Royal Navy Sets Sail for Ukraine

Russia has forcibly expanded its territory around the Azov and Black Seas and has bolstered its naval presence in the region thereby contributing to an atmosphere of insecurity for NATO Member States as well as Ukraine, now recognised as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. More than ever, Ukraine needs Western support in the economically and geostrategically vital Black Sea. With Russia aggressively increasing its military capability in the region, its control of the Black Sea could also soon mean total control over the Sea of Azov. The UK’s latest decision and its strengthening of defense cooperation with Ukraine signals the definitive end of a time of NATO complacency in the region.

Her Majesty’s Ships are preparing to set sail for the Black Sea later in the year to be part of a more constant British presence in the region.

The Royal Navy along with several NATO allies have increased their focus on the Azov and Black Seas which, despite Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and bullying tactics have, until recently, received minimal attention unlike the Baltic region which until now has been a major focal point.

However, increased NATO activities in the Black Sea and the recent decision for Britain to lead a multinational maritime training program could signal a stronger commitment by the alliance to the once neglected region.

 

A New Initiative

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed on August 18 that the United Kingdom will lead a multinational Maritime Training Initiative to boost the Ukrainian Navy’s ability to counter threats from the East.

While the initiative will allow closer collaboration between Ukraine and NATO forces as well as partner countries, it is also “another step forward for the UK’s defence relationship with Ukraine”.

The maritime training package - delivered by the Royal Navy as well as naval personnel from Canada, Denmark and Sweden - will include navigation training, operational planning, military diving, sea surveillance, fire-fighting and damage control.

The Royal Navy is also expected to send ships to the region later in the Autumn to train alongside its Ukrainian counterpart.

 

“The United Kingdom will lead a multinational Maritime Training Initiative to boost the Ukrainian Navy’s ability to counter threats from the East.”

 

Navigating Choppy Waters

The Maritime Training Initiative - which comes just over a month after the US-Ukraine Sea Breeze Exercise - will not only contribute towards further strengthening ties between Ukraine and NATO, it will also allow for cooperation between armed forces in defending the region from Russian aggression.

Ukraine had lost an estimated 80 percent of its naval assets and capabilities during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and has, since then, witnessed first hand Russian maritime dominance in the Black Sea and increasingly grandiose military exercises in the region. 

Russia’s buildup of naval capabilities in the Azov and Black Seas and militarisation of Crimea - obvious threats to Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity - have led the country to reinvigorate its focus on rebuilding a navy to fend off a possible Russian invasion, to defend its economic interests and protect its right of freedom of navigation. 

It is hoped that the Maritime Training Initiative will contribute towards that effort whilst simultaneously advancing security and stability in the broader region.

The Black Sea area has long been a geostrategically and economically “essential crossroads and critical intersection of east-west and south-north corridors”. Any form of instability or hostility in the region would not only affect Europe but could impact the NATO alliance as a whole. It is therefore in NATO’s - and the UK’s - interest that the region remains stable.

That said, while NATO members’ presence in the Black Sea remained timid until recently, the Alliance’s collective responsibility to defend Varna and Constanta in the same way it would defend Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s 2017 pledge to send more NATO ships to the region have all led to an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea “for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness”.

 

“Any form of instability or hostility in the Black Sea region would not only affect Europe but could impact the NATO alliance as a whole. It is therefore in NATO’s - and the UK’s - interest that the region remains stable.”

 

Strengthening UK-Ukraine Defence Relations in the Maritime Domain

The need for the West’s backing and solidarity is especially significant today following Putin’s recently unveiled plan to modernise the navy with hypersonic weapons and to increase the size of Russia’s fleet by 40 new ships and vessels this year.

The new maritime initiative will follow the resumption of the UK’s training mission to Ukraine codenamed Operation Orbital, after the latter had been suspended as a result of Covid-19.

Starting in February 2015 and continuing until March 2023, the operation - defensive in nature - remained limited to training the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) in skills that would contribute towards modernising and developing the UAF such as logistics, medical care, counter improvised explosive devices, anti-armour, counter-sniping and mortar planning.

However, the Kerch Strait incident and concerns over Russia’s behaviour in the Black Sea have led the UK to enlarge the scope of the operation to the Ukrainian navy in its program by deploying the Royal Navy and Royal Marines to provide training and support to help it counter increasing threats it faced in the Azov and Black Seas.

A visit by the multi-role hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo followed by the Type 45 Destroyer HMS Duncan to the Ukrainian port of Odessa last year, the inclusion of the Ukrainian Navy in Operation Orbital and the recent announcement for a Maritime Training Initiative send a positive message to the Ukrainian Navy. 

Growing focus from NATO and its members on the Azov and Black Seas sends a deterrent message to Moscow and provides Kyiv with the support it needs while it focuses on rebuilding naval capabilities to establish control over its territorial waters and beyond by 2025 and be effectively capable of defending itself against Russian aggression.

 

Is it Enough?

NATO has significantly increased its presence in the Black Sea region in the air, on land and most importantly for the sake of this commentary, at sea. Yet, more can and should be done to address the Russian grip on a sea and region it uses to launch its operations in Syria and Libya and its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Navies of Black Sea NATO members - Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey - are no match to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which has recently been subject to a modernisation plan

Furthermore, the current severe drought affecting Russian-occupied Crimea has revived fears of Russia opting for a military option to resolve the matter by gaining access to the Dnipro River, fears which have been further exacerbated by the find of a cache of weapons and explosives near the North Crimean Canal.

Such eventuality in addition to Russia’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the Black Sea should not go unchecked. 

 

“More members of the Alliance should participate in a naval presence in the Black Sea region.”

 

While the US, the UK, Canada, Lithuania and Poland have greatly contributed security resources to Ukraine, more members of the Alliance should participate in a naval presence in the Black Sea region. Ben Wallace’s call for increased collaboration with NATO forces in the region echoes Kyiv’s hopes as well as Romania’s advocacy for an increased - possibly permanent - NATO military presence in the Black Sea

After all, Moscow’s strategy in the Azov and Black Seas does not only target Ukraine, but is also a threat to NATO, the EU, and the West.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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