NATO unveils new Black Sea force in Romania as latest counter to Russia

On the 9 October NATO announced the launch of a new multinational Black Sea Force, the Multinational NATO South-East Brigade, headquartered in Craiova, southern Romania. aimed at countering what NATO regards as an increased threat from Russia in the Black Sea region. The force will initially be built around a Romanian brigade of up to 4,000 soldiers, supported by troops from nine other NATO countries, and will complement a separate deployment of 900 US troops who are already in place. The plans are to include additional air and sea assets to give the force greater capabilities.

Apart from Romania, Poland is the biggest troop contributor. Bulgaria, Italy and Portugal will train regularly with the force in Craiova, and Germany is also expected to contribute. Around the Black Sea, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are NATO members while Georgia and Ukraine aspire to join.

In Bucharest to attend the Annual Plenary Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a joint press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis that “the brigade in Romania is only a part of our answer to the increased Russian presence in the Black Sea”.

“NATO’s actions are defensive, proportionate and entirely in line with our international commitments. We are concerned by Russia’s military build-up close to our borders and its lack of transparency when it comes to military exercises such as [the recent exercise] ZAPAD 2017”, he added.

Bucharest has been advocating a reinforced NATO presence in Southeast Europe since the Warsaw Summit in 2016, when the alliance agreed to set up four multinational battlegroups totalling approximately 4,500 troops in the Baltic nations and Poland. Canada leads the battlegroup in Latvia, with contributions by Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain. Germany leads the battlegroup in Lithuania, with contributions by Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. The United Kingdom leads the battlegroup in Estonia, with contributions by France. The United States leads the battlegroup in Poland, with contributions by Romania and the UK.

However, the other two Black Sea NATO countries, Bulgaria and Turkey, are closer to Russia diplomatically and were, initially at least, less supportive of the initiative.

NATO’s Black Sea maritime presence already includes naval patrols but it will be enhanced with more allied visits to Romanian and Bulgarian ports, increased training and exercises. NATO Black Sea air forces will also increase, with the UK deploying more fighter aircraft to Romania. Canada is already patrolling Romanian airspace along with national pilots, while Italy is patrolling Bulgarian airspace.

At a two-day international conference, ‘The NATO Security Strategy in the Black Sea Region’, held on 28 and 29 September in Varna, Bulgaria, politicians, diplomats and security experts discussed several regional security topics, including relations with Russia, frozen conflicts in the region, the role of the Black Sea as an energy corridor and asymmetric threats to Bulgaria and the region. The event was organized by the Atlantic Club in Bulgaria, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, AFCEA Varna and Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, with the support of NATO. Dr Solomon Passy, President of the Atlantic Club, in an interview for TV Cherno, argued that NATO should establish a naval base on the Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, Russia has warned that it could deploy more high precision missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave, which borders Poland and Lithuania, as a direct response to the US building up its military presence in neighbouring Poland. The head of the Russian parliament's defence affairs committee, Retired General Vladimir Shamanov, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying that Russia was prepared to take retaliatory actions to the US increasing the number of its weapons in the region.