The current battle for influence and supremacy in the Black Sea region is the most intense in modern memory. Russia is active and as aggressive than ever. Turkey remains determined to be the region’s pivotal power. China’s interest in the region is growing.
The U.S. is encouraging coordination among Eastern European NATO allies, building a new line of containment uniting the Baltic to the Black Sea. Meanwhile, the EU is going through its own debates about Europe’s geopolitical future.
Roles are changing. The intense competition presents unprecedented opportunities for strategic realignment. What is required are structures for cooperating, rooted in places to cooperate.
Force of Change: Source and Relevance
History in the Black Sea region was reset in 2008. The global financial crisis shook confidence in globalization. Even though the region itself was poorly integrated into global capital markets, reactions elsewhere affected it profoundly. China responded, in part, with an ambitious Belt and Road Initiative remodeling its economy, lessening dependence on U.S. markets, and seeking to integrate regional partners around the world, including the Black Sea. Beijing engaged most of the region, though found it difficult to advance initiatives when so many countries from Asia to Europe mired in economic malaise. Nevertheless, China’s presence added a new factor in regional competition.
The Russo-Georgian War was more even consequential. For the Black Sea countries that were members of NATO and/or the EU, these events hit home, reaffirming the value of collective security. For countries that were part of neither, pressure mounted to choose between Russia and the West.
Transformation into a zone of competition and conflict intensified with the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Russian aggression in Ukraine, in turn, triggered responses from the U.S. and NATO allies. Since 2014, Washington pushed to move the line of containment eastward by improving bilateral ties with Romania and Poland while supporting NATO exercises in the area between the Baltic and the Black Sea.
Russia’s economy, which actually fared fairly well after 2008 because of high oil prices, began to slow after sanctions were introduced in 2014. Only now is it coming back to balanced levels of growth. The European economy did not fare well after the economic crisis. The refugee crisis that followed, in 2015-2016, made European socio-economic conditions worse and contributed to the success of nationalist and sometimes anti-immigrant parties. These factors only exacerbated instability in the region.
Meanwhile, Turkey stood at the intersection of all challenges. For example, Ankara assumed a lead role in negotiating the refugee crisis with the EU. Throughout the last, tumultuous decade, Turkey has sought to assert its role as a regional power, balancing between Russia and the U.S., while signaling that it is ready to tackle the Chinese influence. Beijing looks to be avoiding direct competition with Turkey, but its investment and diplomatic steps into the Balkans places the two in competition, both looking build influence in the same areas.
What this assessment makes clear is the problems of the region are largely from actors exploiting weakness, the indifference of attention from Western leaders, and the lack of capacity of regional actors to shape conditions on the ground.
Once and Future Global Hub
Then came COVID.
While the global pandemic delivered another hammer blow to the region, the outbreak also shined light on the Black Sea’s importance and future potential.
The pandemic exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The international trade in goods and tourism have slowed down, and transportation and shipping have dropped. Cruises have been halted and container shipping, which constitutes the majority of Black Sea traffic, has seen an unprecedented decline.
No one in the Black Sea saw this coming. It hit after years of work and anticipation for a growth in the maritime transportation, aiming to increase terminal capabilities in the coming years, accommodating larger ships, and making the Black Sea a maritime hub.
The global pandemic proved, once more, that transshipment is volatile and highly price sensitive. It was a strong reminder that no development is purely economic. Port tariffs are dependent on both economic and security risks—and there is a lot of interdependence between geopolitics and maritime shipping.
The Black Sea also contains vital critical infrastructure including both energy and cyber links of paramount importance for all countries in the region as well as much of Europe.
The interplay of security and economic challenges will likely only grow in the future. For instance, Russia’s ambitions to project its military strength in relation to Europe and its neighborhood bring permanent changes in a NATO contact area, raising the potential for escalating conflicts. Through the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia has built a Black Sea naval profile in order to supply weapons and fuel conflicts at remote Mediterranean locations such as Syria and Libya.
The passiveness and concessions offered by Western Europeans are heavily exploited by Russia for wider geopolitical gains. Although the Black Sea can be seen as a peripheral space for allies, in reality it presents itself as a specific link from which Russia can question the security of Europe’s southern flank in the Mediterranean, as well as facilitate China’s access to Eastern and Central Europe. At the same time, China is advancing trade and investment to achieve diplomatic and political leverage in the region. China has become extremely active diplomatically and is looking for ways to gain support points for procurement, investment, or scientific cooperation.
In short, the future peace and prosperity of the region, exploiting its full potential as an engine of growth and a hub in global trade, rests in solutions that effectively weave together economic development, collective security, and responsible diplomacy.
Partners for Cooperation
Part of the answer lies in building systemic solutions to the challenges. Political and economic development platforms, such as the Three Seas Initiative (a joint Central European infrastructure investment program), are gaining more relevance. The U.S. has committed—but not yet delivered—$1 billion toward this initiative. Other proposals, such as the bipartisan projects such as the Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act introduced in Congress last December, would stimulate digital sovereignty, infrastructure development and strengthen the U.S. presence in Central and Eastern Europe. Also, the decision announced at the Three Seas Summit in Tallinn, Estonia in October 2020, gives counterparts hope that the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) will honor its decision to invest the $300 million into the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund.
A question of mutual interest is the security of supply chains and critical infrastructure. Joint projects in industry, technology, energy, infrastructure, digitalization represent a great opportunity for return on investment of U.S. companies and a mechanism to gain positive redundancy which will inevitably lead to comprehensive security in the region. Consequently, the U.S. presence in the Black Sea can contribute to implementing a transatlantic 5G network, thereby gaining an advantage over China as a systemic competitor.
This is how current challenges give room to opportunities. Ultimately, the evolution of global trade flows is dependent on the economics of the United States, the single biggest consumer in the world, and of that of the European Union, the largest market union in the world. The recovery of China and Russia depends on how fast demand from the U.S. and the EU will recover from the pandemic. All four of these regions “meet” in the Black Sea. It may not become a maritime hub, but Black Sea ports—notably Constanța, which is also the most important considering its trade handling capacity and strategic importance—have hosted some of the most important NATO exercises in the region. This simple realization argues that the Black Sea will be the “heartland” of the Eurasian continent in the coming years.
Economic cooperation, however, is not enough. There are still too many fault lines in the regional collective security framework. In particular, the limits of the Montreux Convention regarding the deployment of military ships belonging to non-coastal states have permitted the Russian Federation to impose itself as the main power in the Black Sea after the end of the Cold War. The Montreux Convention limits the projection of NATO capabilities in the Black Sea.
Further, though Montreux is perceived as an important pillar for Turkey’s maritime security, an extended perspective is also necessary in order to support the relevance of the Alliance. If Turkey cannot control the Black Sea, then it becomes less relevant for NATO. Currently, Turkey is an important actor in the region and could initiate an innovative strategy to integrate the NATO states in approaching the issues of the Black Sea. So far, however, it has not.
The efforts and strategies of the two main institutions of Brussels—NATO and the EU—should find a convergence point regarding the Black Sea. While the Alliance presents a clear and profound vision for the Black Sea, this cannot be said about the European Union, whose vision is relatively diluted and disengaged. This is a Gordian knot not yet unraveled.
It is time for a major diplomatic initiative to break through the security disconnects. It is also time to get creative. For example, regional expert Luke Coffey has suggested, establishing a Black Sea Maritime Patrol mission modeled on the successful Baltic Air Policing mission, in which non-Black Sea members would commit to a regular and rotational maritime presence in the Black Sea. This would be the fastest and most effective way to increase NATO’s presence. Doing this just requires political will and building up the capacity of the reduced size of European navies—problems that can be solved with energetic leadership.
Places for Cooperation
The Black Sea network for cooperation needs to be grounded in physical nodes that provide for the collective security umbrella for diplomacy and economic activity. In particular, Romania, Georgia and Bulgaria are all important potential places.
The 71st Air Base at Câmpia Turzii is being transformed into a NATO hub in Eastern Europe, as part of the U.S. deterrence strategy against Russia. In the next four years, Washington will invest over $130 million in Câmpia Turzii Air Base, and the Romanian Ministry of National Defense will invest approximately $400 million through an extensive modernization program.
Recently, the Romanian Parliament endorsed a Decision on the establishment of the HG Multinational Corps South-East (HQ MNC-SE) in Sibiu garrison, with temporary deployment in Bucharest that will be made available to NATO as an integrative element of national and allied defense plans. “HQ MNC-SE will contribute to the strengthening of the defense and deterrence posture of NATO’s Eastern Flank and will offer coherence to the C2 chain at regional level,” the Romanian Defense Minister Nicolae-Ionel Ciucă stated.
Georgia is another important partner. Georgia’s good relations with the Alliance and its sustained efforts to maintain good working ties with the U.S. make it the best pillar for anchoring the U.S. strategy for the Black Sea. Since 2018, NATO and Georgia have decided to deepen their focus on security in the Black Sea region, and Tbilisi provides regular contributions to NATO’s political-military assessments on the region. Allied personnel are conducting training activities for Georgian Coast Guard Units. Recently, contacts between NATO’s Maritime Command and the Georgian Coast Guard have been strengthened and, as Constanța increased its overall logistical role, the number of port calls to Poti and Batumi has risen.
The U.S. military also has shared use of several Bulgarian military facilities, such as the Novo Selo Training Area. Bulgaria, with a recent decision to buy eight U.S. F-16 and increasing its defense spending to three percent of GDP, offers another potential node in building out the physical presence of collective security in the region.
In short, the West has the means and ways to transform the Black Sea into a pillar of prosperity, stability, and security, despite the formidable challenges of the region. The pieces and places to build on are already there. All it will take is the will to act.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive