The Navy’s Response to Putin’s War

Most proposals for military aid to Ukraine involve air assistance, such as establishing a Berlin-style airlift, flying in fighter jets from Poland and establishing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory. But it would be a grave mistake to neglect the maritime aspect of the conflict. Certainly not Russia. According to the Times of London, recent intelligence information suggests that Russia has a fleet of warships ready to launch an amphibious assault on Odessa, the last major Ukrainian seaport not in Russian hands or under Russian siege .

It is crucial for the peace and security of Europe that Ukraine does not lose what is left of its Black Sea coast and that Russia does not regard these international waters as its private naval and marine sanctuary. The US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can protect this strategic flank of Europe and NATO while reducing Russian pressure on Ukraine without risking war.

The importance of the Black Sea to Russia’s economy and sovereignty dates back to the 19th century. But then the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits, which provided access to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, became increasingly important for Russia.

This was thanks to Russia’s export trade in grain and manufactured goods – and its imperial plans in southern Europe, including the Turkish capital. The issue became so important that nations negotiated international agreements aimed at restricting Russian naval presence in the Black Sea and access to the Turkish Straits, the most recent being the Montreux Convention signed in 1936 by the Soviet Union and nine other countries was signed is still in force.

The Black Sea remains vital to Russia’s national interest. One reason Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014 was to secure the former Soviet naval base in Sevastopol. It is crucial to confront Russia in this region as part of a broader strategy in support of Ukraine – and also as a core part of a new NATO naval strategy. Here are five steps the US and NATO can take:

First, to provide the Ukrainian armed forces with anti-ship missiles capable of deterring Russian naval forces and amphibious landings. The Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missile can be launched from both ship and shore. Poland and Romania bought them from Norway’s Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace. All three countries are NATO members; All three should work together to build Ukraine’s anti-missile arsenal, especially after Ukraine claimed it was able to destroy a Russian naval ship near Mariupol with similar weapons.

Second, ensure that Turkey bans the passage of Russian warships under Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which regulates access to the Black Sea through the Strait, while allowing free passage for US and NATO ships. According to Article 19, Turkey can deny access to warships of warring parties as long as Turkey is not a party to the conflict. On February 27, three days after Putin’s invasion, Ukraine asked Ankara to close the straits to Russian warships. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recognized Mr Putin’s invasion as an act of war – a key step towards invoking Article 19. A day later, however, Turkey appeared to back down, with words suggesting it would close the straits to all warships, not only those from Russia and Ukraine. However, according to Article 19, Turkey does not have the right to close the straits to neutral warships. Compliance with the article requires blocking the passage only for Russian and Ukrainian ships. Turkey’s NATO partners should insist that Ankara implement Article 19 to the letter.

This will come too late to disrupt the 30 or more Russian warships already blockading the Ukrainian coast. But closing the strait would hamper attempts to step up future large-scale naval operations and signal that the Russian Navy can no longer pretend the Black Sea is its private lake.

Third, send a US-led NATO flotilla to fly the flag in the ports of friendly Black Sea countries. Last July, NATO conducted a major Black Sea exercise involving about 30 ships from 32 NATO members and other countries, including Ukraine. The NATO presence has since almost disappeared. It’s time to revive a robust western naval presence.

Fourth, organize humanitarian sea transport with a NATO-escorted convoy of ships bringing food and medical supplies to Russian-occupied Kherson. This convoy can show Moscow that although Kherson is currently occupied by Russian troops, it is still Ukrainian sovereignty.

Fifth: Developing a naval strategy for the Black Sea region. A single French frigate visited the region in December 2021 and left the day after the New Year. Since then, no major NATO warship has surfaced, even as Russia ravages Ukraine. The war is “like a boa constrictor around Ukraine’s neck,” retired Admiral James Foggo, who commanded US and NATO navies in Europe for nearly a decade until 2020, told Reuters. “NATO needs a maritime strategy.”

The fate of NATO’s southern flank may depend on how quickly its leaders, including President Biden, respond to this challenge – at sea as well as on land and in the air.

Mr. Herman is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and is the most recent author of The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World.

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