Russia’s Black Sea navy grows as allies worry Biden will pull back

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CONSTANTA NAVAL BASE, Romania — In the dimly lit war room of the Romanian frigate Regina Maria, glowing radar screens illuminate a cheat sheet for identifying Russian vessels.

The ship’s commander points to the newest warships, Grigorovich and Sviyazhsk, that have appeared on the horizon since Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and began to expand its Black Sea fleet. Romanian Cmdr. Alexandru Gobjila then points to older vessels, armed with the latest technology and weaponry, including supersonic Kalibr cruise missiles capable of reaching 1,600 miles into Europe.

The Russian Black Sea navy now numbers over 200 large ships, all in a body of water twice the size of the Great Lakes.

Vladimir Putin’s power projection in the region is designed to secure unfettered warm water access through a war of intimidation waged on the high seas, and President Joe Biden’s detente with Putin may mean American deterrence will be left to NATO’s newest member countries.

MILITARIZATION OF CRIMEA HEIGHTENS THREAT TO NATO’S SOUTHEASTERN FLANK

“We are going to assure the security of the lines of communication inside the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, or wherever the alliance requests,” Gobjila told the Washington Examiner while touring the frigate, named after Romania’s Queen Mary, whose 1919 trip to the Paris Peace Conference consolidated Romania’s international recognition after siding with the Allies in World War I.

Romanian Cmdr. Alexandru Gobjila describes the new threat posed by a growing and modernizing Russian Black Sea Navy June 8, 2021 aboard the frigate Regina Maria in Constanta, Romania. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/ Washington Examiner

A century later, and 30 years after throwing off the cloak of communism, Romania again finds itself at the intersection of the world powers, and without the resources to go it alone.

“Romania is on the border of both the EU and NATO alliance,” said Romanian flotilla deputy commander Auras Liviu Coman, who admits his three frigates, each emblazoned with the NATO star on their sides, do not possess modern naval strike missiles.

“This is a very ambitious project,” Coman said of an 18-month upgrade plan.

That means the smaller countries of the Black Sea must rely on a deterrent U.S. and NATO ally presence and their own incremental modernization to ward off Russian aggression.

The Montreux Convention of 1936 limits the tonnage and amount of time foreign navies can spend in the Black Sea. To maintain a regular presence of some 100 days per year, the United States is moving destroyers into and out of the Black Sea for 21-day tours that entail multilateral exercises and freedom of navigation missions.

Whether Biden is willing to continue that role in the detente with Russia remains to be seen.

An identification sheet of Russian naval vessels resides in the war room of the Romanian Navy frigate Regina Maria June 8, 2021 in Constanta, Romania. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/ Washington Examiner

After achieving a verbal commitment from Putin to withdraw his 100,000 troops from the eastern Ukrainian border, it is widely believed that the U.S. in turn canceled the entry of two warships into the Black Sea.

“The Black Sea has always been very strategically important to Russia, going back to Catherine the Great's time,” retired Capt. Brent Sadler, a naval analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner.

Maintaining unfettered movement from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean via the Black Sea is vital to Russia’s counterencirclement strategy, the 26-year Navy veteran explained.

“It's not necessarily important that you match hull for hull. It's not necessarily important that you match capability for capability,” Sadler said of the Russian presence. “But you do need to have an adequate maritime presence there that complicates their unquestioned control of all the Black Sea.”

But with a globally strained U.S. Navy and strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific, America cannot do it alone. It must rely on the NATO countries of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania and the partner countries of Ukraine and Georgia to keep the strategic sea safe and free.

Regular U.S. exercises are one way the U.S. is helping to build capacity.

Romanian flotilla deputy commander Cmdr. Auras Liviu Coman, who admits his three frigates, each emblazoned with the NATO star on its side, do not possess modern naval strike missiles June 8, 2021 at Naval Base Constanta, Romania. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/Washington Examiner

“We are increasing the level of interoperability,” said Gobjila. “Not only among allies, but partners as well, because the most important thing is to build the trust, the confidence among Black Sea littoral countries.”

The ship commander recalls how far Romania has come from pre-NATO days, when NATO Partnership for Peace exercises in 1997 consisted of bridge-to-bridge communication and simple tactical maneuvering.

“Right now, we are treating very well all exercises related to maritime domain awareness,” he said. “That means to us as navy personnel, anti-submarine, anti-surface, anti-air exercises, electronic warfare exercises, all the spectrum of the exercises.”

But exercises, movement of military ships, and even commercial transit are being hindered by Russia’s Black Sea fleet, explained Romanian security analyst George Scufaru.

“Russia will try to harass us,” Scufaru said at a meeting in Bucharest. “They have a bigger fleet compared to Turkey in the Black Sea, to Romania, to Bulgaria. It will be very difficult. This is the reason why it’s necessary to have the support of NATO and to have more U.S. vessels.”

Scufaru pointed to a map produced by his New Strategy Center that delineated all of the Black Sea perimeters where Russia allegedly conducted military exercises in 2019.

According to international convention, militaries may announce perimeters within international waters where they are conducting potentially dangerous exercises. Russia has abused this practice in recent years to block key passageways such as the Kerch Strait access to the Sea of Azov, the maritime boundaries surrounding Crimea, and coasts near Ukraine and Georgia, where Putin has fomented protracted conflicts.

A map of the Black Sea delineates all the perimeters Russia declared off-limits for maritime military exercises in 2019, some of which were fictitious but still prohibited the passage of ships from Black Sea littoral nations. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/ Washington Examiner

“Indeed, Russia is modernizing its suite of capabilities,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu told the Washington Examiner by phone from Bucharest. “NATO is also reacting by organizing a lot more naval exercises, by having a more substantive rotational presence of allied ships in the region.”

Aurescu said Romania is investing heavily in military infrastructure and command and control to host more NATO and American land, sea, and air power to deter Russia.

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“Let’s see the next step,” said a dubious Scufaru of Biden’s pullback from the Black Sea in advance of the Biden-Putin summit. A recent report indicates that pullback also included a White House freeze of $100 million of military assistance to Ukraine ahead of the summit.

“Is this only linked with the summit, with this meeting?” posed Scufaru. “Or, is this ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’?”

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Tags: News, National Security, Department of Defense, Pentagon, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Romania, Joe Biden, Black Sea

Original Author: Abraham Mahshie

Original Location: Russia’s Black Sea navy grows as allies worry Biden will pull back

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