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Strategic Ambiguity and the Risk of War with Russia over Ukraine

Ukraine is much in the news lately, and the news is not good. The Black Sea region — which includes NATO partners Ukraine and Georgia; NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey; and Russia — is now fraught with the risk of armed conflict as both Russia and NATO have significantly ramped up the scope and pace of military activities there. These include a highly publicized major buildup of Russian forces and deployments of NATO and U.S. bomber aircraft, tactical aviation, and warships to the area. With so much military capability in such close proximity, this dynamic and perilous situation requires measures to mitigate the risk of this crisis turning into a direct military confrontation.

Some commentators underscore the need for urgent diplomatic negotiations to contain this current crisis. While such initiatives are certainly warranted, they beg the question — what exactly should talks with Russia entail? Russia’s grand strategic assertions about its “red lines” with regard to NATO’s presence in Ukraine, and statements from the White House about how its “support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering,” seem to be intractable for the time being. Given that, less ambitious, but crucial, risk-reduction measures should be taken up now by both the alliance and Russia to build confidence in a larger process of geopolitical stabilization.

The key first step to defusing the volatile situation in Ukraine and around the Black Sea should be to scale back and deconflict the formal and ad hoc military exercises and other operations (training, intelligence collection, resupply, rotations, and freedom of navigation) both sides are conducting. Russian troop movements and U.S. and NATO air and naval sorties are intended as messages of geopolitical resolve by the corresponding parties, but it is becoming ever clearer that these signals instead convey threats on which the respective sides seem focused. An expansion of the allied presence and an even higher operational tempo in the Black Sea region would make the crisis with Russia even worse.

A Really Busy Place

In an earlier article in War on the Rocks, we provided a broad overview of trends in the different types of U.S./NATO and Russian operational incidents that occur now with increased frequency all along their common frontier. Together with the Baltic Sea and the Norwegian Sea-North Atlantic zones, the Black Sea region witnessed one of the highest incident totals among the 11 strategic areas where we mapped such occurrences, and those numbers rose dramatically over the last three years. This heightened level of activity is due in part to NATO’s stated priority of increasing its military presence in the region to shore up its allies there. More concerning is the fact that several of the Black Sea events, unlike those occurring in the Baltic and Mediterranean Sea areas, involved the indirect use of ordnance by the Russian side to harass NATO warships. In addition, Russian fighters engaged in highly risky maneuvers while intercepting U.S. and NATO aircraft flying in international airspace. There have also been recent incidents where Russian civilian aircraft flying over the Black Sea have had to change course to avoid NATO aircraft, and Western flight information services have reported Global Positioning System interference from ongoing military activity that poses a serious concern to civil aviation.

Why are these incidents happening? Broadly speaking, there are two types of military activities that bring warships or aircraft from both parties into close proximity.

First are what we categorize as routine air intercepts wherein one side attempts a visual identification of unidentified aircraft. These comprise the overwhelming majority of some 300 reported instances wherein U.S. or NATO and Russian forces met in the Black Sea region under random circumstances between 2013 and 2020. Current reporting suggests these intercepts  remain the most common events in which NATO and Russian forces come into contact. Although they are routine, any of these encounters might prove highly problematic due to the chance of collisions or inadvertent weapons release. Throughout most of this period, Russian fighters intercepting U.S. or NATO maritime patrol or intelligence collection aircraft was the main cause of these Black Sea air encounters. But, from 2018 on, we found a growing number of NATO fighters intercepting Russian aircraft as the alliance’s air policing mission stood up in Bulgaria and Romania. Although these events do imply a geopolitical message (rigorous defense of the respective homeland in question), that content is incidental to operational tasking.

Send in the Bombers

It is the second category of events, those that involve show-of-force or freedom of navigation missions, that is more strategically destabilizing. Even though they might have some benefits for training and familiarization, their purpose is specifically geopolitical messaging. In the Black Sea region, on the U.S. and NATO side, these operations typically use tactical fighters, nuclear-capable strategic bombers, or warships to demonstrate assurance and deterrence to allies or to other states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, which affiliate with NATO outside the North Atlantic Treaty. Russia understands this signaling, dislikes it intensely, and expresses that dislike regularly.

Despite the fact that, as Peter Layton has explained in these pages, the U.S. military undertakes very long-distance strategic bomber missions at considerable cost with questionable returns, they do make good press copy — after all, one can only rarely see the submarines and underground missile silos that are the other two legs of the nuclear triad. Indeed, in 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his air force to restart long-range bomber patrols to demonstrate Russia’s restored military prowess, and, since then, the Russian military has frequently dispatched bombers for training and messaging purposes, especially in the northeast Pacific (along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts) and the Norwegian and North Sea regions. Recent Russian bomber flights over Belarus in a show of support for that country and its ties to Russia again illustrate the visibility of such missions. Russia has routinely flown Tu-22 strategic bombers over the Black Sea, with the official commentary being only that the Russian military performs these flights in international airspace and in accordance with standard aviation procedures. Yet, of course, such missions are intended as reminders that Russia’s capability to conduct long-range strike missions in the region is close at hand.

One of the best exemplars of this type of show-of-force event are the Bomber Task Force missions the U.S. Air Force has flown since 2018 as power projection demonstrations in the European theater, the stated purposes of which are “to demonstrate NATO solidarity, enhance readiness and provide training opportunities aimed at enhancing interoperability for all participating aircrews from the U.S. and NATO allies” and “to demonstrate commitment to our allies and partners all while providing a clear deterrence message to any adversary.” Since 2019, the U.S. Air Force has conducted six Bomber Task Force operations, all involving multiple sorties by B-1s or B-52s, over the Black Sea and NATO littoral countries, with the stated purpose being to show  that “partners such as Ukraine” are included in the countries to be reassured or whose forces are to be made interoperable with those of NATO. But Russian media portray these flights as threatening and destabilizing and feature these stories on both domestic and international channels. On several of these missions, the U.S. bombers were intercepted by Russian fighters that, on occasion, conducted the encounters in an unsafe manner, again indicating the risk inherent in such meetings.

Although lacking the visual impact bombers convey, tactical fighter deployments also convey strategic messages. The U.S. Air Force utilizes fighters under the Theater Security Package concept to “enhance deterrence posture, increase the readiness and responsiveness of U.S. forces in Europe, support the collective defense and security of NATO allies, and bolster security and capacity of U.S. partners.” In the Black Sea context, the U.S. Air Force has rotated several “packages” through Bulgaria and Romania, the purpose being to achieve basic interoperability and to shore up NATO’s Black Sea flank. In addition, U.S. Air Force aircraft have operated in Ukraine on training exercises. During one such event, special operations CV-22 Ospreys overflew Kyiv.

Two if by Sea 

Naval vessels are also very useful and highly visible tools for power projection demonstrations. Even while routinely patrolling international waters, warships — especially those equipped with the latest offensive and defensive weapons systems — connote much more than “show the flag.” In the Black Sea region, having a U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser docked at the port of Odessa in Ukraine is a geopolitical message. Indeed, the Navy said precisely that when the USS Hue City visited Odessa in 2018 as part of the recurring Sea Breeze naval exercise: “Our presence [the Hue City] and participation in Sea Breeze bolsters confidence and reassures our allies and regional partners of our commitment to security in the Black Sea.”

Naval deployments can be dialed up or down depending on the gravity of the situation at hand. In 2013, prior to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, U.S. warships spent a total of 27 days in the Black Sea. Yet, in 2014, after that crisis unfolded, one unofficial estimate showed the total increasing to 207 days. Since 2013, while on patrol in the Black Sea, U.S. and other NATO navies have been involved in a number of incidents wherein Russian aircraft made low and, in some cases, dangerous passes while the vessels were plainly in international waters. Referring to the risk inherent in these situations, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa (whose remit includes the Black Sea) recently said:

It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I’m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.

Freedom of navigation operations and strait transits figure prominently in the news relating to geopolitically tense areas such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Russian Far East. Other than the assurance and deterrence signaling involved in the U.S. and NATO naval presence in the Black Sea, freedom of navigation operations conducted through Russia’s unrecognized maritime boundary around the Crimean peninsula imply special geopolitical significance. Geography is one key, as Crimea hosts the vast Russian naval complex around Sevastopol, which, as Michael Petersen has explained, is a cornerstone of the very ambitious buildup of Russian military strength and power projection in the Black Sea. That the Russians are deadly serious about their purported rights in this case was made clear in 2018 when Russian coast guard ships attacked and seized Ukrainian vessels as they attempted to transit the Kerch Strait. Thus, it is no surprise that, in 2018 and again in 2021, when Royal Navy destroyers entered the area around Crimea, they elicited a strong Russian response. Coast guard vessels maneuvered nearby and numerous Russian aircraft flew overhead, accompanied by intense Kremlin messaging about the incident.

At this writing, yet another incident involving a Ukrainian naval vessel attempting unsuccessfully to transit the Kerch Strait generated a dramatic Russian media storyline, invoking language such as “provocation” on Ukraine’s part that, if taken seriously, might morph into a casus belli.

What Does Russia Want? 

Russia views U.S. and NATO operations in the Black Sea region as serious threats to its national security and insists that such activities be curtailed. That message, from both the strategic perspective to daily operational matters, is conveyed clearly and consistently from the highest tiers of the Russian government down to theater-level military commanders. Putin recently complained in unambiguous terms about U.S. strategic bomber missions in the area, drawing attention to the fact that the bombers are nuclear capable. The Kremlin underscored this concern in an official Foreign Ministry communiqué following the virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Putin on Dec. 7, 2021, by reference to:

the increasing number of unplanned exercises by the United States and its allies in the Black Sea [and] NATO members’ aircraft, including strategic bombers, regularly mak[ing] provocative flights and dangerous maneuvers in close proximity to Russia’s borders.

To underscore this point further, the Russian Defense Ministry regularly provides incident data concerning U.S./NATO Black Sea intelligence collection flights to illustrate the much higher frequency with which they have been occurring lately. It also reports on air intercepts and purported air traffic control violations on those occasions. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has also made it plain that the presence of U.S. Navy warships and those from non-regional allied navies in the Black Sea are provocations that require the Russian side to prepare and test appropriate defensive measures, the effect of said measures being to increase further the overall tempo of military activities in the area. Likewise, the Russian Black Sea Fleet reports on movements of allied warships operating there, to include the close tracking of such vessels. The recent visit by the USS Mount Whitney even drew comment from Putin to the effect that the vessel was in “the crosshairs of defensive systems.”

Strategic Ambiguity and Risk Reduction 

The challenges in sorting out the current strategic dynamics in play in the Ukraine-Black Sea area are, in the nature of things at this level, rooted in existential historical, economic, and political factors. As Gerard Toal explains, in this part of Russia’s “near abroad,” the failure to understand complex underlying regionalized geopolitics creates uncertainty that can easily lead to conflict. In that spirit, the U.S. and NATO side should recognize that ambiguously worded “guarantees” concerning Ukraine’s security, when combined with what Russia clearly regards as threatening activity by alliance forces proximate to its territory, is a flawed and destabilizing approach.

Thus, there is a pressing need to reduce and deconflict the dozens of events each year around the Black Sea in which the militaries of both sides confront one another. We suggest that, accordingly, NATO and Russia pursue steps to achieve what Michael Kofman calls “reciprocal de-escalation.” This is not necessarily an “off ramp” to a complete resolution to the larger geopolitical standoff, but it might be a sign that indicates slower speeds ahead. The Chief of the Russian Federation Armed Forces General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, last year publicly advocated discussions with NATO about deconfliction, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea areas, and renewed that offer this year. In fact, Norway and Russia recently concluded an updated incidents at sea agreement with added airspace safety provisions, which suggests that such undertakings can produce results.

Notwithstanding strong rhetoric from both sides, under present circumstances, good-faith demonstrations by each party might include a measured return of Russian ground forces to home garrisons combined with a concurrent reduction in NATO operational tempo in the region. Practical matters, such as adherence to safe airspace management (which Russian aircraft consistently violate) should be on the table as part of a European security dialogue. If talks, which might commence in January 2022, are done properly, a balanced outcome would enhance strategic stability by addressing one of Russia’s main concerns while extracting important concessions from them.

The alliance has not made clear its strategic goals in the Black Sea region, especially as regards Ukraine. Vague references to “assurance” and “deterrence” and a modicum of in-country training programs and limited supplies of weaponry to Ukraine, if intended to make Moscow rethink its current actions, have clearly failed to affect its behavior. Further geopolitical messaging by NATO forces through deployments and exercises will likely remain ineffective over the long term. Although much of the national security commentary in the United States suggests a further expansion of the allied presence and an even higher operational tempo in the Black Sea region, we see this as a singularly bad idea. How such actions will convince Russia to ratchet down its own military operational messaging is unclear, with recent experience, as documented by our data, suggesting that it will almost certainly do the opposite. We recognize that, in some quarters, any attempt to reach a mutually satisfying agreement with Moscow at the operational level will be labeled as Munich-style “appeasement.” But doing nothing — or, worse, engaging yet more force posture — might lead to large-scale hostilities with truly horrific consequences.

Ralph Clem is a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He also served as an Air Force Reserve intelligence officer in a fighter squadron and wing, and at the national agency level, before retiring as a major general.

Ray Finch is a Eurasian military analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served 20 years in the U.S. Army (field artillery and foreign area officer) and has spent the past 20 working in business, in academia, and as a contractor for the U.S. government. 

We wish to thank an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments. Any shortcomings remaining are, of course, solely our responsibility.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 2nd Class Austin Ingram)

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