Putin’s annexation of the Crimea shifts NATO’s focus back to Europe. Therefrom, maritime security’s relevance for the Alliance will suffer. Nevertheless, Russia’s new assertiveness has massive impact on NATO’s maritime priorities. Other than expeditionary missions, European homewaters are now the theatres of concern.
All opportunities gone
After the Cold War, NATO was never threatening Russia, but rather sent dozens of cooperation offers to Moscow. Moreover, if Russia would sincerely have seeked NATO membership, Putin would fly to NATO’s September Summit. However, in NATO, Russia would never have been eye-on-eye with the US, but rather would have found itself on a level with Germany, France and the UK. Thus, Russia would never have found the global prestige and geopolitical influence it was looking for. That is the real reason why Russia never joined the Alliance.
Since 1991, there were many opportunities for naval cooperation between NATO and Russia. In Partnership for Peace (since 1994) and the NATO-Russia Council (since 2002), the Alliance reached out to Moscow, aiming to work closer together at sea. Positively, some of these opportunities turned into reality. NATO and Russia were working together in the Mediterranean in Operation Active Endeavour to combat terrorism and in the Indian Ocean to combat piracy. Moreover, the planned, but cancelled joint naval mission to protect the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons has shown the potential for increased cooperation. However, with the annexation of the Crimea, these opportunities ceased to exist.
Step up Black Sea presence
Ukraine has no significant navy anymore. Instead, Ukraine’s warships were taken over by Russia, which makes Moscow’s navy, by numbers, larger than the US Navy. However, due to the warships’ poor quality, this increase in naval power does not present a game changer. Surely, a plus for Putin’s navy is that Sevastopol will remain a Russian naval base for decades.
After Sevastopol is lost, Ukraine’s only significant port left is Odessa. NATO’s response should be to support Ukraine in keeping at least a small navy. Moreover, NATO should give a guarantee that, in case of further Russian aggression, Ukrainian ships can find shelter in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey or Greece. In addition, SNMGs and SNMCMGs should pay regular visits to Odessa; on the one hand for partnership with Ukraine and on the other hand as show of force to Russia. Trips to Georgia should go along.
Like it or not – The Bosporus has become a bargaining chip. NATO should make contingency plans how to close the Bosporus for Russian warships, should Russia invade Eastern Ukraine or Moldova. NATO must make clear to Russia that a price to pay for further annexation of territories would the loss of access through the Bosporus.
France, please cancel the Mistral deal
Russia could have done military campaigns like Georgia 2008 or Crimea 2014 much easier with one of the Mistrals. One of these LHD would also be useful for Russia’s navy in campaigns against Moldova, with regard to Gagauzia and Transnistria, or even against Estonia, because the Mistrals can serve as a platform for command and control, attack helicopters and landing troops. That Russia announced to base its Mistrals in the Pacific does not mean that they will operate there. For its Syria show-of-force, Russia deployed warships from its Pacific Fleet to the Mediterranean.
Regarding the military balance in Europe, France would do its allies a disservice, if it would deliver the Mistrals to Putin. Instead, these vessels should remain either in Europe or in a like-minded country. Options where to sell the ships could be South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa or India; countries, which are looking for new LHD. An even better idea comes from Jeff Lightfoot. He argues that “NATO should buy the Mistrals“. Like AWACS and AGS, the Mistrals could become a shared NATO asset. Although I fully support Lightfoot’s arguments for a NATO-nization of the Mistrals, I disagree with him about how to do that. After the NATO Response Forces and EU Battlegroups failed, NATO’s SNMGs are the only multinational units with combat capabilities, which ever really worked. Moreover, Europe was carrying most of the burdens in the SNMGs, which face a serious of lack amphibious capabilities. Thus, the Mistral purchase should be mostly funded by the Europeans. Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Belgium could go for “NATO Mistral 1”, while the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Turkey could go for “NATO Mistral 2”. A NATO LHD in the Baltic or Black Sea would send clear message to Russia. Deployments to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean would help to pursue Western maritime interests.
Sustain superiority in the Baltic and the Mediterranean
With the entry of the Baltic Countries and Poland into NATO and EU, the Baltic Sea was a solely political issue, not worth military considerations. This has changed, too. However, this does not mean that we are on the brink of war. Nevertheless, NATO needs to make plans how to deter Russia from threatening the Baltic Countries from the sea. The Alliance must make sure that its naval superiority in Baltic remains clear. Deploying an SNMCMG to the Baltic and regular naval exercises, such as BALTOPS (non-NATO), are efforts worth doing. Moreover, Sweden and Finland should join NATO. Both countries would bring great contributions to NATO and their membership would even increase Russia’s isolation in the Baltic Sea.
Russia is no partner for cooperation in the Mediterranean anymore. Beside the consequences of Crimea, Russia’s show-of-force in the Eastern Mediterranean to cover Syria made clear that Putin is willing to use naval power in missions targeted against Western interests. In consequence, the Europeans have to prevent – politically – that Russia opens new naval bases in the Mediterranean, for example in Cyprus or Egypt. EU member Cyprus must receive the clear message from Brussels that a Russian base on Cyrus is unacceptable. In addition, NATO should closely monitor all Russian naval activities in the Mediterranean and make plans about how to deal with them in case of further Russian aggression. Moreover, NATO states should close their ports for Russian ships to be replenished.
We need nuclear deterrence
Besides guaranteeing NATO’s future, Putin’s Crimea annexation also ends the American and British debates about the need for a sea-based nuclear deterrent. The argument for retiring the SSBN was that state-to-state conflict was unlikely and, therefore, nuclear deterrence was outdated. However, sea-based nuclear deterrence provides the minimum of global stability we need to prevent devastating state-to-state conflict. Where could the conflict with Russia go, if global zero was reality? What would prevent Putin from sending Russian tanks through Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius? Surely not statements from Berlin to keep the diplomatic hotlines open.
No matter about the massive unpopularity – Europe will need the nuclear umbrella provided by the US, UK and France. We are not yet back in the pre-1989 times. There is not yet a Cold War 2.0 at sea. However, if we forget the lessons learned of nuclear and conventional deterrence, we may find ourselves in exactly these situations much sooner than we think.
NATO-building starts at home
NATO’s pivot to Russia will shift attention away from the maritime domain back to the continent. Armies and air forces will receive, once again, much more attention than navies. While Putin’s aggression increased the importance of NATO for its member states, maritime security’s relevance for member states and, therefore, for the Alliance will decrease. In consequence, theaters like the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean will become of much less concern for NATO.
In case the Crimea crisis did not happen, NATO, to sustain its relevance, would probably have looked for new maritime tasks in the Mediterranean, Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean, maybe even in Southeast Asia. However, thanks to Putin, we will find NATO’s warships deployed back in the Baltic and the Black Sea. Given Operation Ocean Shield ends this year, we will not see NATO back in the Indian Ocean very soon; except maybe for a few friendly port visits. After Crimea and with Putin’s hands on Eastern Ukraine and Moldova, NATO’s debates about partners across the globe and global alliance are finally dead.
In response to Putin, NATO-building begins at home. NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division has to be fully focused on the Alliance’s core business, reaching out to the member states’ ordinary taxpayers. The changing European security environment requires an emphasis on the big messages: Defense, deterrence and security. Thus, zeitgeist-motivated campaigns should be stopped. In these times, NATO must tell the people what armies, air forces really are for and how soldiers serve their countries and the Alliance.