That’s the conclusion reached by a wargame conducted by U.S. think tank RAND Corp.
RAND recently released the results of a simulation conducted in 2018 to examine possible Russian strategies – and NATO responses — in the Black Sea region. The exercise suggested that Russia’s best strategy is to use divide-and-conquer tactics to forestall any potential coalition that would challenge Russian dominance in the Black Sea.
“It was easier for Russia to achieve its goal of dividing the region than it was for the United States to achieve its goal of uniting it,” RAND political scientist Anika Binnendijk told me.
The Black Sea has been a powder keg for centuries, as Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and other nations vied for influence. But in recent years, Russia has asserted a more muscular presence in what it sees as its sensitive Black Sea backyard, including seizing the Crimea from Ukraine, deploying additional ships and missiles in the region, and buzzing NATO warships. Last month, Russia scrambled fighters to escort U.S. surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea.
Yet from Moscow’s viewpoint, the situation also appears threatening. Former Soviet satellites Romania and Bulgaria have joined NATO, while independent Ukraine and Russia are enemies. Western experts are now calling for NATO to create a permanent Black Sea task force.
RAND designed a board game in which various teams played the Black Sea powers as well as the U.S.
Set between 2020 and 2025, The premise is that NATO is attempting to expand its naval presence in the Black Sea, while Romania has strengthened military ties with the former Soviet republic of Moldova. Russia responds with a multipronged strategy, including aggressive enforcement of an expanded Exclusive Economic Zone in the Black Sea, as well as information and cyber operations against Romania. Tensions peak after a Russian Su-24 attack jet buzzes a U.S. destroyer and clips the ship, killing several American sailors.
The board game allowed each national team to choose and play various option cards, ranging from economic incentives to woo potential friends, to cyberwarfare and military deployments and exercises to intimidate foes.
For example, the U.S. team opted for a mixture of military and political pressure to contain Russian influence: a Black Sea task force that would create freedom of navigation operations, additional military exercises with Black Sea nations, and using the Montreaux Convention – which governs the passage of warships through the Bosporus – to bar Russian ships in the Black Sea from entering the Mediterranean.
Easing the challenge for the U.S. was Russia’s determination to avoid war. “The risk of most concern to all players on the Russia team was the potential for uncontrolled escalation, leading to conflict with NATO and the United States,” noted the RAND report.
However, the problem for the U.S. was that Russia didn’t need to go to war to achieve its goals. The game demonstrated that Russia could use a carrot-and-stick strategy to disrupt any anti-Russian coalition in the Black Sea– and do so without resorting to force.
While Moscow’s options included tacit military pressure, such as shadowing NATO ships or deploying additional missiles to Crimea, the Kremlin could also employ a potent mixture of economic incentives and “gray zone” warfare, such as cyberattacks, information warfare and even blackmail to expose damaging information about politicians.
Such a big toolkit enabled Russia to tailor a strategy to fit the appetites and vulnerabilities of each Black Sea nation. For Turkey and Bulgaria, the Russian team offered incentives: summit meetings, joint military exercises and intelligence on Syria for the Turks, and cheap gas for the Bulgarians. Other nations were treated to a bare-knuckles approach: information warfare and harassment of commercial shipping for the Romanians, blockade of the Azov Sea for Ukrainian fishing fleets, and military exercises in Georgian territory occupied by Russia.
The carrot-and-stick approach had mixed results in the game. Romania, Ukraine and Georgia did not buckle under Russian pressure, but Turkey and Bulgaria did back away from the NATO Black Sea flotilla, which gave Russia at least a partial victory.
One key finding was the importance of Turkey. “Ultimately, the game’s outcome hinged largely on the Russian relationship with Turkey,” RAND concluded. “Russian incentives—particularly the prospect of continued enhanced cooperation in Syria and the potential costs of losing existing cooperation—appeared sufficient to give the game’s Turkey pause before supporting the task force. Bilateral outreach efforts directed at Russia by the Turkey and Bulgaria teams, as well as Bulgaria’s hesitation to publicly endorse the initiative, further eroded regional unity over a coherent defense and deterrence response.”
To be clear, the wargame was conducted by Western experts, and thus reflects a Western view of what the Kremlin might do. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate why Napoleon preferred to fight a coalition rather than be a part of one.
The exercise “highlighted the extent to which Russia’s targeted application of nonmilitary sources of power could largely negate the need for it to risk explicit military conflict with NATO,” RAND concluded. “The game suggested that it might well be easier for Russia to undermine regional cohesion around a unified response than for a coalition to build and maintain it.”
Read the full text here.