With Russia actively undermining the interests of NATO and its partners in the Black Sea, the Alliance must adopt a formidable strategy to enhance its presence in the region.
Russia’s recent military buildup along its border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea put a spotlight back onto the importance of the Black Sea.
Social media was filled with countless videos of trains carrying Russian military equipment towards Ukraine. However, Russia’s build up was limited to land. Recently, at least fifteen vessels from the Caspian flotilla — including amphibious landing ships — have arrived in the Sea of Azov. Four more Russian warships from the Baltic fleet are also now in the Black Sea. This brings a total of at least 50 Russian warships now operating in the waters around Ukraine.
The Black Sea sits at an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus. Many important oil and gas pipelines, as well as fibre optic cables, crisscross the sea. Throughout the history of the region, the Black Sea has proven to be geopolitically and economically important.
The Black Sea’s strategic importance for NATO is primarily derived from two issues.
The first is the fact that three of six Black Sea countries (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) are in NATO and fall under the alliance’s security guarantee. Another two countries (Ukraine and Georgia) participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and aspire to join the Alliance someday.
Secondly, one of the Alliances’ biggest geopolitical competitors and adversaries, Russia, is very active in undermining the interests of NATO and its partners in the region. Also, Russia uses its military presence as a springboard to launch military operations further afield like in Libya or Syria.
For Russia, domination of the Black Sea region has always been considered a matter of national survival. Russian Black Sea ports, being Russia’s only warm water ports, have always served its economic interests.
For example, on the eve of World War I, 50 percent of all Russian exports, and 90 percent of Russian agriculture exports, passed through the Bosphorus via the Black Sea. Today, an oil tanker passes through the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea every fifteen minutes carrying Russian oil or Kazakh oil (the latter, of course, transits Russia so that Moscow can collect transit fees).
A proactive strategy
Inside NATO circles there has been a lot of talk, and some action, regarding the Black Sea region. However, NATO could do four things to enhance its presence in the region.
Firstly, NATO needs to develop a regional strategy that includes both the Black Sea and Sea of Azov regions. Often overlooked in the debate about the Black Sea is the situation in the Sea of Azov — this small, shallow body of water, connected to the Black Sea by a narrow strait, has been important for centuries.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Sea of Azov has essentially become a Russian lake. With the Black Sea being contested like never before in modern history, it's a direct threat to US, NATO, Ukrainian, and Georgian security interests.
Secondly, NATO should not neglect the land and air component of Black Sea security. With much of the focus on the maritime realm, policymakers cannot ignore the important air and land component in the region. NATO should consider the feasibility of a Black Sea Air Policing Mission, for example.
Thirdly, NATO should establish a Black Sea Maritime Patrol mission modeled on the Baltic Air Policing mission. NATO’s interest in Black Sea security is increasing, but the overall presence of non–Black Sea NATO warships is decreasing. A Black Sea Maritime Patrol mission would maintain a robust NATO presence in the Black Sea in line with the 1936 Montreux Convention. This would require non–Black Sea NATO countries to commit in advance to a regular and rotational maritime presence in the Black Sea.
Finally NATO’s door must remain open for Georgia and Ukraine. These are two Black Sea countries that know what it is like to suffer from Russian aggression. They also aspire to join the Alliance someday. Without close cooperation and relations with both, NATO cannot have an effective Black Sea strategy.
Any proposals to increase the Alliance’s presence in the Black Sea should include Turkey's involvement and consultation. Turkey has the most capable Black Sea navy inside NATO, and is a member with sovereign control of the straits entering the Black Sea. It should be explained to Ankara that nothing the US or NATO will do in the Black Sea is meant to undermine this control.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an unprecedented act of foreign-state aggression in the 21st century. It was the first time that borders in Europe had been changed using military force since 1945. The annexation has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half.
Also, Russia has since claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean Peninsula previously belonging to Ukraine. With the recent Russian military buildup—on both land and sea—it is clear that Moscow has even bigger plans for Ukraine in the future.
The economic, security, and political significance of the Black Sea and the broader region is only becoming more important. Not only for NATO’s southern flank, but also to keep the door open for future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.
With Russia using the Black Sea as a springboard for operations in places like Syria and Libya, and with continued Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, the Alliance cannot afford to ignore the region.
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