Locking Horns at the Black Sea

Defender Europe 21: Former Commanding General of the United States Army Europe, publishes Twelve-Step Program aimed at weakening Russia at the Black Sea.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - Just in time for the beginning of the large-scale Defender Europe 21 maneuvers, a retired senior US general presented a Twelve-Step Program aimed at weakening Russia at the Black Sea. The Black Sea region is the focus of this year's Defender Europe exercise, with also German Bundeswehr participation. As former Commanding General of the United States Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges writes in a current strategy paper, NATO's attaining "sea control" of the Black Sea is not feasible given Russia's strength there. NATO should aim for making the Russian Black Sea Fleet "vulnerable." At present, some 28,000 soldiers from 21 NATO countries and from five countries affiliated with the alliance are practicing the deployment of large contingencies of forces to the Black Sea within the framework of Defender Europe 21. Last year the exercise was focused on the Baltic region, which is gaining geostrategic significance because of the growing tensions between the West and Russia. The exercise has escalated these tensions. The Black Sea region will be faced with a similar problem.

The New Defender Europe Routine

With the Defender Europe 21, the series of "Defender Europe" exercises, which began last year with the largest US-led maneuver in Europe since the end of the Cold War, is being established as an annual routine. The number of soldiers participating in the combat maneuvers (28,000) is somewhat less in comparison to 2020, however, more countries are involved and the theater of operation has been expanded. Twenty-one NATO member countries are involved, including Germany, along with five non-NATO countries: Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. With the participation of the former Soviet Republics Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, Defender Europe 21 is gradually integrating their armed forces into the Western military structures even without formal NATO-membership.

On the Road Eastward

Defender Europe 21 began in March, when the USA started shipping troops and equipment to Europe. In the course of this month, the rest of the participating US troops are to be transported by plane also through German airports. In mid-April, US troops in Grafenwöhr were issued equipment that had previously been supplied from the Army Prepositioned Stock (APS) in the Netherlands.[1] In May, the troops and their equipment spread across Europe, will conduct a large number of combat exercises. This year, the geographical focus will be Southeast Europe and the Black Sea region. In June, the US troops are expected to return to the USA via the Atlantic.[2]

From the Baltic to the Black Sea

With its focus on Southeast Europe, NATO is developing its deployment strategies further. Initially, its militarization of the Baltic Sea region was launched with its Readiness Action Plan, at its 2014 Summit in Wales. It has since systematically expanded its military presence there. The launching of its Defender Europe series of maneuvers in 2020 was, at the time, the preliminary culmination particularly testing infrastructure for redeploying troops with its focus on the Baltic Sea region. A similar process now follows for the Black Sea region. NATO's intensification of activities in the Baltic have already seriously strained relations with Russia. The militarization of southeast Europe will further deteriorate the situation, which is already characterized by sharp tensions. On the one hand, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has again escalated, and on the other, the great powers are in competition for the Black Sea.

Dual Great Power Challenges

US Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of the United States Army Europe (2014 - 2017) has described the background of the current situation. Hodges sees a collision of interests of the great powers at the Black Sea. The growing Russian (and Chinese) influence in the Black Sea region affects wider Western interests in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia, writes the US General in a recently published strategy paper.[3] The region is the "frontier between liberal democracy and autocracy," and is affected by - unspecified -"Russian military aggression" and "Chinese financial aggression." Hodges sees the West - also in the Black Sea region - faced with "dual great-power challenges of China and Russia."

"Gain the Initiative"

For NATO to "gain the initiative" in the Black Sea region, Hodges proposes a Twelve-Step Program. Hodges argues that since Russia has more influence in the Black Sea than in the Baltic sea, attaining "sea-control" in the Black Sea is not feasible for the western alliance.[4] NATO should rather enhance its capabilities to achieve “sea denial” so that the Russian Black Sea Fleet is unable to enjoy unrestricted access to the Black Sea. This would require a number of ideological, political, economic and military measures. As it had previously already done in the Baltic region, NATO should now also enhance its military presence at the Black Sea by increasing the frequency of its maneuvers. In addition, it needs to establish command and control structures in the region and enhance the region's infrastructure to enable "faster deployment and reinforcement" of NATO troops.

Close the "Security Gap"

Hodges also proposes to put the annual Sea Breeze exercise hosted by Ukraine, on a scale with the Defender Europe and to also exercise ground deployment of U.S. and allied units from Poland and Romania, through Moldova, into Ukraine.[5] NATO must also make the Russian Black Sea Fleet "vulnerable," while developing so-called hybrid warfare capabilities. NATO must "immediately" invite Georgia into NATO and put Ukraine on a fast track to membership. Serbia and the few not yet formally admitted Southeast European countries should continually be integrated into the Western structures of influence. Economically, private Western investors must "gradually reduce" Russian "influence," and provide a "bulwark" against Chinese but also Iranian inroads in the region. Thus, it would be possible to close the "security gap" at the Black Sea.


[1] Cameron Porter: Fort Bragg signal unit receives APS vehicles, equipment for DEFENDER-Europe 21. army.mil 16.04.2021.

[2] DEFENDER-Europe 21 Fact Sheet. europeafrica.army.mil. See also Kein Lockdown für Militärs.

[3], [4], [5] Ben Hodges: The Black Sea... Or a Black Hole? Center for European Policy Analysis. Washington 2021.