When to Expect New Provocation in the Black Sea?

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Russia and NATO are actively building up military units in the Black Sea area, increasing the threat of direct armed conflict. Its catalyst may be a new provocation like the Kerch incident and, apparently, it is not far off. Militarization of the Black Sea The other day, the Russian Foreign Ministry disseminated a statement in which he accused NATO of militarizing the Black Sea area. According to the Foreign Ministry, the Alliance “does not hide plans to further strengthen its military presence”, as well as intensified patrolling of the sea and air space in the Black Sea area. The statement of the Foreign Ministry, apparently, was a reaction to approximately similar claims that are made in the West to Moscow itself. There are indeed reasons for mutual accusations. NATO has been paying increased attention to the region in recent years. Alliance vessels are increasingly entering the Black Sea, which is confirmed by objective data: NATO maritime patrolling in its waters increased in 2018 to 120 days, while in 2017 this figure was 80 days. Besides, the United States for the first time in a long time deployed troops for land operations to the region. It involves a lot of combat vehicles: tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters. It is expected to take part in a series of military exercises in Romania and Ukraine. It is likely to come in neighboring Moldova, where they scheduled range practice this autumn on the Bulboaca range. At the same time, not only the Alliance, but also its allies in the region are increasing their forces. Ukraine is preparing to build a powerful naval infrastructure along the Black Sea coast, strengthens the radar means. In December, at the London NATO summit, Kyiv hopes to receive an action plan for membership, which would provide for additional military and financial assistance. In addition, Ukraine plans this year to agree with NATO on a joint patrol of the Black Sea. Moldova, neighbouring Ukraine, is not lagging behind and is also increasing defence spending. In accordance with NATO standards, military units are being re-equipped, and this year Moldova’s army for the first time got in the ranking of the world armed forces – Global FirePower (GFP), and ranked 103 (out of 137 states). The infrastructure of the Alliance is also being strengthened in the country. Its information centre as well as its liaison office have been established there in recent years. The actions of NATO and its allies do not remain unanswered by Moscow, which has been actively involved in the ‘arms race’ in the region. First of all, Russia is strengthening its Crimean aircraft carrier, where it moves s-400, Iskander and Kalibr missiles. Recently, the Russian media reported the deployment of Tu-22M3 aircraft on the peninsula in response to the US missile defense in Romania. The information was officially denied, but the ‘leak’ could be intentional. Long-range bombers Tu-22M3 are able to hit the target anywhere in Europe and seriously change the balance of power in the region. There is no doubt that their deployment in Crimea is an obvious warning to NATO. Another signal measure is intensive training and maneuvers of a group of Russian troops in the unrecognized Transnistria, which constantly irritate Chisinau. Fertile ground for new provocations So far, geopolitical opponents continue to move along this spiral of confrontation: each step of the other meets an immediate answer with different degrees of symmetry. No one is going to give up or lower their stakes. This significantly increases the degree of tension in the region, which attracts the military forces of the parties like a magnet. The situation in the Black Sea looks more and more like strengthening of a potential theater of war and preparing for real fighting. The militarization of the region raises particular concerns in connection with the electoral processes in this area, primarily in Ukraine. The generated field of instability creates a convenient backwater for all fans of ‘fishing in muddy water’. The latter include the leader of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, who is desperately fighting for the second presidential term. And he has to cope not only with the huge unpopularity within the country and criticism of rivals in the presidential race, but also with the undisguised desire of the European Union to ‘reset’ the Ukrainian government. In such circumstances, Poroshenko can enlist the support of the United States, playing on the contradictions of Brussels and Washington. As recently it became known, the leaders of the European Union, Germany and France, previously refused to send their vessels to the Black Sea, calling it “unnecessary provocation”. The EU limited itself to the ritual introduction of new sanctions and generally demonstrates a peaceful attitude, trying to channel the solution of regional conflicts towards diplomatic negotiations. This, apparently, is due to its desire to change the ‘President of war’ to a figure with greater capacity to compromise and negotiate. However, Poroshenko can still be useful to the United States, which benefit from the military ‘pumping’ of the Black Sea area, stealing the attention and resources of the opponent. The last Kerch incident enabled increase in the sanctions pressure on Moscow, as well as made it easier to obtain the consent of the states in the region to increase the NATO units. A new provocation in the Black Sea can bring even more dividends – and the current President of Ukraine, who will need non-trivial and probably risky steps to maintain his position, can arrange it. Moreover, Kyiv has already announced its intention to repeat the passage of vessels, and this time accompanied by NATO vessels or at least with its representatives on board. Given the active militarization of the Black Sea, the ‘new Kerch’ will have much more severe consequences up to the beginning of direct hostilities. In the meantime, the region is increasingly turning into a new ‘powder keg’ of Europe, which could explode at any moment.