Russia’s destructive intent is manifest in every policy it pursues. On the cities bordering the Black Sea and its Azov Sea extension, whole urban areas like Mariupol have been reduced to rubble, leaving perhaps 20,000 dead. On its waters, the grain vessels that once carried Ukraine’s agricultural wealth to the world’s poor are largely unable to operate for fear of attack. And below its surface, enormous energy resources that could assist the region’s switch to low-carbon power are left undisturbed as Russia acts to halt any development.
Partial exploration of the Black Sea shelf has already revealed colossal deposits of hydrogen sulfide — a gas of the future, which can potentially assist clean energy production through blending with natural gas to create much lower carbon dioxide emissions.
And there is more, much more. Ukrainian gas fields, along with newly installed drilling platforms, were seized by Russia in 2014 and it has been stealing Ukrainian gas ever since. These significant gas finds on the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea shelf off Crimea were one reason why Russia annexed the peninsula. (On September 11, the Armed Forces of Ukraine seized control over four of its gas and oil drilling platforms in the area.) Overall Black Sea Ukraine’s natural gas reserves are estimated to be 37.5bn cubic meters, but may be far higher.
Ukraine is far from the only beneficiary of the Black Sea’s energy wealth. Romania will be one of the most gas-independent countries in the EU with reserves of around 200bn cubic meters of gas. It will be able not only to cover its own natural gas needs but also — especially with the involvement of long-term gas liquefaction projects after the introduction of new legislation last year allowing the export of its gas — to cover a significant need of natural gas of neighboring countries including Hungary and Moldova.
Romania is pressing ahead, but this is a slower process given Russia’s behavior. The sea is not only a battlefield but it is also littered with drifting sea mines which present a hazard to shipping and offshore rigs. When a new platform was launched last year, it was sited just 45km (around 30 miles) from Ukraine’s Snake Island.
“We are not in a war zone, but we are close enough and it clearly has an impact. We’ve had mines detected close to the platform, we’ve had warships that go close to our platform and we’ve had airplanes circling our platform,” Black Sea Oil & Gas chief executive Mark Beacom said at the time.
In the south of the Black Sea, Turkey has assessed deposits of 540bn cubic meters of gas (compared to annual imports of 27bn cubic meters of Russian gas.) Taken together, output from the three countries will one day more than meet regional needs and so remove any requirement for Russian gas imports. The Kremlin knows this of course, and is working hard to undermine European energy independence.
That allows it to continue making huge sums from gas exports to Europe, so fueling its aggression against Ukraine.
This will come as a surprise to many; after all, when the all-out invasion began nearly 19 months ago, the US and European Union (EU) were quick to make decisions aimed at radically transforming the global energy market. A sharp reduction in the import of Russian gas should have been the centerpiece of serious sanctions pressure on Russia’s natural-resources-based economy.
Instead, Europe remains deeply dependent on the “Russian gas needle.”
Spain and Belgium became the largest buyers of Russian liquefied gas in 2023 after China. While the Western world tries to counter Russia’s military machine with crude oil embargoes and other sanctions — despite numerous loopholes — Russia successfully continues to fill its budget with profits from gas exports. American, British, and French technology and licenses meanwhile enable its production and transportation possible for Russia. And despite Japan’s growing aid to Ukraine, the Japanese firm Mitsui continues to work with Russia on the Sakhalin project, a huge scheme producing 4% of global LNG output.
EU countries say they will completely shut off Russian gas imports by 2027. However, while there has been a sharp reduction in gas imports via pipelines, for the first seven months of 2023 the EU increased LNG imports from Russia by 40% compared to the same period in 2021, a new record. Meanwhile, imports through Turk Stream and the Ukrainian GTS continue at a high level (the transit contract remains in effect until December 2024, but may be suspended before that.)
In September, Russia alleged there had been a series of attacks on the Turk Stream and Blue Stream gas pipelines, which it uses to move gas to European Turkey. This is most likely a stratagem to manipulate Europe on the eve of winter by underlining that it can cut supplies at any moment. The longer European states remain reliant on the Kremlin, the longer they will be open to such blackmail.
Freed from Russian aggression, the Black Sea region would become calm. Gas exploration and production activities would proliferate, radically changing the balance of power and leadership in the Black Sea region.
The dispatch of NATO flotillas including ships from alliance members beyond the region, like the US, UK, and France, and including minehunters, would guarantee security by restoring freedom of navigation and allowing the movement of maritime trade.
The winners from this Black Sea peace dividend are too numerous to mention. The loser would be a Russia which needs to learn the hard way that war and destruction are profoundly foolish weapons of policy.
Olya Korbut is an analyst on sanctions at the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies (Ukraine) and an In-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She works on OSINT monitoring and analysis of Black Sea militarization by Russia since 2014, as well as on the creation of a database on exports of Russian oil and other goods by sea since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.