False De-escalation: The Continuing Russian Threat to Ukraine and the Black Sea Region

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured during naval exercises in the Black Sea, 9 January 2020. Courtesy of kremlin.ru/CC BY 4.0

The announced withdrawal of troops does little to allay concerns about Russia’s strategic intentions, as the Kremlin’s quest to challenge the West in the Black Sea theatre continues unabated.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has been back in the limelight since late March, with Russian troops massing near Ukrainian borders and in occupied Crimea. The Russian Ministry of Defence’s announcement on 22 April that it would pull back forces from Ukrainian borders after the successful finalisation of a ‘combat readiness check’ was met with palpable relief. But this optimism was misplaced: the widely welcomed de-escalation did not in fact result in a reduction in the concentration of Russian troops.

As of early June, the Russian withdrawal has been partial and insignificant – only about 10,000 troops have been withdrawn, and the strategic-level force concentration has remained the same in the Russian border areas of Voronezh, Belgorod and Rostov, as well as in Crimea. Around 95,000 Russian troops were still deployed as of late May, representing an additional 14 battalion tactical groups alongside 28 permanent ones. Notably, after the announcement of the troop withdrawal, shelling from the Russian-sponsored ‘republics’ in the east of Ukraine continued, resulting in several combat casualties among Ukrainian forces.

The build-up of Russian military forces represents the largest unannounced deployment since the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. What has been alarming is not just the number of troops, but also the mobilisation of supporting units, including logistics, fuel and ammunitions, and field hospitals, which could indicate an intention to invade. International concerns about Russia’s intentions are well-grounded: if Russia meant to invade, it has all the necessary assets at its discretion, and the question is only its readiness to apply them.

A show of force on such a scale might at first sight seem excessive and overly costly. The Russian armed forces’ operational approach has famously been based on a high tolerance of losses and costs. But the well-calculated rationale behind this display of power might be that it has helped to normalise a higher level of Russian military presence after the so-called ‘de-escalation’. In military terms, the availability and proximity of troops and materiel create a wider range of opportunities for the Russian armed forces if a political decision is taken on a military operation against Ukraine.

It is reasonable to assume that the benevolent display of goodwill from Russia served as a smokescreen for an enhancement of its military presence. What is happening at the moment is not a return to the status quo ante, but rather a significant increase in Russia’s militarisation efforts in the territory beyond its internationally recognised borders.

Russia’s Growing Capabilities in the Black Sea

The announcement of the withdrawal of Russian troops was accompanied by a declaration from the Russian Ministry of Defence that several areas of the Black Sea would be closed to foreign military and other state-owned vessels until October 2021. In clear violation of international norms, the restrictions would be applied to segments on the western and southern coastlines of the Crimean peninsula, and to the south of the Kerch peninsula. This adds up to an ongoing and significant militarisation in Crimea and the Black Sea. In recent years, under the pretext of military exercises, Russia has routinely resorted to regular prohibition of navigation in the Black Sea for unreasonably long periods and over inordinately extensive areas.

The current military build-up has provided an opportunity for Russia to further solidify its positions in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. These military theatres have always featured prominently in discussions about the direction of a potential Russian assault. During the recent escalation, many argued that the principal threats stemmed from Russian forces in Crimea and from the sea. The movement of gunboats from the Caspian Flotilla, which has developed landing capabilities, to the Sea of Azov drew attention to the latter scenario. Four Russian landing ships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, as well as 10 gunboats from the Caspian Flotilla, remain deployed in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Having militarised Crimea, Russia has imposed unilateral control over the Black Sea and Sea of Azov and boosted its power projection capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russian capabilities in the Black Sea outmatch the combined capabilities of other littoral states. The capabilities of formations in Russia’s Southern Military District have significantly increased since 2014. The majority of exercises conducted in the district are in the Black Sea basin, including Crimea, and the operational direction has shifted westwards, with a focus on military operations against Ukraine.

However, the Black Sea and Russian activities there have largely been off the international radar, instead being a topic confined to limited expert and decision-making communities. Crimea has largely been perceived as a fait accompli, and Russia’s creeping expansion in the maritime domain has rarely been brought to major international attention. A notable exception was on 25 November 2018, when Russian warships seized three small Ukrainian military vessels on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov in the first open use of conventional force against the Ukrainian armed forces.

Attrition Campaign in the Sea of Azov

Russia continues to restrict freedom of navigation from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, causing considerable economic losses for Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. The Kerch Bridge between Crimea and the Russian mainland, which was built without Ukraine’s consent, has reduced ship traffic from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov owing to its technical parameters. It has barred Panamax-class vessels, which constituted over 20% of all ship traffic prior to its construction, from entering the sea. Since spring 2018, the Russian coastguard has also blocked free navigation in the sea by practicing intrusive inspections of civilian vessels near the Kerch Strait. The year 2018 saw a peak in open sea detentions in the Sea of Azov with 110 vessels being detained, which stopped only after the Ukrainian navy started to escort ships.

While on a much lesser scale than in 2018, the Russian coastguard continues to artificially delay vessels heading from the Black Sea to the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdiansk; the waiting time at the Kerch Strait is considerably longer than it was prior to 2018. Vessels bound for Ukrainian ports are subjected to intrusive inspections which delay shipping and discourage commercial navigation.

At present, Ukraine does not maintain control over three-quarters of its maritime space – 100,000 out of 137,000 square kilometres are under Russian control. Ukraine is vulnerable to maritime threats and its economy is dependent on its ports and maritime transportation. A maritime blockade by Russia is one of the scenarios that could seriously affect Ukraine’s national security, and one its authorities have grounds to be worried about.

Strategic Implications for Regional Security

Russia’s position in the Black Sea is based on in-built comparative advantages. Its strategy of denial in this theatre has largely been successful, leading experts to refer to the Black Sea as a ‘Russian lake’. In mid-April, reportedly as a reaction to the Russian build-up, the US cancelled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea. This was only partially mitigated by the arrival of a US coastguard cutter in the Black Sea at the end of April ‘in support of NATO Allies and partners’.

Moreover, three littoral NATO members – Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania – diverge in their views on NATO’s role in the region and relations with Russia. Turkey, for instance, is keen to maintain its strategic partnership with Russia, ranging from the purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles to energy transit, and seeks to avoid the risk of undermining Russian interests in the Black Sea.

In terms of NATO’s presence, there has been little appetite to dramatically challenge Russian positions in the region. The gap between the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic Sea and the Tailored Forward Presence in the Black Sea is well documented. Russia’s veto power over Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations has never been publicly acknowledged, let alone accepted, by the West. But Russian anti-access and area denial capabilities have instilled a widely shared perception that NATO partners are either indefensible, or defensible only at an extremely high cost. The West’s strategic ambiguity on the issue of Ukraine and Georgia’s potential NATO membership has bordered on disinterest, propelling Russia to fill the vacuum.

Russia’s dangerous brinkmanship proves the Kremlin’s strategic calculus on Ukraine remains unchanged. The ‘de-escalation’ does little to allay concerns about Russia’s strategic intentions. The Kremlin’s quest to appear in control before the parliamentary elections in September 2021, to retaliate against Ukraine’s non-compliance in the Donbas, to signal its displeasure with the establishment of the Crimean Platform – an international high-level consultation mechanism on Crimea to be inaugurated by the Ukrainian government in August 2021 – and finally, to challenge the West in a theatre where Russia enjoys advantages, could lead to heightened rhetoric and a new escalation loop in the not-too-distant future.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk

Associate Fellow

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