Russia en route to establish Supremacy over the Black Sea

  • By Octavian Manea

NATO cannot do anything to reverse Russia’s gains beyond just matching Russia’s capabilities and trying to close the gap.

How will the Russian recession affect Russia's ongoing military modernisation and why is Germany not prepared to reinvent itself as an interventionist military power? On the margins of the Olympia Summer Academy Dimitar Bechev, Director at the European Policy Institute (Sofia) and visiting scholar at Harvard's Centre for European Studies spoke to Defence Matters and this is what he told us:


Will Brexit affect the European order? There are many observers that point out that this process will affect both NATO and EU because we may end up in the end with a smaller Britain. On the other side we have the optimists that see this as a boost for NATO.

I tend to be a realist. I don’t think that the optimist version will materialise. At the end of the day, NATO’s robustness depends not only on whether UK and the other allies meet their commitments of spending 2% of GDP on defence, but also on the type of relationship with US, on the extent which Washington is still interested to invest in European affairs. The answer lies in Washington as it has always been the case. We are far from the point where actually the European allies have autonomous decision-making power and the preparedness to do something about it. It is also clear that CSDP is not going anywhere as it has been case from some years now. The military component is missing and is not likely that will emerge in a meaningful way anytime soon.

The EU definitely wants more strategic autonomy. Brexit can significantly help this tendency too. There are voices that are pushing for a European Army. Is this only rhetoric, political posturing or the beginning of a new integration cycle that covers also military affairs?

My core take away from Mogherini’s global strategy is the insistence on resilience. It is about the survival and the consolidation of what we already have. It is natural in a way because EU is in a difficult place. Instead of shaping its neighbourhood, it is the neighbourhood that is coming to the EU and EU is becoming a collateral damage of the neighbourhood. I don’t expect any major changes, but the ambition is there.

Margaret Thatcher used to say that starting 1870 the big problem for Europe was Germany and how to handle and contain German power. Is the current context, where we have a Europe dominated by Berlin, especially after Brexit, conducive to a reemergence of a German power problem in Europe? 

Yes but this is also links up with the Brexit issue. Without Britain, France is the only power facing Germany and she is in relative decline especially in economic terms vis-à-vis Germany. It is very early to conclude that Germany will have an u-turn and will re-embrace Russia. The problem with Germany is that it is blamed to be this overbearing hegemon, but sometimes it is just the opposite. Sometimes Germany is not prepared to over-commit. That is very visible in the euro-crisis where it is actually looking after their very narrow interests. Germany is not there to subsidise and spend some resources in the name of creating a political union under German leadership which is what you would expect from a hegemon to do: short term sacrifices in the name of long term strategic gains. This is not Germany’s game. Moreover on defence Germany is not prepared for historical reasons to reinvent itself as an interventionist military power. Germany is absent on the big strategic issues concerning EU and it is not likely to get there in the foreseeable future.

Do you see the NATO Warsaw summit going far enough in terms of reassurance and deterrence measures? It seems to me that we have a new cleavage inside the Eastern Flank between the Nordic/Baltic part and the Southern/Black Sea part.

Most of the steps taken in Warsaw were about the Baltic states and the Northern Flank, but that doesn’t mean that the Black Sea was ignored because at the end of the day you have a multinational brigade in Romania and NATO’s reassurance policy of the Eastern Flank applies across the board. What is missing is the naval component but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that NATO is doing much more in the Baltic Sea compared with the Black Sea neighbourhood. The trend at least is towards escalating NATO’s presence in the region, which in the end is inevitable given the new balance of power dynamic in the region after Crimea. Now what is at stake is the institutional format. But If I have to put my money on it I think the trend is for increasing the euro-Atlantic presence in the Black Sea in an incremental way. The Turkish security thinking has undergone some important changes. This is the case even after the rapprochement with Russia. In the Black Sea, Turkey long believed that it can struck a bilateral deal with Russia and share power, turning the Black Sea into a duo-poly that doesn’t work anymore. There are many options short of a permanent presence and we can find some interim solutions.

You have written a book on Russian foreign policy after the Cold War. What are some of your conclusions? Is Russia a truly revisionist, anti-status-quo actor? How should we understand Russia under Putin?

My book looks at Russia's presence in Southeast Europe, including post-communist Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. Moscow's policy is fundamentally opportunistic. Rather than mounting an outright challenge to the West it has been exploiting loopholes and weak points in the region. But equally, local governments and elites have played ties with Russia to advance their interests internationally and at the domestic level.

Should we expect more activism on the Russian part in the Black Sea until NATO will be able to consolidate its presence in the region?

More of the same. Russia is committed to upgrading its presence in the Black Sea through various means: commissioning new vessels, deploying new weapons systems in Crimea. What Russia lacks is the amphibious capability. In this context the whole issue of Mistral. If Russia would go to the next level it would be much better positioned to exert pressure on countries like Georgia. NATO cannot do anything to reverse Russia’s gains beyond just matching Russia’s capabilities and trying to close the gap. The game is one of catching up. At some point Russia will face budgetary and economic constraints. It is costly because it is not just the Black Sea but also the Ukrainian border and it has to match NATO in the North too where it has to maintain a critical amount of troops. Let’s not forget the Far East too. At some point its ongoing military modernisation should face the fact that Russia is in recession and the reality that resources will be increasingly scarce. NATO’s build up will put increasing pressure on Russia while its military operations in Syria might show signs of over-stretching.

In what way does the Russian military build-up in Crimea (especially the A2/AD capabilities deployed there) affect the security dynamics in the Black Sea regional ecosystem? How should the littoral states and NATO respond?

 It ends the hitherto duopoly of power between Russia and Turkey. Moscow is en route to establish supremacy over the Black Sea and strengthen its capacity to project naval power into the Eastern Mediterranean. To offset the imbalance other littoral countries have to lean back more strongly on NATO. That's well understood both in Ankara and Sofia, conciliatory rhetoric aside.

What is your reading on the current events in Turkey? What is happening with the after coup Turkey? In style and objectives it seems that the Erdogan regime is closer to Russia than the West and NATO. How will the new rapprochement between Russia and Turkey change/affect the Black Sea region or the NATO policies in the region?

Erdogan has used the events to reinforce his grip on power. The rapprochement with Russia is not unconditional. Turkey won't make a u-turn on its commitments to NATO -- e.g in the Black Sea or in the context of missile defence (Kürecik radar station). But its focus continues to be Syria where interests with Russia are at variance.

Are the Balkans Russia’s next target at least in terms of hybrid incursions, instrumentalising networks of soft-power influence and trying to exploit the EU’s deficit of attention?

I see a lot of soft-power operations, in general the deployment of soft-power across the range. But I don’t see significant economic presence as extensive as people would tend to believe. It hasn’t been any large economic project. There were a lot of inflated expectations of what Russia can deliver and not much has resulted. If you look at the hard data you see that EU is the predominant economic investment partner especially in the Western Balkans and across the region. Russia is no match for EU from this perspective. It has certain advantages and soft-power because large groups in the society tend to be open to the messages coming from Kremlin and tend to have some grievances against the West going back to the 1990s. Russia is popular in a certain way and will exploit this positive perception that they have in Serbia or Republic of Srpska. They will also try to exploit the societal resentments against US and NATO and put this in the service of its own foreign policy.

There are some observers that are talking about the fact that the Balkans are in a very shaky state and that there is the danger of renewed ethnic violence in the region at a time when EU has multiple crises to manage.

For me, the challenge in the Balkans is not the escalation of tensions, but the opposite: stagnation at many levels, especially economy. There are critical areas that are deteriorating like independent media. We see a sharp decline. There are some signs of progress like in Serbia and Montenegro where judicial independence is on the rise. But the quality of political competition is deteriorating. At best is stagnation, but at worst is backslide. The best example is Macedonia that transitioned from a party consolidated democracy to a hybrid regime that gives you the regional trend: de-democratization.

Bulgaria was the opposite of a constructive regional actor in the context of the latest Warsaw summit. At least from the perspective of Bucharest, it undermined the idea of an increased NATO presence in the Black Sea. Is this an episode or a long-term trend?

Bulgaria doesn’t have the capacity to undermine NATO. It will go along with the policies that are in the interest of Bulgaria. And it is a Bulgarian interest to have robust NATO defences. It is just a matter of how you package everything to avoid conflict with Russia and also not to antagonise the public opinion at home. Overall the substance of the policy hasn’t change so much but the way you present and articulate to the public opinion. If I would have to put my money I would say that Bulgaria would support the incremental efforts to build naval security at the Black Sea through NATO.

Is bandwagoning toxic for the unity and solidarity of NATO? We’ve seen recently this tendency with Bulgaria and now with Turkey.

 Not necessarily. Both Turkey and Bulgaria are hedging their bets but ultimately rely on NATO's deterrent.


Dimitar Bechev, Director at the European Policy Institute (Sofia) and visiting scholar at Harvard's Center for European Studies. Previously, he headed the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, where he had been a Senior Policy Fellow. Bechev has written extensively on the politics and history of modern Turkey and the Balkans, EU external affairs and Russian foreign policy.