On April 6th, the NATO “Sea Shield 2019” naval exercises commenced in the south-western area of the Black Sea, and will continue until April 14th. The exercises involve warships from Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Canada and the Netherlands, with 2,200 personnel in total participating. The Romanian contingent of 14 vessels is particularly significant. Romanian Mig 21 and F-16 aircraft are also participating, as are radar and surveillance brigades.
These exercises were announced through, among other channels, Ukraine’s Mission to NATO. The Georgian Ministry for the Interior also announced that this multinational flotilla, named the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, had previously arrived in the Georgian port of Poti, although the exercises are being principally coordinated out of the Romanian port of Constanta.
These manoeuvres follow a statement by US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison on April 2nd, in which she said “We have been working on a package to present to the foreign ministers and it is a package with surveillance, with air surveillance, as well as more of the NATO country ships going into the Black Sea to assure that there is safe passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov.”
First things first – considering that Hutchison’s statement implicitly alludes to the Ukrainian naval provocations which occurred in the Kerch Strait in November, when three Ukrainian warships carried out dangerous menoeuvres and were detained by the Russian Coast Guard and their crews arrested, these current NATO exercises must be interpreted as both a continuation and an escalation of those same provocations.
Rather than merely asserting in principle that the Sea of Azov includes Ukrainian territorial waters, these NATO exercises are intended to signal a direct threat to Russia concerning the Kerch-Azov territorial issue. If we are to take Kay Bailey Hutchison at her word, then her statement means that NATO intends to ENFORCE what it sees as Ukraine’s territorial rights.
Secondly, although neither Ukraine nor Georgia are directly participating in these naval exercises, they are represented by small contingents, and it is telling that the exercises were announced through Ukrainian and Georgian government channels. Obviously, this was decided upon in order to maximize the propaganda-value of the exercises. More broadly, the participation of the Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Turks, Dutch and Canadians is intended to once again postulate that age-old Atlanticist trope, “the international community.”
The scale of these exercises is small compared to the military exercises which took place in Poland and the Baltic states during summer 2018, which saw 18,000 troops participate, however they have analogous ideological functions. We need to remember that the purposes of these military exercises include not only sabre-rattling and provocation, but also propaganda. That is to say, they are devised to propagandize the populations of nations within the western alliance, and in particular the populations of those nations participating, concerning the “Russian threat.”
One of the central purposes of besieging and geo-strategically encircling Russia is for their own rank-and-file citizenries to themselves internalize a siege-mentality. In addition, these exercises are devised to propagandize the Russian population on other levels. What does it say to Russian people when, in the space of less than one year, they see British, Canadian, American, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Turkish, Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian and Dutch military personnel participating in military exercises on their borders?
Intelligence-gathering is another purpose of both these exercises and the land-based exercises in Poland and the Baltic states last summer. Obviously, the Russian military needs to deploy every time any such exercise takes place on or near its borders. In reaction to the beginning of Sea Shield 2019, the Russian Navy deployed both reconnaissance and attack-vessels and coastal missile-defence units. The Russian Defence Ministry’s National Defence Control Centre announced on April 8th that "In the designated areas of the Black Sea reconnaissance ships and also naval attack groups, coastal missile systems Bastion and Bal and naval aircraft are on duty."
A tactically astute boxer will often use his jab, not as a scoring weapon, but as an analytical probe during the early rounds of a fight. These “range-finder” jabs not only set up combinations which come directly off the jab, but also help to study the opponent’s reactions.
These NATO exercises are specifically devised to use aerial and satellite surveillance in order to study how the Russian armed forces manoeuvre in reaction. Notice that Kay Bailey Hutchison’s April 2nd statement paid specific emphasis to surveillance. Anecdotally, I can report that, in all of the other places where I have lived, I have never seen even remotely as many satellites overhead in the night-sky as I have seen while living in Crimea during these past 5 years.
For that matter, we should bear in mind that electronic surveillance is also, in practical terms, the principal function of missile defence-systems. Take the Aegis Ashore missile defence-system deployed in Romania and Poland, for example. Yes, it serves the ostensible purpose of compromising Russia’s nuclear deterrent, which in turn poses a long-term threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. However, missile defence-systems can only be tested one shot at a time, which is a completely unrealistic attempt to simulate actual battle-conditions. Most defence-analysts speculatively agree that all currently existent missile-defence systems would prove hopelessly inadequate under actual battle-conditions.
With the tens of billions of dollars spent on developing these systems, then, what is the point, apart from simply enabling American defence-contractors to milk the cow?
Well, their most tangible value in military terms is that they are necessarily accompanied by enormous signals-intelligence and surveillance installations. Parking a missile-defence system or running a military exercise so close to Russia’s borders serves many purposes – propaganda, psy-op, ideological – in addition to the stated task of improving military preparedness. However, the roles of both missile-defence and military exercises as intelligence-gathering activities in themselves is too often underemphasized.