Peace in our time: Russia, NATO approach Black Sea flashpoint without CFE

Peace in our time: Russia, NATO approach Black Sea flashpoint without CFE
Russian military convoy near the Ukrainian border, late 2014. (Image: CNN)

It’s more bad news that Russia has announced a withdrawal from the “Joint Consultative Group” of the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) agreement of 1990.  CFE is (or was) an agreement by which the old USSR and NATO conferred on and verified the levels of conventional forces deployed in the European theater.  The main point of CFE was to make the deployment of Russian and U.S. forces into the theater a subject of negotiation and confidence building.

It was a follow-on to the INF Treaty of 1987, by which intermediate-range missiles were eliminated entirely from the theater.  Although Putin suspended Russian cooperation with CFE in 2007 – i.e., at the time he inaugurated the current defense build-up, and resumed, among other things, regular Bear bomber flights against North America – the Russians continued to participate in the Joint Consultative Group until their announcement on Wednesday, 4 March.

Now they’re out.  Objectively, this is what our vice president would call a “big effing deal”; at any other time, it would be getting a lot more media coverage.  The move has the exact character of the series of abrogated agreements in the 1930s that led up to World War II.  This is what such one-way moves look like as they happen.  It’s a mistake to think we are waiting for events to be different, before we have to understand what’s happening.  What we’re actually waiting for is people’s eyes (and mindsets) to adjust.

NATO defense council meets to do NATO stuff in world's chicest alliance HQ, 2015. (NATO image)
NATO defense council meets to do NATO stuff in world’s chicest alliance HQ, 2015. (NATO image)

This doesn’t mean a massive global war on the World War II model is on the horizon.  What appears more likely at the moment is that there will be no “red line,” like the Nazi invasion of Poland, that finally makes NATO fight to restore a territorial status quo ante.  And that means territory will be lost.  It also means NATO will be increasingly pointless, a development that, for the near future, is even more open-ended in its negative implications.

We shouldn’t expect Russia to make the error of attacking NATO’s West European core.  Rather, Putin will continue trying to arrange local “separatist” insurgencies on the Russian periphery, which will be assisted by Russian special forces undercover, and will develop in the highly prejudicial context of Russian conventional forces massed on the other side of the border.  The Baltic Republics obviously have reason to be very nervous at this point.  But Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia should also be worried.

Gnarly Russian brass visit troops launching military exercise near St. Petersburg, Mar 2015.  (Image: AP/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Gnarly Russian brass visit troops launching military exercise near St. Petersburg, Mar 2015. (Image: AP/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

A strategic timeline

A few observations on timing and key moves.  First, the strategic view.  It’s essential to understand a little history here, because Russia is not making merely general or historically predestined moves today.  That includes the current occupation of Ukraine, and its timing.

We need not make a priority of laying “blame” on either the current or the previous U.S. administration to recognize that Russia – especially Russia under Putin – has been galvanized by U.S. activities in Southeastern Europe.  The 2007-8 period was critical in this regard, as were decisions made in the years since.

In 2007, almost no Americans were aware of a move that caused much perturbation among Putin and his political allies.  Earlier, in 2004, the Baltic Republics – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – had been admitted to NATO, something Moscow viewed as a major blow.  In 2005 and 2006, the U.S. signed basing agreements with Bulgaria and Romania, as a means of restructuring our NATO forces in Europe: orienting our posture more toward the Middle East and less toward a West-vs.-East defense of Central Europe.

The Bush administration based this decision on such key factors as the tenuous reliability of the logistics path to Afghanistan through Central Asia (which depended directly on Russian goodwill), and the growing threat that Iran would become a nuclear-ballistic-missile-armed nation.  The latter consideration drove the original Bush proposal to site National Missile Defense components in Poland and Czech Republic.  Putin saw these developments as a threat to Russia, however.

A U.S. European Command entity called Task Force East was established for the new structure in Romania and Bulgaria, and the first rotational deployment of troops occurred in mid-2007.  (The profile of the deployment was actually reduced because many of the troops scheduled to participate were instead sent to Iraq for the surge.)

It was largely with this first troop rotation in view that Putin announced in April 2007 that Russia would suspend compliance with CFE.  Shortly before that, he had uttered a heated speech about American overreach at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the summit-level consultation venue between NATO and Russia.  It was in the summer of 2007 that Russian long-range bombers began regularly flying profiles against North America again, after the post-Cold War hiatus – and Putin announced the force build-up from which Russia has never looked back.

Task Force East continues in operation, and has increased in importance in the last couple of years.  But prior to that, Russia absorbed another blow when Kosovo, a Muslim province of Russia’s Slavic, Orthodox client Serbia, declared independence in February 2008.  The U.S. was one of the first nations to recognize Kosovar independence (the day after it was declared), a move that enraged Russia.

The next significant thing that happened was not actually the invasion of Georgia, which occurred in August 2008.  It was Dmitri Medvedev’s proposal in June 2008 that Europe and Russia move toward a new basis for mutual security that would obviate the NATO alliance.  Medvedev by this time had rotated into the Russian presidency, with Putin serving, ostensibly in the background, as the premier.

The Medvedev proposal got very little play in the American press, and mostly academic interest in Europe.  It was a red flag that Russia was seriously unhappy with the status quo, however.  Medvedev followed it up with the actual draft of a new security treaty in 2009, but nothing has ever come of the initiative.

This background helps clarify the context not only of the August 2008 invasion of Georgia, but of the decision by Obama in September 2009 to abandon plans for the missile defense sites in Poland and Czech Republic, and shift to a different, solely theater-oriented missile defense posture involving the Black Sea and Romania.

One look at the map shows why this posture is as sensitive an issue for Russia as the Poland/Czech Republic proposal was.  That’s the case even though U.S. missile defense assets around the Black Sea – unlike strategic interceptors based in Poland – have no hope of shooting down Russian ICBMs headed for North America.  (They have no prospect of shooting down Iranian ICBMs headed to North America, for that matter.  Unlike the Bush proposal, Obama’s scheme has no plan for these assets to be capable of intercepting ICBMs.)

Map 1.  Winds of change in SE Europe since mid-2000s. (Google map; author annotation)
Map 1. Winds of change in SE Europe since mid-2000s. Blue stars denote new US bases or base access locations. (Google map; author annotation)

The BMD assets deployed in Romania as well as the Black Sea portend a permanent U.S. presence there, making each of Georgia, Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria an American client situated athwart Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean.

Now add to that the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU, and getting on a track to membership in NATO.  One need not agree with Vladimir Putin’s view of the world to recognize why Russia may have legitimate concerns about this accumulation of developments.

The current operational timeline

This brings us to the freighted period of early 2014.  The crisis in Ukraine didn’t occur in a vacuum.  The push on the Russian side was made possible by the predictable weakness of the U.S. and NATO – something it was clear at that point that Putin could count on.  But the motivation for it came not only from Kiev’s interest in joining the EU, but from the run-up to the opening of a U.S. air facility in Romania, formally commissioned on 1 March 2014, and a U.S. naval base in Romania in October 2014: part of the land-based BMD architecture for Europe, and the first new U.S. naval base established anywhere in more than 20 years.

Preparation to open these bases had begun months earlier.  Russia has been watching with disfavor for a long time.  In November 2013, the Ukrainian client government of Viktor Yanukovych ended its bid to join the EU, undoubtedly at the prompting of Moscow.  Unrest from the Europe-oriented “Maidan” Ukrainians ensued.  (BBC has a complete timeline here.)

And in February 2014, when the U.S. Air Force began regular logistics flights through the air base in Romania, the unrest in Ukraine came to a head.  At the very end of February, a few days after Yanukovych went into hiding, pro-Russian separatists seized their first real estate in Crimea, and the first reports of Russian special forces being in Crimea started coming out.

It should be clear at this point that Putin didn’t just happen to have a fit of aggression in late 2013 to early 2014.  To stay on track here, I want to reserve for another time comments on how the U.S. posture might have been handled differently.  But let me say that I do not think either George W. Bush or Barack Obama was acting, between 2004 and today, with the intention of painting a target on Russia’s back.  My view, rather, is that both presidents were driven by other considerations – the Middle East, the war on terror, domestic politics – and even a level of shortsightedness and disinterest.  Russia, for her part, tends to be paranoid to begin with, and to lash out first and propose negotiating later.  All these factors militated against more judicious proceedings.

The tactical timeline of the last few weeks

For the past year, Russia has continued to wage a well-armed guerrilla war for territory in eastern Ukraine.  But we now cycle back to the withdrawal last week from the CFE Joint Consultative Group.  This action is one of two key developments that will remove the brake of treaty obligations from Russia’s build-up in her Southern Military District, across the border from the nations of Southeastern Europe.

The other is the clean bill of health, force-deployment-wise, given to Russia by NATO and Ukrainian inspectors in the Rostov region in February 2015.  The delegation was operating under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Russia has not withdrawn from the OSCE framework (which dates to the mid-1970s).  OSCE allows Russia to inspect Europe, an advantage Moscow doesn’t want to give up.

But the inspection from 17 to 20 February is the last one Russia will have to endure in 2015.  Right after the inspectors departed, Russia began a force build-up near Ukraine in the Southern Military District in preparation for new military exercises there, which were launched two weeks later.  Without any more scheduled inspections this year, there is nothing to inhibit the build-up of an even more aggressive military posture in the region.

Russian forces begin  exercises in Southern Military District, Mar 2015. (Image via Crimea News Agency)
Russian forces begin exercises in Southern Military District, Mar 2015. (Image via Crimea News Agency)

All of this context underlies another report from last week: Russian jets are routinely making simulated attack runs on NATO ships (including a U.S. Aegis cruiser) in the Black Sea.  Even at the tactical level, there’s more to this report than meets the eye.  Old Naval intelligence hands would recognize that the Su-30 Flankers mentioned in the news report – i.e., the premier multi-role fighters in Russian naval aviation – are newcomers to the Black Sea.  They have been based there only since January 2015.

They’re flying, moreover, from an air base in Crimea – Novofedorovka – which was captured by pro-Russian separatists (actually, of course, by Russian special forces) in March 2014.  Ukraine at one time leased this base to the Russian navy; now, Russia is using conquered territory to operate her top military forces against NATO.

Black Sea area of confrontation between Russian Su-30 fighters and NATO warships. (Google map; author annotation. Inset credit: Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Map 2. Black Sea area of confrontation between Russian Su-30 fighters and NATO warships. (Google map; author annotation. Inset credit: Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, NATO’s plan for the missile defense of Europe, against a threat from the Middle East or Southwest Asia, depends on NATO ships, and other U.S. assets, continuing to operate in the Black Sea and to be based in Romania, just where Russia can’t stand it.

Italian frigate Aliseo (F574) departs Varna, Bulgaria 10 Mar 2015, after a NATO port visit. USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is in the background. The NATO ships are in the Black Sea for a naval exercise. (Image via Twitter)
Italian frigate Aliseo (F574) departs Varna, Bulgaria 10 Mar 2015, after a NATO naval group port visit. USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is in the background. The NATO ships are in the Black Sea for a naval exercise. (Image via Twitter)

Our forces are there at the end of a fraying tether.  They’re in an exposed and vulnerable position, already heavily outnumbered where they are deployed.  (Any bets on how committed Turkey is to the NATO plan?)  Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE consultative group will serve to make things worse.  And Russia isn’t going to quit now.  This is Putin’s chance to “renegotiate” the security framework of the entire region, one separatist movement at a time.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


Commenting Policy

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.

You may use HTML in your comments. Feel free to review the full list of allowed HTML here.