The Black Sea’s Strategic Significance
The Black Sea region epitomizes geopolitical competition. The transatlantic community’s diplomatic, military, energy, and commercial interests all run through the region — and clash with those of competing powers. Yet it remains neglected in the strategic thinking of the U.S. and its European allies. On June 4, CEPA hosted a panel of experts to discuss the region’s strategic significance and a comprehensive strategy building on national and alliance power. CEPA Pershing Chair LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges was joined by Ambassador Kurt Volker, Distinguished Fellow at CEPA, Glen Howard, President at Jamestown Foundation, RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, of the U.S. Navy and Executive Director at the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, Leonela Leca, Researcher at the Global Studies Center and Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu, and Don Lothrop, Founder of RomaniaOne.
Key takeaways from the discussion (paraphrased and condensed for clarity):
We need a paradigm shift. The U.S. and its NATO allies and partners should move away from a primarily reactive approach to Russian activities and embrace a robust strategy rooted in a clearly identifiable goal — building a secure, prosperous, and free Europe. Russia’s predominant presence in the Black Sea region calls for a transatlantic outlook driven by strengthening deterrence, security, and stability. Looking at the Baltic and Black Sea region as One Flank is a starting point, but such a strategy entails enhancing the deterrence effects of U.S. policies, designing a strategy towards Turkey, advancing NATO enlargement, and acknowledging the strategic importance of Western commercial and investment tools in building resilience in the region.
Strengthening the deterrence effect of U.S. policies, especially in Ukraine, a regional weak link, is central. Russia uses occupied Crimea as a power projection platform for the Mediterranean and possesses deterrence-by-denial capabilities which exploit vulnerabilities in Western deterrence. The U.S. should change Russian strategic thinking by prioritizing the improvement of Ukraine’s weak naval capabilities and enhancing the deterrence effect of weapons systems.
Enhancing deterrence to overcome shortfalls in U.S. force structure requires thinking about the following: (1) what surveillance support is needed in the region; (2) which weapon systems raise concerns among Russian commanders; and (3) what training renders these systems credible. An efficient Black Sea strategy should also take into account Russia's gray-zone playbook, which has successfully exposed Western hesitancy.
NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia also advances regional deterrence and stability, provided that the West assures that collective security guarantees do not apply to Russian-occupied territories until peacefully reintegrated. U.S. leadership will be needed in bringing its European allies, some reticent to this policy, around a single set of values and objectives for the Black Sea region.
Western policy towards Turkey needs readjustment. A difficult U.S. ally, it is indispensable nonetheless for providing NATO with the necessary military platforms in the Black Sea. Improved dialogue and cooperation with Turkey need to be set within a strategic approach that encompasses Turkey’s interests in the region and turns it into a regional power.
A comprehensive strategy also requires the West to look at commercial projects through a strategic lens. Regional transportation corridors have increasingly become a theater of competition with Russia and China. Russia has consolidated a dominant presence in the Black Sea, in detriment to Ukraine’s and Georgia’s modest port operation and developments. Strategically driven Western private investments are therefore critical in keeping NATO partners on a Western trajectory and consolidating resilience to Russian and Chinese influence.
Investments benefit from high returns in countries such as Romania. But U.S. leadership is nonetheless needed to incentivize and facilitate private investments and attract private equity in a region which still faces challenges in good governance. In a Europe whole, free, and at peace, the Black Sea region must move from the periphery of Western strategic thinking to a more central position. That requires a comprehensive and effective regional strategy.
Miruna Sirbu is an intern at CEPA.
June 5, 2020