Richard Risby is Chairman of the British Ukrainian Society.
In Ukraine, l recently attended a conference in Odessa, relatively untouched by the at times the horrific events in other parts of the country, but acutely aware of its dependence on the smooth functioning of the Black Sea.
An historian, looking at the Black Sea region, could recount some terrible battles there over the centuries, as empires and other interests came and went. During the First World War there were naval battles, repeated in the Second World War with land confrontations. In 2008, one Black Sea country, Russia, invaded another, Georgia, and seized that part of the country, Abkhazia, which overlooks the Black Sea. In 2014, it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
This May, Russia completed the Kerch Strait bridge of nearly 12 miles, the longest bridge in Europe, which links Russia to Crimea. This has seriously impacted the normal life of the Black Sea. The bridge construction makes it impossible for large vessels to navigate the Sea of Azov to Mariupol, a major port for Ukraine. Russia has also been interdicting vessels, causing yet further destabilisation to the Ukrainian economy.
Russia has historically always been determined to have warm water access. It has now significantly upgraded its Black Sea fleet with submarines and frigates, in addition to its missile capabilities. NATO is watching this build-up and illegal shipping interdiction with alarm. Of course, it recognises the need for a dual track approach. As has been freely admitted, the shooting down of a Russian war plane by NATO member Turkey in 2015, at the height of the Syrian crisis, revealed inadequate channels for immediate contact with Russia.
Currently, there are forward defence measures under the NATO umbrella in Romania and Bulgaria. But NATO has so far pursued a limited defence strategy in the region, despite the much-enhanced military and cyber activity of the Russians. It has concentrated on practical matters such training, shared exercises and capacity building. It has not wanted to deploy troops directly to the NATO member states of Romania and Bulgaria, as has happened in NATO’s north-eastern flank.
Now a new debate has started as to whether this restraint is still appropriate. A British battalion has served to deter Russian aggression, particularly after the cyberattack on Estonia, which paralysed the country. Its presence has been a significant source of assurance, joined by Canadian and Danish troops.
NATO is being rightly criticised for the unwillingness of key members to commit adequate resources to the European theatre. To the concern of many, Turkey, an important NATO member, appears to be developing closer links to Russia. But Russia has clearly now identified the Black Sea as a route to extending its influence.
The question now is now whether this is an adequate response to Russian activity, and whether troop deployment needs now to be undertaken. Opinion is certainly beginning to move in this direction.