see the potential for regional security
to be a positive-sum game (or, if things go badly, a negative-sum game) where improvements in
regional security can help secure the interests of both sides. In my view, improvements in Russian naval
capabilities will lead, inter alia, to greater and more effective cooperation with NATO and other states’
warships in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. LTC Mowchan explicitly rejects this view and
But I wonder, does he really think that Russia might go to war with NATO in the foreseeable future?
He argues that France’s decision to sell the Mistral to Russia “sets a dangerous precedent that could
result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other U.S. allies.” He believes that Russia bought
the Mistral ships in order to “create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and
decision-making in a crisis–especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.” Actually, I think
Russia bought the ships because its leaders realized that a joint construction program was the best
possible way for them to modernize their shipbuilding capacity. And besides, quoting one French source,
“the Mistral is just a ferry painted grey.” It is not some Dreadnought.
Again, I question the possibility of Russia and any NATO state going to war any time in the foreseeable
future. But perhaps I am naive in this. If so, I would welcome those who disagree to comment with
plausible scenarios that lead to military conflict between Russia and NATO–especially given the
deplorable weakness of Russia’s conventional forces and the sad state of their conscripts.
Finally, there is the question of whether Russian activity in the Black Sea can “threaten U.S. vital interests
in the region.” According to the author, these include democratization, regional stability, and access to
energy supplies. I would argue that the Black Sea is a fairly marginal territory for the U.S. Europe may
care about access to energy supplies (i.e. natural gas) from this region, but the U.S. does not get any
of its natural gas and very little of its oil supplies from this area. (In fact, the U.S. gets twice as much oil
from Russia as it does from all the other post-Soviet states combined.) So energy is a U.S. interest only
indirectly, via its effect on Europe. And Europe has recently focused on developing alternatives such as
LNG and shale gas to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies. Most new Caspian and Central Asian
energy resources developed in the coming decade will be going to China, not Europe. Turkey gets gas
from Russia through the Blue Stream pipeline that traverses the Black Sea, and may participate in the
coming South Stream project across the Black Sea, neither of which the Russians are likely to cut off—
they need the money.
Regional stability is important, but as I already argued, this is something that can best be achieved by
working with Russia, not against it. Because of simple geographic proximity, the Black Sea will always be
more important for Russia than for the U.S., much as the Caribbean is more important for the U.S. Russia
will have more interest in regional politics and greater staying power in the event of political conflicts, so
the only way to truly achieve regional stability is to engage in a partnership with Russia that integrates it
into regional political institutions, including those in Europe, for which the Black Sea is quite peripheral.
Finally, there is democratization. As recent events in the Middle East have shown only too clearly, this
is an interest for the U.S. primarily when nothing else gets in the way. Stability, alliances, access to
resources all trump democratization. Furthermore, the governments brought in by “color revolutions”
in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) have all (in different ways) failed at building
democracies in their countries. Ukraine’s leaders failed by engaging in internecine squabbling that
prevented them from institutionalizing their gains and led to the return of Yanukovich. Saakashvili in
Georgia made some early moves against corruption but has since been gradually building a populist
demagogic regime that has shut down opposition media outlets and used violence against protesters.
Both states are more democratic than they were prior to their revolutions, but they have certainly failed to
meet the expectations with which the new regimes came to power.
This is not to say that the U.S. does not have one vital interest in the Black Sea. It plays an important role
in transporting goods and people to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and overflights of
former Soviet states. This is a network in which Russia plays a critical role and has proven quite helpful in
reducing U.S. dependence on supplying its troops through Pakistan. In other words, the most important
reason for maintaining U.S. access to the Black Sea is an area in which Russia and the U.S. act as
Given this reality, I would recommend that the U.S. work to improve relations with Russia in the region by
engaging it in bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities, including greater mil-to-mil contacts. Military
cooperation can, over time, build trust (consider the role of military contacts with the U.S. in the Egyptian
army’s response to the recent protests in that country). Working with the Russian navy will gradually
reduce suspicions of the other’s intent on both sides. And (again gradually) this will in turn lead to greater
security in the Black Sea region.
UPDATE: USNI has ungated LTC Mowchan’s original article, so I now link to it above.