Tag: Black Sea

Here’s Where Russia Will Deploy Nuclear-Capable Tu-22M3 Bombers in Crimea (IMINT)

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft…

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft revetments and logistics facilities can host at least 20 Backfires. With the Backfire eyed as a future launching platform for the Kinzhal hypersonic aero-ballistic missile, Russia intends to increase pressure on the U.S. Aegis Missile Defense systems (Ashore and Afloat) in Europe.

Hvardiyske/ Gvardeyskoye Air Base IMINT via T-Intelligence based on Digital Globe and Planet Labs imagery


On March 18, Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper parliament house, announced that Moscow will deploy nuclear-capable Tu-22M3/Backfire-C bombers to Crimea in response to the U.S. missile defense systems in Romania.

Over the past years, NATO Enhanced Air Policing fighter jets have intercepted several Backfires over the Black Sea, which simulated mock bombing runs in Romania’s flight information region. Recently, the aircraft also served in Syria as a frontline bomber against unsophisticated ground targets. The Backfire was originally developed for the Soviet Air Force and Navy to prosecute targets – particularly maritime targets like U.S. carrier strike groups – in peripheral-range missions. The internal weapons bay and external pylons can carry up to 24,000 kg of ordnance, including nuclear which makes the Backfire ideal for saturation strikes.

Russia plans to upgrade 30 of the 63 Backfires that are still in service to the advanced M3M variant. The M3M variant will be compatible with new generation ammunition such as the standoff/extreme-range Kh-32 cruise missile, the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile, and potentially the 3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) anti-ship hypersonic missile. Live trails of the first M3M commenced in mid 2018.

The Backfire deployment in Crimea will likely take the form a small-scale forward deployment from their home bases in Belaya (Irkutsk) and  Shaykovka (Kaluga). However, our IMINT analysis concludes that – if needed – Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base could host 20-30 bombers on high-readiness and up to 50 aircraft for storage and maintenance.   

Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye is the home base of the 37th Composite Aviation Regiment (CAR), which currently operates the Su-24M and Su-25 (NATO reporting names: Fencer and Frogfoot). 37th CAR Frogfoots were airborne during Russia’s blockade of the Kerch strait in October 2018 and Fencers have harassed U.S. and NATO vessels in the Baltic and Black Seas in the past. The 37th CAR was established as part of the 27th Compose Aviation Division (CAD) in 2014. The 27th CAD also commands the 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment in Belbek, which operates two Su-27P/SM (NATO reporting name: Flanker) squadrons. Like all forces deployed in Crimea, the units are subordinated to Russian’s 4th Air and Air Defense Army (Southern Military District) in Rostov-on-Don.

In response to the Russian plans, Washington deployed six B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers from the 2nd Bomber Wing to the Royal Air Force base in Fairford on March 14, 2019. During their first major European exercise since 2003, the B-52s conducted theater familiarization flights and enhanced interoperability with NATO partners.


by HARM and Gecko

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Russian “Kinzhal” Hypersonic Missile and MiG31Ks still at Flight Test Center (IMINT)

1. Satellite imagery shows several Kh-47 “Kinzhal” hypersonic aeroballistic missiles (NATO reporting name unavailable) next to Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) MiG-31K fighter jets (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) on the apron…

1. Satellite imagery shows several Kh-47 “Kinzhal” hypersonic aeroballistic missiles (NATO reporting name unavailable) next to Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) MiG-31K fighter jets (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) on the apron of the RuAF’s 929th State Flight Test Center (STFTC) in Akhtubinsk, Astrakhan oblast (Russia). The Kinzhals appear on Digital Globe images dating from September 3, September 6, September 22, October 16, and November 1, 2018. The discovery was made by Twitter user @reutersanders on February 10, 2019.

IMINT compiled by T-Intelligence showing Kinzhal near MiG-31Ks via Digital Globe

2. The Kh-47 Kinzhal is a modified version of the notorious 9K720 “Iskander” short-range ballistic missile (NATO reporting name: SS-26 “Stone”). With a claimed operational range of 2,000 km and Mach 10 speed, the Kinzhal is a very-long range standoff weapon, built to engage surface and maritime targets without entering adversarial airspace.  

Digital Globe image analysis via T-Intelligence

3. The MiG-31K (“Foxhound”) is Russia’s only fighter aircraft that is modified to carry and launch the Kinzhal. However, only a limited number (10-16 aircraft) are currently Kinzhal-capable. Russia claims that the Kinzhal has been successfully tested several times, since experimental combat duty commenced in the Southern Military District in December 2017. A squadron of 12 to 16 MiG-31Ks armed with Kinzhal missiles reportedly entered combat duty in April 2018. In addition, Russia is also modernizing the Tupolev Tu-22M3M bombers (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”) to carry up to four Kinzhal missiles. Tu-22M3M-launched Kinzhals could potentially have an extended range of 3,000 km.

4. According to official statements, the special purpose MiG-31Ks have conducted more than 89 Kinhzal-armed patrols over the Caspian and Black Seas. Media reports and Digital Globe’s satellite imagery confirm that the squadron is based at the RuAF’s 929th State Flight Test Center (STFTC) in Akhtubinsk. The Digital Forensic Research Lab has geolocated a MiG-31K Kinzhal test, which tool place on March 10, 2018 at the 929th STFTC.

5. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the MiG-31Ks are still at the 929th STFTC in February 2019. The fact that the aircrafts are still located at a test center and not deployed to an operational air base, almost one year after the Russian government announced the operationalization of the Kinzhal-capable MiG-31K squadron, could indicate that the development of Russia’s aeroballistic hypersonic missile project is moving slower than Moscow tries to suggest.

6. Overall, Russia’s new hypersonic kinetic capabilities should be taken with a grain of salt. Due to budgetary constraints, the Kinzhal will likely not enter into serial production anytime soon.


By HARM and Gecko

DISCLAIMER: Image analysis shows a very high similarity between the missiles at the 929th STFTC and the Kinzhal aeroballistic missile. There is however a remote chance that the missiles are dummies (inflatable structures or non-functional missiles) that were placed on the apron deliberately in order to deceive adversarial intelligence efforts.

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Why Romania’s Defense Procurement Matters for NATO (and Should Worry Russia)

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s….

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s. The $11.6 billion shopping list includes top-of-the-line products such as Raytheon’s latest Patriot air defense system. The assets are specifically tailored to counter the Russian threat in the Black Sea – namely Russia’s naval supremacy, anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and theater ballistic missiles (TBM) deployed in Crimea. While ambitious in nature, Romania’s procurement program is continuously disrupted by governmental corruption and mismanagement resulting in indefinite delays for strategic air-naval programs.  


1. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shaken the Black Sea region from its century-long geopolitical slumber. Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea – only 400 km from the Romanian coast – has transformed the Black Sea into a substantial missile engagement and interdiction zone, placing the region at the very top of NATO’s agenda.

2. The Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) currently operate more than 15 naval and air bases in Crimea. The port of Sevastopol hosts the RuN’s 30,000 men strong Black Sea Fleet (BSF), which is responsible for operations in the Black Sea, Azov Sea and the Mediterranean.

3. Concerned about the mounting Russian presence at its doorstep, Romania has welcomed a number of strategic U.S. and NATO military installations on its soil. Over the past years, Bucharest has promised to allocate 2% of its GDP to defense in order to boost its naval warfare, missile strike and air defense capabilities. While the Romanian Ministry of National Defense (MoND) has made progress in all fields, systemic corruption and administrative inability continue to obstruct the procurement program. The naval branch remains notably exposed.

 VISUAL COMPARISON: Drag the bar left to see how Romania's defense procurement will change the regional air defense and artillery outlook


SEA COMMAND

4. Russia strives to establish naval supremacy in the Black Sea. The BSF currently consists of 47 warships and seven submarines, most of which are stationed in the strategic city-port of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk auxiliary naval air base. While the fleet is largely outdated, around 18 new or modernized warships are expected to join the BSF by 2020.

5. Even in its current state, the Russian BSF holds strike superiority in both surface and subsurface naval warfare. All major vessels stationed in Crimea are equipped with standoff range anti-ship missiles (ASM) and anti-submarine weapons (ASW). The naval assets are supported by land-based (road-mobile, naval infantry and coastal batteries) and airborne (mostly Mi-14, Mi-24 and Su-30) ASM/ASW units. The large number and variety of surface and subsurface missiles pose an acute threat to NATO and the neighboring countries.

6. Consequently, Romania promised to prioritize naval defence procurement. The Romanian Navy’s (RoN) surface warfare capabilities will be enhanced by the acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes, worth $2 billion, and an unspecified number of naval strike missile (NSM) coastal defense batteries. Two existing Type-22 corvettes,  the Regele Ferdinand and Regina Maria, will be modernized in the course of the same program. The corvettes are scheduled for commission between 2021 and 2023.

7. The missile type deployed on the new assets will be a decisive factor for the success of the surface warfare program. Given the BSF’s mass proliferation of supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles (such as the 3M-14 Kalibr/ NATO reporting name: SS-N-30), the RoN’s corvettes require adequate shipborne interceptors,  high-frequency surface wave radars and a potent striking capability. The tumultuous competition was won by Naval Group’s Gowind 2500-class multimission corvettes. Armed with MDA MM40 Exocet anti-ship missiles, VL Mica ship-based SAMs, torpedos and two cannon systems, the Gowind promises a low-observability system integration. The Egyptian Navy is the only other Gowind-operator.

The Egyptian Navy future GOWIND class corvette. They will be fitted with 8x Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missiles, 16x VL MICA surface to air missiles (both by MBDA), Torpedoes, a 76mm main gun (Oto Melara) and 2x 20mm remote weapon stations. Image: DCNS

8. While the corvettes will be an important addition on the surface, the RoN remains critically under-equipped for subsurface warfare in the short to medium term. The MoND’s ambitious submarine program aims to build three submarines and modernize the only existing one, the Kilo-class Delfinul, which is currently used for training. However, the lack of financial resources and technological know-how render it highly unlikely that Romania will commence with the submarine program before 2026.

9. The RoN’s seaborne (surface and subsurface) capabilities will be augmented by the Romanian Air Force (RoAF), which is responsible for policing the maritime airspace. In the past years, the Romanian maritime airspace has been repeatedly violated by the Russian Aerospace Force (RuAF) - especially when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and NATO’s Maritime Standing Group 1 and 2 conduct semi-permanent sea patrols in the region and dock in Romanian ports.

10. As part of its multirole fighter program aimed at increasing its maritime security and air defense capabilities, Romania purchased twelve F-16 A/B Block 15 Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) Fighting Falcons from the Portuguese Air Force. The combat weapons system acquired by the MoND for the Fighting Falcons consist of 30 AIM-120 AMRAAM and 60 AIM-9M Sidewinder air to air missiles and 10 GBU-12 and 18 AGM-65H/KB Maverick ground attack ordnance. The F-16s, assigned to the 53rd Warhawks Fighter Squadron have achieved operational capability in 2018 and later assumed air policing duties over Romanian airspace in mid-March 2019. The MoND plans to increase the RoAF’s F-16 inventory with 36 newly-built airframes needed to replace its obsolete MiG-21 Lancer C (NATO reporting name: Fishbed). 

11. While the F-16 AM/MB is a suitable for boosting inter-operability and for basic mission profiles such as air policing, close air support and ground attack, it does not sufficiently threaten Russia’s Anti-Access/ Area Denial (A2AD) zone in Crimea. The RoAF would have required fifth or fourth generation “plus” fighter jets or the latest block versions of the Fighting Falcon, capable of carrying anti-radiation missiles (ARM), ASM and standoff air-launched cruise missiles, in order to credibly challenge the BSF and SAM fortifications in Crimea. 


ANTI-ACCESS/ AREA DENIAL (A2AD)

12. The Russian forces in Crimea are safeguarded by a robust, multi-layered and augmented network of integrated area and point air defenses. Three Russian forces in Crimea are primarily defended by the S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler) the Kremlin’s latest SAM technology. The S-400 Triumf creates an impenetrable area air defense (AAD) cover, capable of parrying multiple airborne assets, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a 400 km radius. Furthermore, numerous S-300 (SA-20) SAM systems are scattered throughout the region, providing  an additional AAD layer. A very high, but unknown number of Pantsir S-1s (SA-22), BUKs (SA-11), 9k33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) and anti aircraft artillery (AAA) provide point air defense (PAD) for military installations, artillery batteries and SAM sites.

13. The ground-based air defenses in Crimea are supported by a layer of electronic warfare (EW) and EW-countermeasure (EWCM) systems. The Russian tip-of-the-spear EW capability is the Krasukha 2/4, which is able to jam communications, low earth orbit spy satellites, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). As EWCM, the Russians have installed radars that provide frequency diversity across the Crimean peninsula and interlink with the AAD and PAD layers.

14. A Podsolnukh over-the-horizon radar stationed on Crimea’s Southwestern coast furthermore provides early warning data, reaching as far as the Bosphorus. Supported by airborne and seaborne radars, the BSF can thus detect and - in case of war - rapidly engage adversaries entering the Black Sea.

15. In response to Russia’s A2/AD zone, Romania saw it necessary to acquire a long-range rocket artillery system capable of contesting Russian air defenses in Crimea. In order to pose a credible threat, the artillery system has to be battle-proven, technologically superior to its competitors and able to fire smart and cluster munition with a range of 400 km. As the U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) ticks all these boxes, Romania has placed a $1.5 billion order for 54 HIMARS and ammunition.

16. The HIMARS is the Pentagon’s long-range artillery of choice in the hottest conflicts. The system is currently stationed near the 38th parallel (South Korea) and the al-Tanf garrison (Syria) and is used to engage ISIS and Taliban targets in Syria and Afghanistan. After receiving its HIMARS batteries in 2019, Romania will be the first European operator of the system. The coast-based Romanian Marines Regiment will likely receive most of the HIMARS batteries, bringing the Western coast of Crimea within range.


THEATER BALLISTIC MISSILE (TBM) THREAT

17. According to NATO, Russia has moved the Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) nuclear-capable mobile ballistic missile system to Crimea. Two videos, which surfaced on social media in 2016, show that at least five MZKT-79306 Iskander launcher trucks and support vehicles are present in Crimea. The domestic version of the Iskander-M has a maximum range of 450 km. The system is able to bypass enemy air defense systems by releasing decoy clusters at 30G speed in the terminal phase. The agile and evasive artillery system is considered to be the most dangerous theater ballistic missile (TBM) in Russia’s arsenal.

18. With its range of 450km, the Iskander-M directly threatens Southeastern Romania, where a number of high-value U.S., NATO, and Romanian military and command structures are located:

  • The NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) for the NATO Response Force  - Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (NRF-VJTF) in Bucharest;
  • The U.S. operated Mihail Kogalniceanu air base and the Babadag, Capu Midia and Smardan training ranges;
  • The RoAF’s 86th air base in Borcea - a NATO-interoperable airfield that hosts Romania’s F-16 squadron;
  • The RoN’s command headquarters for river boat patrol (Tulcea, Braila), the corvette squadron (Mangalia) and the frigate flotilla (Constanta).

19. To counter the Russian missile-threat, Romania has ordered seven MIM-104 Patriot 3 (PAC-3) long-range SAM systems manufactured by Raytheon. The PAC-3 is the latest configuration of the Patriot system. The PAC-3 updates are based on more than 20 years of U.S. battlefield experience and feedback from 13 foreign customers. The $3.9 billion order will be delivered to the Romanian Land Forces and the RoN in 2019.

20. The PAC-3 is highly efficient against evasive and fast-moving TBMs such as the Iskander-M and the Kalibr (in all versions). The PAC-3 batteries fire rockets equipped with Missile Segment Enhancements (MSE) to intercept and destroy enemy TBMs in their terminal phase. The MSE increases velocity, extends the flight range by 50% and has a lethality enhancer warhead to guarantee hit-to-kill performance. For now, Romania has ordered 165 MSEs for the newly acquired PAC-3 batteries.

21. The PAC-3 uses the C-band passive electronically scanned phased array AN/MPQ-65 radar, which is difficult to target for enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARM). The AN/MPQ-65 radar can track over 100 targets at high-altitude, without emitting signals that radar-homing missiles can lock on. This capability potentially discourages adversarial Suppression/ Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (S/DEAD) sorties.

22. The PAC-3 batteries will form an area air defense (AAD) barrier over Southeastern Romania, which will cover the highly populated and strategically important region. The PAC-3 AADs will receive short and medium-range point-area defense (PAD) from Romania’s existing SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery such as the MIM-23 Hawk and Soviet-made assets. Ultimately, the Romanian AAD- PAD bubbles will work interlinked with the U.S-operated Naval Support Facility in Deveselu (Romania) and the guided missile destroyers based in Rota (Spain) as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. Together, the PAC-3-Aegis duo will provide a reliable, multi-layered, and integrated air defense network for NATO’s Eastern flank.


by HARM and Gecko

This assessment has been updated. 

This assessment does not include the products ordered by the Romanian Land Forces (RLF).  The RLF is currently operationalizing the first 12 of the total 227 8x8 Piranha V infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) purchased from General Dynamics. Starting in 2020, the land forces will also receive 347 8x8 Agilis vehicles (armored transporter, amphibious and IFV variants) jointly produced by the Romanian Military Vehicle Systems and Rheinmetall Defense.

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A ‘Swift Response’ from the ‘Saber Guardian’: Recognizing the Strategic Importance of the Black Sea Region

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s…

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s iteration took place between July 11 – 20. The exercise’s aim was to assure allies and partners of the enduring U.S. commitment to the collective defense at the Black Sea region, to enable the Alliance’s command and control functions, and to reinforce deterrence measures agreed to by NATO  allies at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. The exercise was organized by the U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, that saw numerous drills and simulations taking place all over these countries.

Approximate 25,000 troops participated in the exercise, while 14,000 of them being U.S.forces; the rest coming from member or partners countries of NATO: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, FYRO Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Throughout this analysis we explore the Saber Guardian exercise through the ‘Swift Response’ mission that took place at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Air Base in the village of Luna, near Campia Turzii town, Cluj county (Romania), where Transylvania Intelligence was present obtain exclusive footage and information. Moreover, the massive military effort will later in this article be explained through the geopolitical lens as it relates to the Black Sea, as ‘Saber Guardian’ upholds its exclusive dedicated nature for this expanded region.

 

‘Swift Response’: a ‘Saber Guardian’ exercise

Swift Response is a series of airborne operations and joint force entries that functions within the framework of ‘Saber Guardian’ and took place in Papa Airbase (Hungary), Bezmer & Shabia (Bulgaria) and Campia Turzii-Luna & Cincu (Romania).

The mission that Transylvania Intelligence had the chance to assist to, took place from the 21st to the 22nd of July, 2017 in Luna, near Campia Turzii, Cluj county, Romania, at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Airbase of the Romanian Air Force. The employed scenario foresaw an Allied operation to attack and capture the airbase that was occupied by enemy forces. The operation involved 800 U.S. Troops from the 143rd Texas Regiment and the 2nd Cavarly Regiment, and it stretched on three main phases, the first two referring to the ‘Joint Forcible Entry’ while the last to the ‘Airfield Seizure’ objective:

1.For 3-minutes, eight AC-130’s parachuted  hardware, supplies and logistics at 11.00 A.M., July 21st on a plain-field near the Airbase. These resources were to be collected by units already on the ground and be used in the airfield seizure.

2.Later that day, a night airborne operation took place around 23.00 A.M, that saw 500 paratroopers insert the area previously used to deploy the supplies. These forces regrouped with friendly troops on the ground and used the collected logistics to prepare and later execute the main objective: ‘Airfield Seizure’

3.Around 4.00 AM, July 22nd, the joint Romanian-US force conducted a dawn raid on the airbase that lasted 4 hours and saw the capture of strategic 71st Base.

The exercise was deemed as a huge success in regards to accomplishing the planned timeline, maneuvers and tactics. This scenario was one of the vastly different and creative operations sketched throughout the ‘Saber Guardian’ framework. Other missions that enabled or took place within ‘Saber Guardian were:

  • Szentes Axe, Danube crossing in Gyor, Hungary, U.S. and Hungarian troops;
  • Olt crossing in Bordusani, Romania U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Night crossing of Olt, Valcea, Romania, U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Live Fire Exercise at Novo Selo training field, Bulgaria;
  • A Mass Casualty and Air Defense exercise at Mihail Kogalniceanul Airfield, Romania.

Other parallel exercises that enabled and supported ‘Saber Guardian’ as presented by the U.S. Army Europe – see the last map.

Black Sea Region: An emerging strategic vector? 

The Black Sea region has a unique tradition and history as a geopolitical entity. It was in the 18th Century when the Ottoman Empire lost its hegemony over this sea as a direct result of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774) that gave the Russian Empire access to its first warm water port in the Black Sea, and the status of protector of the Orthodox Christians living under the Sublime Porte. The Ottoman-Russian rivalry is directly linked to these area , and spilled-over to the Balkans and to the Caucasus, attracting external inputs that tried to maintain a balance of power in the region, or internal elements that marched to form their own states and movements. As it was the case of the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when France and the United Kingdom intervened in favor of the Ottoman Empire in order to defeat Russia and avoid a hegemony over the region by Sankt-Petersburg.

The Black Sea was also a significant front in the First World War when the Ottoman Navy engaged the Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol. But while witnessing a declining importance in the Second World War, the Black Sea region essentially vanished as a geopolitical entity in the Cold War. The traditional Turkish-Russian balance of power disappeared and instead, a Soviet and Warsaw Pact hegemony was installed. However, the situation changed when the URSS collapsed, despite the Russian Federation’s desperate attempts to conduct damage control over its ex-territories. One one hand, Moscow saw how its strategic territories as Crimea taken away, how ex-Soviet Republics, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or ex-Warsaw Pact allies, notably Poland, Romania, became hardened Euro-Atlantists that integrated in NATO, the European Union and called for a significant increase of U.S. troops on the Eastern Flank.

The critical ‘belt’ that Moscow looked after was its ex-Soviet Republics. While enjoying a friendly government in Kiev and Minsk for most of the time, the Romanian sentiment swiftly grew in Moldova upon assuming its independence in 1991, which triggered an immediate Russian invasion. While not managing to fully subdue Chisinau, a breakaway region was created east of the Dnister that would hold a perpetual leverage over the country. The Republic of Transnistira still hosts today thousands of Russian troops from the 14th Army. Similar interventions also took place in Azerbaijan (much more indirectly) or Georgia, a conventional invasion that sought to cripple the small republic’s future of joining NATO. After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, two breakaway republics were formed under Moscow’s direct military and political foothold: South Ossetia and Abkhazia; these regions still host a number of Russian basses and thousands of troops eyeing Tbilisi.  Then, came the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia that crippled the country’s infrastructure.

However, the Black Sea began to fully resurface as a geopolitical battleground when Russia lost Ukraine. After the radical decision by the Yanukovitch government to go ahead with the E.U. association protocol, protests from Moscow made the government reverse the decision, but instead stirred massive street movements in Kiev and all over the country. The crisis of 2014 escalated when the government began shooting at the over 1 million demonstrators in the main square of the capital. In support of the ‘Euromaidan’ movement came opposition parties, the United States and the European Union. And as Yanukovitch flew to Russia in an attempt to escape the angry population, it became clear the Ukraine was now radically driving out of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and into the Euro-Atlantic one.

Vladimir Putin ordered a seizure of Crimea in yet another attempt of damage control of it’s weakening influence. Under a strict political deniability complemented by an ambiguous informational campaign, topped by targeted cyber and electronic warfare, Russian forces stationed in Sevastopol alongside incoming troops from the mainland managed to encircle Ukraine bases in the peninsula. And under a mock-referendum guarded by the Russian troops and local separatist groups, the population of Crimea, indeed overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, voted in favor of uniting with the Russian Federation.

A similar strategy was applied in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but given the immense Euro-Atlantic support for the Ukrainian Army, and without a doubt, the fierce resistance put by the National Guard and Armed Forces at Mariupol, Ukraine managed to keep the Kremlin in check, and contain the malign separatist conflict. Through the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and the LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) Russian attempted to create a land bridge to Crimea. And from there, according the Vladirim Putin’s speech, to form a New Russia (Novorossyia) for all the Russian speaking people in Ukraine – from Harkov, through the Black Sea littoral (Prychornomoria) and that of the Azov Sea (Pryazovia), including Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, all the way to Odessa Oblast.The two hybrid republics, LPR and DPR formally formed the Federation of Novorossyia in 2014; this ended in January 2015 after it failed to expand the project. Attempts of Russian separatist movements were made in Odessa (strategic to this plan) and all over the Russian-speaking regions, however, those have failed to escalate and evolve in armed uprisings similar to what caused the crisis and the de facto succession in Eastern Ukraine

The combination of international pressure and fierce resistance from Kiev, managed to cancel Novorossiya; at least for now. The self-declaration of ‘Little Russia’ (Malorossyia) as an independent state, made by the leader of DPR, Alexander Zakharchenko, draw hostilities (at least publicly) from the LPR and Moscow, dully because it might have been a sign of abandonment of the larger, grand project for a patch of stable influence. Althought Kiev is still facing with a fragile and status quo-friendly treaty, the Minsk Agreement 2, and a potential volatile breakaway territory in the east, it’s maintaining its path of Euro-Atlantisism; with U.S. forces regularly conducting joint drills in the western region and on the seaboard, while cooperation with the E.U. is unprecedented.

The Black Sea region has recently emerged as a potential energy hub in regards to natural gas and even oil. The underwater deep shells have attracted interests from the biggest energy investors as Lukoil, OMV and Exxon Mobil to contract the licenses. After years of research and drilling, Romania’s maritime shell was confirmed and estimated at around 20 billion metric cubes of gas, enough to make the already energy sufficient country, a gas exporter. Together with Exxon Mobil, Bucharest will begin to exploit the deposit as of 2018. On the other side, Russian companies are already drilling into the shells near Crimea, and could have extended more if Odessa entered the separatist project, and would have changed the Black Sea’s exclusive economic zones in Moscow’s favor. Such a move would have offered Russia the opportunity to contest Romania’s maritime exclusivity and  claim the deep water gas deposits thanks to an island, the Snake’s Island, that sits within the Romanian EEZ and next to XXI Pelican shell, but belongs to Ukraine.

Additional military moves from Moscow are expected in NATO’s maritime perimeter. And as both Bulgaria and Romania suffer from an outdated, weakened and underwhelming military force, a stronger NATO presence is needed in the area. Romania’s sole objective at the 2016’s Warsaw Summit was to receive support for a Black Sea Fleet framework to be formed within the Alliance. Given Bulgaria’s opposition, skeptical of military build-ups in the area, Bucharest only received a multinational battlegroup in Craiova, formed by American, British, Polish and Bulgarian troops. But Washington’s aid had doubled in size in regards to military and political cooperation. Furthermore, the latest two National Security Strategies of Romania named as an objective for the country to become ‘a strategic vector of the Black Sea’.

Black Sea region exercises; source: U.S. Army Europe press kit

Saber Guardian, the largest exercise ever held in the Black Sea area was organized by U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Hungary (logistic hub for south-east Europe), Romania and Bulgaria. It massed 25,000 troops in additional to the already many ongoing exercises by NATO in the area. All the simulated scenarios tested,  subjected crisis situations and responsive actions to aggression emanating from the Black Sea. It simulated how logistics could be swiftly transferred from the main U.S. military hubs in Germany, to coordination centers in Hungary and then to the hypothetical frontlines of Romania and Bulgaria. It tested and exercised inter-operability and battle-space versatility, in critical and diverse missions as: air defense operations, mass casualty situations, seizures and counter-offensives; taking place in diverse regional realms, from the Hungarian Danube, to the Romanian plains or Carpathian mountains, to the Black Sea’s ports or waters.

Black Sea Area Support Team (ex- Joint Task Force-East), the operational unit within U.S. Army Europe, that deals with Romania and Bulgaria, had its most busy days from its founding in 2007. Together with local allies, it attempts to stop the maritime area from becoming a ‘Russian Lake’, as an ex-Romanian President once referred to Russia’s resurgent posture in the Black Sea. The region is one of the few that indeed resurfaced after decades of strategic ‘sterilization’ into a vital geopolitical vector.

 

 

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