The Black Sea zone is the strategic intersection of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Access to and from the Black Sea is vital for all littoral states and neighbors, and a military presence projects power into several adjacent regions including the Balkans, Central Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, the South Caucasus and the Middle East.
The Black Sea region also has considerable economic importance as a transit route for goods and resources, and it has a continental shelf that possesses abundant natural resources. With a growing naval presence, Moscow could disrupt energy supplies through pipeline connections between the Caspian Basin and Europe, thereby setting back EU energy diversity.
Moscow’s attempt to control the Black Sea undermines the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It is also designed to weaken the NATO presence, reduce regional cooperation and challenge the security of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The Black Sea is a key component of Russia’s revisionist enterprise to intimidate unprotected neighbors and deny NATO access to all littoral states.
The allies have failed to develop an effective Black Sea security architecture that could deter Russia’s advances. As a result, a mixture of hard and soft aggression undergirded by a naval buildup permits Moscow to steadily achieve its geopolitical targets.
Following the de facto partition of Georgia in August 2008—including the seizure of Abkhazia—Moscow has reestablished control over the eastern littoral of the Black Sea and is extending its power deeper throughout the South Caucasus. Russian forces form a constant menace to Georgian stability while effectively freezing Tbilisi’s progress toward NATO accession. The Kremlin also manipulates the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over occupied Azeri territories, including Nagorno-Karabakh, to maintain its regional predominance.
Russia is in the process of fully controlling the northern Black Sea littoral following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, incitement of a proxy insurgency in the Donbas and incessant attempts to destabilize the rest of the country. The underlying goal is to prevent Ukraine from moving into Western institutions. Moscow pursues the same objectives in Moldova by supporting the Transnistrian separatists.
Russia also seeks to foster mistrust and division among Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey in order to prevent them from acting in concert or forging a stronger NATO flank. Bulgaria and Turkey, in particular, remain dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies, making them susceptible to pressure. Moscow is intimidating Sofia from joining regional security organizations and forging any effective regional agreements, thus undercutting efforts for maritime coordination in the Black Sea.
Along the southern littoral, Turkey’s strategic partnership with Russia has played a decisive role in Ankara’s refusal to involve NATO more substantially in the Black Sea. Turkey’s failed coup in mid-July 2016 and the subsequent purge of the military by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government may further weaken Turkish defense capabilities, enfeeble NATO’s forward presence and favor Russia’s assertive stance.
To counter these negative developments in the Black Sea region, CEPA’s recommendations revolve around five main initiatives. First, NATO contingency plans need to be based on a comprehensive threat assessment regarding the level of vulnerability of each alliance member to a broad array of Russia’s subversive methods, whether military, political, economic or informational.
Second, NATO needs to intensify its presence. Although the alliance cannot deploy a sizeable fleet in the Black Sea because of restrictions specified in the Montreaux Convention, several initiatives can be reinforced, including joint exercises and rotational NATO deployments, creation of a regional command to coordinate defensive activities, and increasing the capabilities of NATO’s Standing NATO Maritime Group designed as a multinational, quick-reaction force.
Third, an effective defense posture requires the updating of NATO’s Alliance Maritime Strategy (AMS). Among the core components for Black Sea defense are effective electronic means of reconnaissance and communication, enhanced cyber defense and intelligence penetration, missile capabilities to defend military bases, ports, and other high-value assets, and effective anti-submarine capacities. Romania and Bulgaria also need to modernize their armed forces in line with new technological developments, especially in the field of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems.
Fourth, regional cooperation needs to be boosted. States along the Black Sea can develop a common security strategy buttressed by regular military cooperation without surrendering their distinct national interests. And fifth, soft security instruments have to be enhanced to thwart Moscow’s penetration. This includes combating official corruption, countering blatant disinformation, protecting against security service infiltration, guarding against politically tainted economic influences, and diversifying energy supplies to decrease dependence on Russia. Such soft-power defenses can help neutralize Russia’s expanding soft power offensives.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Photo: WO Artigues/HQ MARCOM