Zelensky and a Black Sea Brouhaha

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The location of the Kerch Strait

The location of the Kerch Strait

In April 2019, Ukrainians elected television personality Volodymyr Zelensky as their new President by a substantial margin (“Comedian Wins Ukrainian Presidency“, BBC News, April 22, 2019). With his lack of foreign and security policy experience, many observers have raised questions as to how Russia might seek to test Zelensky’s mettle. An early challenge has come in the form of a decree, signed by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin days after the Ukrainian presidential election, allowing residents of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk to obtain Russian citizenship. However, more alarmingly, the first year or so of the Zelensky presidency might be occupied more so by Russia’s efforts to cement its control over the Kerch Strait, which provides access between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, while countering the NATO presence in the Black Sea.

In early April, NATO organized a large-scale exercise – known as Sea Shield 2019 – in the Black Sea, incorporating naval vessels from Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania, and Turkey. This has prompted some consternation from Russian policymakers and defence planners, who see the NATO presence as a potential threat to Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea. Ukraine’s capacity to project power itself in the Black Sea has been constrained, ever since Russia seized most of the vessels in the Ukrainian Navy during the Crimean annexation in 2014. When the Ukrainian Navy have sought to transit the Kerch Strait in order to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol in November 2018, Russia has intervened and seized three of these vessels. A NATO presence in the Black Sea places an unwelcome check on such aggression.

The Russian test of Zelensky might not come in such a dramatic form as a military standoff in the Kerch Strait, however. Specifically, Russian policymakers might employ “lawfare” by seeking revisions to the Montreux Convention, a 1936 agreement that grants Turkey control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits but also regulates the transit of naval warships through these bodies of water. According to the Convention, no one country could put more than nine naval vessels displacing more than 15,000 tons into the Black Sea, no group of non-littoral states could deploy to the Black Sea naval vessels weighing more than 45,000 tons, and no vessel from a non-littoral state could remain in the Black Sea for more than 21 days. Some Russian defence planners have written openly of the value in revising the Montreux Convention so that the length of stay for non-littoral states would be reduced, preventing NATO from maintaining a long-term naval presence in the Black Sea.

This would largely rely on Russian diplomacy with Turkey, as Turkish policymakers have been thus far resistant toward any proposed revision of the Montreux Convention. But moving the Turkish position on this issue might not be so difficult to achieve, given the recent breakthroughs in Russian-Turkish relations: Turkey has committed to purchase the S-400 missile defence system from Russia over NATO compatible systems, and now Turkey is considering purchasing the Sukhoi Su-57 air superiority fighter from Russia rather than continue to participate in the Lockheed Martin F-35 program (see also Paul Iddon, “How Turkey could be undermining its opportunities to field fifth-generation aircraft“, offiziere.ch, May 9, 2017). Were Turkey to be persuaded to support revisions to the Montreux Convention, the Ukrainian Navy would become substantially isolated in the Black Sea. Exercises like Sea Shield 2019 would become difficult or even impossible to implement, and it is doubtful that a combined Ukrainian-Romanian-Bulgarian fleet would alone be able to combat a determined attack by the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. As such, Zelensky would do well to prioritize the relationship with Turkey early in his presidency and prepare arguments as to why the current language of the Montreux Convention should be preserved. That might well lead to a Russian withdrawal from the Montreux Convention at a later date, but this would come at the cost of Turkish goodwill and would cast Russia as the clear aggressor against Ukraine and other Black Sea states in international public opinion.

The Ukrainian command ship Donbass is seen moored as workers build new terminal at the Port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, eastern Ukraine on December 2, 2018. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia spiked on November 25, 2018 when Russian forces opened fire on and seized three Ukranian navy vessels off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea, detaining the 24 crew members. It was the first open military confrontation between the rivals since 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and pro-Russian separatists in the east entered into conflict with Ukrainian forces, a war that has since killed around 10,000 people. (Photo: Genya Savilov).

The Ukrainian command ship Donbass is seen moored as workers build new terminal at the Port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, eastern Ukraine on December 2, 2018. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia spiked on November 25, 2018 when Russian forces opened fire on and seized three Ukranian navy vessels off the coast of Russia-annexed Crimea, detaining the 24 crew members. It was the first open military confrontation between the rivals since 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and pro-Russian separatists in the east entered into conflict with Ukrainian forces, a war that has since killed around 10,000 people. (Photo: Genya Savilov).

In the longer term, especially in the event of a Russian withdrawal from the Montreux Convention, Ukrainian defence planners will need to give some thought toward countering Russia’s emerging anti-access/area denial (A2AD) doctrine. In recent years, the Russian Navy’s Caspian Fleet has used small diesel-electric submarines to launch Kalibir cruise missiles against targets in Syria. The deployment of similar forces to the Black Sea, along with the development of sensors at crucial points like the Kerch Strait, would allow Russia dominance over the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian Navy’s current fleet lacks any vessels with dedicated anti-submarine warfare (AWS) capabilities, which demonstrates just how much work lies ahead for Zelensky and his new government.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Iddon, Politics in General, Sea Powers, Security Policy, Ukraine.

1 Response to Zelensky and a Black Sea Brouhaha

  1. peter says:

    The Article here is in many cases wrong. There is no official Russian position for a change of the Montreux Contract. (Official Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits vom 20. Juli 1936)
    Withdrawal from this International contract is out of question for Russia.
    US nor NATO are members of the Contract. Turkey has a very strong position especially in terms of war or close situation. There is no such things as an Ukrainian fleet – they lack Ships even for Border Patrols. Revision are possible every 5 years. In most cases these are minor amendments for fees etc.

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