Next flashpoint between NATO and Russia could be Sea of Azov

As the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, American and NATO warships are conducting similar operations in waters surrounding the European continent as Russia adds anti-access, area-denial (A2AD) capabilities to the theater, according to the head of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Adm. James Foggo said late last week that “the illegal annexation of Crimea has given the Russian Federation an opportunity to establish more anti-access and area-denial capabilities (in the Black Sea).

“So S-300, S-400 Bastion weapon systems, anti-ship cruise missiles. They’re pouring more into Kaliningrad and the Baltics, and they’re establishing more robust A2/AD capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he added, according to USNI News.

So far, Russia has not used any of those systems in an attempt to keep U.S. and NATO forces out of the region. But Russian naval forces have been increasingly aggressive in the Sea of Azov.

Having completed the construction of a $3.7 billion bridge over the Kerch Strait connecting Russia to Crimea, Moscow has been preventing Ukrainian ships from entering the strait and the Sea of Azov on the other side, despite that, under international maritime law, both Russia and Ukraine control the body of water.

“Along with the bridge goes the entry point to the Sea of Azov,” Foggo said Friday during an Atlantic Council event. “If you’re keeping up with this lately, there’s been some irresponsible activity in the Sea of Azov in the last couple months, the Ukrainians are not happy about that. The Russians have delayed shipping, held them at sea, unable to enter port, any port, unable to go to sea. This is costing the Ukraine millions of dollars a year and it’s an unfair practice.”

Foggo added that NATO ships would not patrol the Sea of Azov because they have no claim to it. However, the A2AD weaponry makes patrolling the adjoining Black Sea even more vital in order to keep shipping lanes open. He said the U.S. Navy spends 125 days a year at sea there, which is the maximum amount of time allowed under maritime law for any nation that does not border the Black Sea. NATO navies also spend 125 days patrolling the body of water.

“This is reassurance for our friends to the east, and we will continue to operate there because the model, the protocol of trying to block the Sea of Azov, will not stand in the Black Sea, and with our friends – the Bulgarians, the Romanians, Georgians, Ukraines and the Turks – we will continue as NATO to operate” there, he said.

“Same with the Mediterranean. It’s getting very, very busy in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Foggo continued. “We saw recently the buildup of several Russian forces and Russian sailors that came out and operated for a month just around Tartus and Latakia (in Syria) because there was ongoing operations and they felt the necessity to flex their muscles.

“That did not deter us from operating U.S. warships there. It does not deter us from operating U.S. and NATO warships in the Baltic because there’s a buildup in Kaliningrad. It does not deter us from operating in and around the GIUK Gap up north, and the carrier will prove that during Trident Juncture,” he said, a reference to the upcoming NATO exercise in Norway involving more than 45,000 NATO military personnel.

Analysis: Since ‘annexing’ Crimea in 2014, Russia has sought to consolidate its position there while putting additional pressure on Ukraine via support for separatist rebels in the country’s east. In recent months, the Russians have stepped up their push to consolidate control over a body of water that is vital to the economic survival of Ukraine.

But despite the buildup, which most definitely appears aimed at squeezing Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine that Moscow wants any part of a conflict with the U.S. and a resurgent NATO. Despite President Trump’s criticism of the Cold War-era alliance, most members seem certain that the U.S. is still committed to NATO, which means that President Vladimir Putin is not facing a fracturing alliance but one that is rebuilding and rearming. 

Could the Sea of Azov become a new point of conflict between the Russian Federation and NATO? Possibly.

That would depend on Putin. The alliance, as stated, has no claim to the body of water, but as Foggo intimated, NATO cannot simply cede ground to Russia outside of the Azov (eastern Mediterranean Sea). If Putin were allowed to build an A2AD capability there as well as the Azov and Black seas, he could feasibly control an outsized geographical region that would make it difficult or even impossible in times of conflict for the U.S. Navy and NATO to operate — at least for a time. Russia missile sites and warships would, of course, be among the first targets in any regional war.

Meanwhile, Putin’s got his hands full in Syria. With the new delivery of S-300 anti-air, missile defense systems, a “gift” to the Syrian government, he has upped the ante by making it more likely those systems will be deployed against Israeli — and possibly even U.S. — missiles and aircraft. The Iranians continue to solidify their position and influence in Syria, much to Putin’s chagrin and despite Russian attempts to get Tehran to agree to temper its activities in the country, thus lessening the need for Israeli intervention.

Putin’s primary objective was and remains to influence events in Ukraine. There are no indications he is trying to provoke the U.S. or NATO. But having A2AD systems in proximity to U.S. and NATO naval operations always invites a miscalculation, which could then spark a wider conflict.

“I am confident that we are able to act with the technologically superior capabilities that we have within not just the United States Navy but all of NATO,” Foggo said. “That’s not to say that we’re not going to get to areas that are going to be contested, and we’re going to have to operate as we do as a sophisticated group of navies in order to deny the adversary the capability or the opportunity to keep us out of areas that are international waters. Because we absolutely and categorically refuse to be restricted in our ability to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters.”


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