After a November 2018 escalation in the conflict between the Ukrainian navy and the Russian coast guard at the Kerch Strait, the maritime situation in this area has remained tense. Russia contests Ukraine's freedom of movement into the Sea of Azov, which is separated from the Black Sea by the strait. That channel came under de facto Russian control after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014.
Since the confrontation last year between Russia and Ukraine at Kerch Strait, NATO warships have been traveling into the Black Sea to demonstrate support for Ukraine. In the latest visit, the destroyer USS Donald Cook entered the Black Sea on Jan. 19 and visited Batumi in Georgia, while being closely tracked by Russian navy vessels. The British HMS Echo, a hydrographic survey ship, had visited the area in December. At the time, the British presence was openly tied to the Kerch Strait incident, and British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson even boarded a Ukrainian frigate on the Black Sea. NATO has consistently conducted maritime operations in the sea, but its visits have taken on added significance since the breakdown in relations between Ukraine and Russia in 2014. And the recent heightened tensions mean Russia is watching the transits even more closely.
Why It Matters
The situation in the Black Sea resembles the dispute in the South China Sea, where U.S. and British vessels both conduct freedom of navigation operations. In the Black Sea, the visits have evolved from a conceptual show of support for Kiev to a more practical backing of Ukraine's freedom of navigation. However, unlike the operations in the South China Sea, these NATO vessels are unlikely to directly challenge Russian limits to freedom of navigation by traveling through the Kerch Strait and into the Sea of Azov. While the Montreux Convention, which governs the presence of foreign navies in the Black Sea, technically doesn't prevent them from doing so, a great degree of tactical risk would be associated with such an operation deep in an area where the Russian navy is dominant.
The Montreux Convention also severely limits the NATO presence, restricting the number of non-Black Sea state naval vessels and their time in the sea. Even when the sizable fleet of Turkey, a NATO member, is taken into account, Russia's ability to project significant force over the Black Sea through its land-based missile systems, as well as its air assets, gives it a sizable advantage. And the limited strength of the Ukrainian navy means that the Russian Black Sea fleet — despite its own challenges — is able to maintain supremacy there and particularly in the Sea of Azov.
What Happens Next
Though NATO has made it clear that it wants to support Ukraine when it comes to freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, the reality is that this area is still very much at the mercy of Russian power. The Kremlin has been growing assertive and harassing both civilian and Ukrainian navy vessels traveling in the area, but short of a military engagement, there isn't a lot standing in Russia's way. Such an armed engagement would be conducted from a position of inferiority for Ukraine and the West in this particular area, and it would come with a great risk of escalating beyond. Therefore, NATO navies will find themselves limited to a largely symbolic presence in the wider Black Sea.