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U.S. Official Looks to Deter Russia in Black Sea Region

The Black Sea is a crucial crossroads for the world and one that is critically challenged, said Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities.

Karlin, who spoke at the Black Sea and Balkans Security Forum in Bucharest, Romania, knows well how crucial the region is and spoke of how it fits into the U.S. National Defense Strategy.

An Air Force jet flies beneath the boom of a tanker aircraft in a cloud-speckled sky.
Air Shielding Mission
A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor aircraft approaches an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft assigned over Poland, Aug. 10, 2022. The raptor is assigned to the the 90th Fighter Squadron, which was forward deployed to the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Lask, Poland, to support the NATO Air Shielding mission. The mission provides a near-seamless shield from the Baltic to Black seas, ensuring NATO allies are better able to safeguard and protect alliance territory, populations and forces from air and missile threat.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Long
VIRIN: 220810-F-GK113-0091R

"First and foremost, the Black Sea region is an area of critical geostrategic importance," Karlin said in her videotaped presentation. "It links Europe to the Middle East and beyond, and it is a key node for transit infrastructure and energy resources." 

The Black Sea was a key part of the Silk Road before the birth of Christ. It linked the Roman Empire to Asia. The sea was a bridge for the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and it has been an avenue of trade, migration and war. "It is also a key front line for transatlantic security," she said. "Today, it is the site of the largest conflict in Europe since World War II." 

Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine has far-reaching impacts for the Black Sea region, and the United States is working with allies and partners to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression.

Karlin said the world's response to the invasion "is nothing short of extraordinary." Allies and partners have stood together and have imposed costs on Russia for its awful war.  

She noted that Putin did not expect the robust U.S. and NATO response across the front-line states. Rather than busting NATO apart, the alliance has grown stronger and grown bigger with the accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance. He also discounted Germany — feeling the country would accept a fait accompli, Karlin said. 

Soon after the Russian invasion, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III created the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. It has grown to around 50 nations and has garnered international support for Ukraine, resulting in more than $55 billion in lethal assistance, Karlin said. "This 'community of action' has facilitated an unprecedented level of cooperation to meet Ukraine's immediate and longer-term needs," she said.

Karlin said the NATO alliance is also ensuring Russia does not get any ideas about attacking an alliance state. The allies have doubled the number of NATO's battlegroups on the Eastern front with Russia to eight. There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe. 

Airmen shown in silhouette walk on a dark flight line.
Poland Bound
Airmen assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing board a C-17 Globemaster III in Virginia, March 28, 2023, to travel to Powidz Air Base, Poland. The Polish air base offers U.S. forces the infrastructure and opportunity to operate closer to allies and partners supporting a range of missions along the eastern flank and through the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Chloe Shanes
VIRIN: 230328-F-BD665-1282R

This unity is key to deterring Russia, Karlin said. "We continue to encourage deeper cooperation among Black Sea allies and partners to deter and defend against Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine and the broader Black Sea region," she said. "This cooperation includes further efforts to increase information sharing to build common awareness in the maritime domain and beyond." 

This is at the heart of the U.S. National Defense Strategy. Building deterrence and then sustaining it will allow the U.S. to deal with China — the pacing challenge for the country — and Russia, which the strategy calls "an acute threat." 

Allies and partners are the center of gravity for this strategy. "As part of our implementation [of the National Defense Strategy], we are working to closely align U.S. and allied defense strategies," Karlin said. "We are aligning our activities across all theaters, domains and throughout the full spectrum of conflict to allow each stakeholder to bring their comparative advantage." 

This means that in the Black Sea region "the United States will continue to work with NATO allies to advance military modernization to address Russia's military threat, including through enhanced posture and exercises to improve security and prosperity for the region," she said.  

The security of the Black Sea region will require a common approach to the threats. The nations and their allies must strengthen defensive anti-access/area-denial capabilities; indications and warnings; readiness through joint training and exercises; and resilience, including against gray zone and cyber actions, Karlin said.  

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