Optics Matter: Strengthening Defense Cooperation to Counter Russia in the Black Sea

Officials from the U.S. and Poland with Battle Group Poland April, 2017. Battle Group Poland includes soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom, Romania and Poland as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Charlene Moler (U.S. Army).

Defense cooperation between NATO and its Georgian and Ukrainian partners in the Black Sea is at a fascinating juncture. As Russia strives to secure dominance around the Black Sea, NATO has the opportunity to strengthen deterrence and stability by expanding regional defense cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine. This course of action would send critical signals to Russia, as well as domestic audiences in Georgia and Ukraine. First, it would signal NATO’s willingness to unify behind its littoral partners to counter Russia. Second, it would demonstrate Georgia and Ukraine’s enduring commitment to NATO integration despite Russia’s unrelenting attempts to intimidate and subvert NATO aspirants. Third, expanding bilateral defense cooperation in the Black Sea would provide an important opportunity for Georgian and Ukrainian leaders to assure their citizenries that they are devoted to NATO integration and the West.

Here, optics matter. If NATO decides to lean more heavily on defense cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine as a means of countering Russia in the Black Sea, it would shape perceptions of where the NATO alliance, partner countries, and leaders stand (and how firmly), potentially altering dynamics in the region at large.

Russian Developments in the Black Sea: From Defense to Power Projection and Denial

Since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has strengthened its military position in the Black Sea as part of a broader strategy aimed at reshaping the regional balance in its favor.[i] Russian measures to modernize its Black Sea fleet, increase its troop presence in the Southern Military District, and create an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone aim to constrain NATO’s freedom of movement in the region and bolster Moscow’s power projection capabilities.[ii] Hybrid warfare operations, which NATO characterizes as methods that “combine military and non-military as well as covert and overt means…to blur the lines between war and peace and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations,” add an asymmetric dimension to Russian activity in the Black Sea by targeting political, economic, informational, and energy domains.[iii] In recent years, Russia has proved adept at employing a range of hybrid instruments—including propaganda and disinformation, cyber, trade, and political co-optation—to disrupt and destabilize states along its periphery and in the West.[iv] 

A NATO Divided

NATO member states disagree on exactly how and to what extent the Alliance should respond to Russia in the Black Sea. Some states with a higher threat perception advocate for an increased NATO military presence in and around the Black Sea, warning that Moscow could perceive a limited NATO response as a ‘green light’ for more expansionist, predatory behavior.[v] Other states worry that enhancing NATO’s tailored forward presence in the region would provoke Russia and prompt escalation. Russia, carefully observing these dynamics, seeks to exploit internal divisions within the Alliance to advance its regional objectives. To this end, Moscow has leveraged economic and energy cooperation with Bulgaria and Turkey—two of three Black Sea littoral member states—as a means of disincentivizing support for policies that would adversely affect Russia’s position in the Black Sea.[vi] Additionally, Russia has conducted tailored information operations in both countries to minimize perceptions of the Russian threat.[vii] Multifaceted pressure campaigns in Bulgaria and Turkey have produced desirable results for Moscow—both countries continue to oppose expanding NATO’s Black Sea military footprint.[viii] Conversely, Romania—NATO’s third littoral member state in the Black Sea—remains undeterred by Russia’s threats of retaliation. Romania has long pushed for enhancing NATO’s regionally tailored forward presence,[ix] calling on its NATO allies to contribute more troops to the Black Sea multinational brigade and increase NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea.[x]

Russia has also attempted to sow divisions between NATO member states and partner countries in the Black Sea theater. By threatening Georgia and Ukraine through military and non-military means, Russia aims to undermine stability in both countries and erode domestic support for Euro-Atlantic integration. In so doing, Russia seeks to raise the perceived ‘cost’ of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO for member states and partner countries alike. 

Ultimately, overt divisions between member states over strategy in the Black Sea pose a serious vulnerability that the Alliance must strive to overcome. Russia will continue to leverage disunity as a means of achieving its regional objectives. 

Defense Cooperation: A Viable Response

While NATO stands divided over how to respond to Russia in the Black Sea, there is a general consensus within the Alliance that some form of action is necessary to preserve its regional position and ensure stability. In the short to medium-term, increasing defense cooperation with regional partners—Georgia and Ukraine—is a viable channel for advancing regional deterrence and stability, as well as exhibiting Alliance unity. 

Defense cooperation strikes at the core of a ‘collective approach’ to security. Allied leaders stated during the 2016 Warsaw Summit “that more stable NATO neighbors means more security for the Alliance.”[xi] Defense cooperation serves as an outlet for NATO to indirectly reinforce its posture in the Black Sea through strengthening the capacity of its partners. Existing defense cooperation packages with Georgia and Ukraine— the NATO-Ukraine Comprehensive Assistance Package and the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package—provide tailored assistance in key areas including military education and training, air surveillance and maritime security, strategic operational planning, intelligence and communication, special operations, and cyber defense.[xii] Furthermore, co-hosting and participating in joint land and maritime exercises with NATO member states and peer partner countries is strengthening Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO interoperability.[xiii]

Nonetheless, both partners face outstanding vulnerabilities. NATO should expand defense cooperation to strengthen Georgia and Ukraine’s defensive naval capabilities, maritime situational awareness, intelligence gathering capabilities, NATO interoperability, and cyber defense capabilities.[xiv] In the Black Sea, Ukraine is equipped with a navy while Georgia’s maritime presence is limited to a coast guard that falls under the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs.[xv] NATO’s maritime technical assistance should target building Ukraine’s radar detection, rapid maritime response, and counter waterborne threat capabilities.[xvi] Training should focus on enhancing Ukraine’s coordinated early detection and response mechanisms. Similarly, NATO should support the U.S. in strengthening the Georgian Coast Guard’s capacity to conduct maritime surveillance and patrol operations to improve maritime situational awareness. For both countries, enhancing coordination between air and maritime divisions is imperative. 

Interoperability lies at the core of NATO’s operational effectiveness. While the Georgian and Ukrainian armed forces have become increasingly NATO interoperable, NATO should provide advisors and training to close outstanding gaps.[xvii] Georgia and Ukraine will not realize their NATO integration objectives without prioritizing interoperability. Finally, Georgia and Ukraine’s defensive cyber capabilities remain relatively weak compared to the cyber threat posed by Russia. NATO should allocate substantially more resources toward improving Georgia and Ukraine’s detection, prevention, coordination, and response mechanisms in the cyber realm. 

NATO member states should strive to offset the effects of recent political developments in the United States involving military cooperation with Ukraine by ensuring the timely and uninhibited delivery of planned defense and security assistance.

Sending Signals through Defense Cooperation

NATO to Moscow

Despite Russia’s attempts to exploit divisions within the Alliance and stymie NATO’s activity in the Black Sea, bolstering defense cooperation would signal to Moscow that NATO member states are: increasingly committed to the defense and security of regional partners, willing to leverage regional partnerships to enhance deterrence and stability, and, perhaps most importantly, capable of unifyingbehind ‘defense cooperation’ as means for countering Russia in the Black Sea. Investing in Georgia and Ukraine through defense cooperation would demonstrate that NATO perceives increased engagement not as a ‘risk’ but rather as a net benefit for the Alliance. This would, in turn, undermine Russia’s unrelenting efforts to portray engagement with Georgia and Ukraine as a ‘high-risk’ course of action. 

Georgia and Ukraine to Moscow

If Georgia and Ukraine leverage defense cooperation in the Black Sea theater, it would demonstrate their full support for NATO objectives in the region and send the message that both states intend to realize their Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions. Doing so would reinforce perceptions of Georgia and Ukraine as reliable NATO partners at a time when Russia aims to cast both countries in a different light. As Russia seeks to heighten the perceived costs of NATO cooperation and integration among its peripheral states, Georgia and Ukraine can pursue defense cooperation as a means of signaling to Russia that both countries stand firmly behind NATO. 

Georgia and Ukraine to Domestic Audiences

Finally, recent developments in Georgia and Ukraine increase the optical significance of expanding defense cooperation with NATO in the Black Sea. In June 2019, Georgians launched a series of protests when the Georgian government allowed a Russian lawmaker to sit in the Speaker of Parliament’s chair during a religious assembly.[xviii] Georgians perceived the event as another example of Russian interference in Georgia and the current government’s friendly attitude toward Moscow.[xix] Georgians rallied again in September when the Georgian parliament selected yet another Moscow-educated cabinet member to lead the new government, accusing the government of having ties to Moscow.[xx] As Georgians overwhelmingly favor joining NATO and the European Union, the government’s perceived ‘friendliness’ toward Russia is a serious source of domestic tension. 

Similarly, in Ukraine, thousands gathered in protest at the beginning of October against President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s plan to hold elections in the separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.[xxi]  Protesters viewed the plan as a ‘surrender’ to Russia in the east.[xxii] While President Zelenskiy asserted that the plan is an important step toward peace, many Ukrainians believe the move will enable Moscow to swiftly gain control over the separatist regions.[xxiii] 

For Georgian and Ukrainian leaders, lobbying for, pursuing, and publicizing strengthened defense cooperation with NATO would reassure their constituencies that their loyalty and commitment lies with NATO and the West. Framing expanded defense cooperation with NATO explicitly in terms of countering Russia in the Black Sea would help Georgian and Ukrainian leaders regain public trust and assuage the fears of ‘surrender’ or capitulation to Moscow, thereby quelling potential domestic instability. 

In Georgia, concerns over the government’s warming attitude toward Moscow under the ruling Georgian Dream party is raising alarms.  Even if the opportunity to expand defense cooperation with NATO in the Black Sea presents itself, it is unclear at this point whether Georgia’s political leadership would collectively support this course of action. 

Russia poses a growing threat to NATO in the Black Sea. To defend its regional position, NATO must act. Enhancing defense cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine is a strategic option for countering Russia that can advance NATO’s regional objectives of deterrence and stability. Beyond its tangible benefits, the optics of expanding defense cooperation would strengthen the perceived unity of the Alliance and the commitment of NATO’s littoral partner countries at a time when both are under attack from Russia and the latter is questioned by domestic audiences in Georgia and Ukraine. 


[i]Nikolas Gvosdev, “Russia’s Strategy in the Black Sea Basin,” War on the Rocks, August 2, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/russias-strategy-in-the-black-sea-basin/ and Michael Petersen, “The Naval Power Shift in the Black Sea,” War on the Rocks, January 9, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/the-naval-power-shift-in-the-black-sea/.

[ii] Stephen J. Flanagan and Irina A. Chindea, Russia, NATO, and Black Sea Security Strategy: Regional Perspectives from a 2019 Workshop, 6.https://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF405.html.

[iii] “NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threats,”  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_156338.htm.

[iv] Flanagan and Chindea, 7.

[v] Flanagan and Chindea, 12.

[vi] Flanagan and Chindea,3.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Vladimir Socor, “NATO Summit Puts Black Sea Strategy on Hold for Another Year (Part One),” Jamestown Foundation, July 30, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/nato-summit-puts-black-sea-strategy-on-hold-for-another-year-part-one/.

[ix] Iulia-Sabina Joja. “Dealing with the Russian Lake Next Door: Romania and Black Sea Security,” War on the Rocks, August 15, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/dealing-with-the-russian-lake-next-door-romania-and-black-sea-security/.

[x] Socor.

[xi]Pavel Anastasov, “The Black Sea Region: A Critical Intersection,” NATO Review, May 25, 2018, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2018/05/25/the-black-sea-region-a-critical-intersection/index.html.

[xii] “NATO’s Support to Ukraine: Factsheet,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, November 2018, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2018_11/20181106_1811-factsheet-nato-ukraine-support-eng.pdf and “Substantial NATO-Georgia Package,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, February 2016,  https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_02/160209-factsheet-sngp-en.pdf.

[xiii] “NATO-Georgia Exercise 2019 Kicked Off in Krtsanisi,” NATO Joint Force Training Center, accessed October 10, 2019, http://www.jftc.nato.int/service-link-stories-opener-pg/840-nato-georgia-exercise-2019-kicked-off-in-krtsanisi; “US Security Cooperation with Georgia,” US Department of State, accessed October 10, 2019, https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-georgia/; “Sea Breeze 2019 Concludes in Odesa, Ukraine,” US Department of the Navy, US Naval Forces Europe-Africa/US 6th Fleet Public Affairs, July 15, 2019, https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=110234.

[xiv] Joe Gould and Howard Altman, “Here’s what you need to know about the aid package to Ukraine that Trump delayed,” Defense News, September 25, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/09/25/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-us-aid-package-to-ukraine-that-trump-delayed/.

[xv]“Coast Guard Department,” MIA Boarder Police of Georgia, accessed October 10, 2019, http://bpg.gov.ge/en/coast-guard.

[xvi] Gould and Altman.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Amos Chapple, “A Night of Protests in Tbilisi,” Radio Free Europe RadioLiberty, June 23, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/georgia-tbilisi-protests/30014322.html.

[xix]Madeline Roache, “Georgians Have Now Been Protesting Russian Interference for a Week. Here’s Why,” Time,  June 27, 2019, https://time.com/5615726/anti-russia-protests-georgia/.

[xx]Irakli Gedenidze, “Thousands gather in Tbilisi for protest against Georgian government,” Reuters, September 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-georgia-protests/thousands-gather-in-tbilisi-for-protest-against-georgian-government-idUSKBN1W527K.

[xxi] “Thousands protest Ukraine leader’s road map for peace,” Deutsche Welle, accessed October 10, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/thousands-protest-ukraine-leaders-road-map-for-peace/a-50716615.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] James Marson, “Ukraine President’s Moves to End Russia Conflict Spark Protests,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-presidents-moves-to-end-russia-conflict-spark-protests-11570388853.

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