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Pentagon spotlights the Black Sea, but plans for confronting Russia remain murky

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks with U.S. troops at Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base on Oct. 20, 2021. (Karoun Demirjian/The Washington Post)
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled throughout the Black Sea region last week to promote the partnerships needed to mount a credible defense against Russia along the most volatile territorial frontier between Moscow and the West. But despite his show of support, experts say the Biden administration so far has struggled to articulate how it intends to turn the United States’ alliances into a successful plan for repelling Russian aggression, which is on the rise.

“What is our strategy? Why should we care about the Black Sea region? That’s missing,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded all U.S. Army forces in Europe for a time during the Obama and Trump administrations and is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis. The limited military hardware that’s been supplied to certain countries in the region, he added, stem from“policy decisions that are not rooted in a sustainable, long-term strategy.”

For more than a decade, the Black Sea region has been a battleground where pro-Western and pro-Russian forces have clashed and Moscow has often emerged with the upper hand. In 2008, war between a democratizing Georgia and Russia ended with Moscow helping two Georgian territories break away from the government in Tbilisi. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine after the country ousted a pro-Kremlin government and helped separatists in its eastern provinces mount an ongoing war with Kyiv.

More recently, Russia has made significant investments in its navy’s Black Sea Fleet — and in the last several months, it has used those assets to menace Western forces during joint exercises and as ships move through the region.

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Against that backdrop, U.S. allies have clamored for more troops and more weapons from the United States and NATO, to help them fortify their front line against Russian aggression. But there was noticeably little of that on offer as Austin made his tour through Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and ultimately to NATO headquarters in Brussels, even as he called forcefully on Russia “to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea … and to halt its persistent cyberattacks and other malign activities” against the United States and its partners.

“They have this great rhetoric … but the details aren’t there,” said Jim Townsend, who worked on NATO and European policy at the Pentagon during the Obama administration and now is with the Center for a New American Security. “It’s almost like there’s a line that we’re not going to cross when it comes to the Black Sea.”

About 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed in NATO member Romania on a rotational basis, a number that is not expected to change dramatically or become a permanent presence, according to senior defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Austin’s visit there.

The Biden administration has stepped up security assistance to NATO hopefuls Ukraine and Georgia, meanwhile, by providing the countries with patrol boats, approving sales and transfers of Javelin missiles, and expanding bilateral and multilateral military exercises.

Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and Bulgaria are also part of a U.S.-sponsored maritime program, through which they have been able to tap other defense resources over the years.

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But a new pact that Austin signed with his Georgian counterpart last week to formalize a training partnership was largely an extension of an existing program. The same goes for an announcement in Brussels that NATO would defend itself against a two-front attack from Russia by investing in missile defense and fifth-generation jets — programs that already exist.

“Where’s the beef in some of the announcements that were made in Georgia, in Kyiv, in Bucharest and at NATO?” asked Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center who worked on NATO and Europe policy at the Defense Department during President George W. Bush’s administration. He cited “the ambiguity of the alliance’s relationship” with the Black Sea countries — particularly those which are not yet NATO members ­— as one of the reasons the region continues to be “a uniquely intense zone of competition” with Russia.

There is palpable concern within NATO about stoking conflict with Russia. While the alliance has pledged to ready itself for possible multi-front attacks from Moscow, there is a reluctance in some corners to stir the pot — especially when it comes to Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO, which are actively embroiled in territorial disputes involving Russia. France and Germany, in particular, have expressed skepticism about their inclusion, even as the two countries committed troops to the Afghanistan war effort, engaged in domestic reform efforts and took steps to make their defense systems more interoperable with the alliance.

Last week, in the midst of Austin’s visit to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that Ukraine’s military development “poses a threat to Russia,” and that its accession to the alliance would be a red line. Those comments followed Austin’s declaration in Kyiv that “no third country has a veto over NATO’s membership decisions.” He made similarly unambiguous remarks while in Tbilisi, condemning “Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgia.”

That Austin’s visit captured the attention of Russia’s president is, in itself, significant. Before last week, no U.S. defense secretary had set foot in Romania or Georgia since 2014, and none had visited Ukraine since 2017.

But the factors that govern Black Sea security are not a simple balancing act between east and west. Delicate regional alliances and balances of power complicate any increased U.S. or NATO intervention as well as efforts to promote broader cooperation between the countries that share coastline, analysts and senior defense officials note.

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For example, while Romania and Bulgaria — both NATO members — have shown an interest in pooling defensive naval and intelligence-gathering resources, such efforts have met an icy reception in Turkey, a NATO country that has been dominant in the Black Sea and has formal control over the straits that connect it to the Mediterranean. Warming relations between Ankara and Moscow — in particular, Turkey’s decision to buy NATO-incompatible S-400 missile systems from Russia — have further challenged approaching the Black Sea dilemma with a united front.

There appears to be growing interest in tackling these matters on Capitol Hill, where a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee has scheduled a Wednesday hearing to examine the United States’ security posture in the Black Sea. Tellingly perhaps, the session is titled “Reviving U.S. Policy Toward the Region.”

Ultimately, those eager for Biden’s team to articulate a comprehensive plan may have to wait for the Pentagon to release its next Global Posture Review, which Austin commissioned after taking office. The document has taken longer than planned to be issued, though officials have indicated it would be completed this year.

Experts warn that absent a marked change in approach, it may be too late to shift the balance away from Russia.

“We are really behind — and while there are some things we could do, it’s going to be tough to move the needle,” Townsend said.