Black Sea’s Back, Alright? A New Special Series

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a special series in collaboration with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Black Sea’s Back.”

When analyzing the clash between Russia and the West, it is common to speak of a contest for influence in the post-Soviet space. That is not quite true. Only certain post-Soviet states have become real battlegrounds, and all are located along the shores of the Black Sea. Consider, for example, the frozen conflicts that emerged from the Soviet collapse and that have been sustained with Russian help. Of these conflicts — Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, Georgia’s ongoing disputes with its Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories, and now the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine — all ring the Black Sea.

Why has the Black Sea basin seen such destructive post-Cold War conflict? And how are regional politics likely to develop? This article introduces a new series organized with the Foreign Policy Research Institute that will analyze politics and security in the Black Sea region. The series will focus on themes such as competing integration initiatives, military rearmament, and energy trade to illustrate the main drivers of international politics in the Black Sea basin. It will examine the strategies of the countries that ring the Black Sea, analyzing not only how they relate to the great powers, but also how they interact with each other. And, for U.S. policymakers, the series will show that Washington is more deeply immersed in the Black Sea than it realizes, which means it would be well-advised to think more strategically about this region.

The United States has struggled to devise a strategy toward the Black Sea basin in part because Americans have been divided about how much the region matters, and what issues they should prioritize. As early as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the U.S. debate was split between those seeking to advance strategic and humanitarian aims in the region, and those who wanted to limit U.S. commitments. With the outbreak of the Cold War, Turkey became immensely important to the West’s military posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, while the rest of the countries ringing the sea were foundered on the shoals of the Soviet bloc. After the Cold War’s end, NATO welcomed some countries in the former Soviet sphere into the alliance, but not others. The Trump administration is no less ambivalent in its engagement with the region than its predecessors, being torn between a desire for “America First” and a willingness, for example, to supply Ukraine with missiles.

Americans have been divided about how to approach the countries of the Black Sea basin in part because the region is itself divided. Most of the countries that ring the Black Sea have disputatious politics, as protest movements and revolutions in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have shown. They have substantial historical, cultural, and economic ties with the West, guaranteeing that a desire for integration with the West is a constant presence in Black Sea politics. Yet it has not been a dominant presence. For every factor linking Black Sea countries with the West, there is a countervailing factor solidifying ties with other regions, especially Russia. The states of the Black Sea basin remain strung between spheres of influence, squeezed by great power policies that have increasingly forced them to choose sides.

The combination of Western ambivalence and competing integration initiatives are crucial to understanding the Black Sea region’s politics. The failure of regional integration among Black Sea states is one key ingredient of the political balance. Who today remembers the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation, forged after the Cold War’s end? Regional integration has been replaced by a zero-sum clash between Western and Russian integration schemes. The competing efforts to convince Ukraine to either join the Eurasian Economic Union or sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2013 sparked the Euromaidan protests and ultimately led to the current crisis.

Yet beneath the bipolar framing, the region’s countries have their own politics and their own interests, which often do not perfectly match the preferences of the great powers with whom they are partnered. Understanding the Black Sea basin, in other words, requires making sense not only of the renewed rivalry between Russia and the West, but also the ways in which countries in the region subvert or deploy that rivalry for their own purposes.

Shifting Energy Politics

Energy is one sphere in which bipolar competition mixes poorly with individual countries’ interests. Most of the Russian gas that is shipped westward goes through countries that ring the Black Sea, both via pipelines through Ukraine, which supply central and eastern Europe, and pipelines that run to Turkey, Russia’s second largest gas export customer. Russia still retains its ability to mix energy and politics, and views nearly every energy project in both through a political and a commercial lens. But the era of the West and Russia clashing over pipeline projects is being supplanted by a new, more flexible energy regime. Russia’s energy leverage is declining.

Take the example of Ukraine, which until 2014 directly imported most of its gas from Russia. Thanks in part to an E.U. effort and to new pipeline connections built after the war in Ukraine began, the country all but stopped importing gas directly from Russia. Now it imports gas from E.U. countries instead. True, Moscow and Kyiv remain at odds over the construction of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline running from Russia to Germany directly through the Baltic Sea, which is intended in part to reduce Russia’s need to ship gas through Ukraine and onward to other European countries. Ukraine will lose several billion dollars per year of revenue from gas transit fees. But even if Nord Stream 2 is built, Ukraine’s new ability to import gas from Europe means it is less vulnerable to Russian energy-related pressure and coercion.

Turkey is a second Black Sea country facing a new energy environment. True, the country imports over half its gas from Russia. And Moscow has a long track record of using gas, including promises to build pipelines and lower prices, as a diplomatic tool. Yet Turkey hopes not only to reduce its reliance on Russian gas, but to become an energy hub. Indeed, Russia is currently building a new set of pipelines called Turk Stream, which will run under the Black Sea to deliver gas to Turkey. Combined with its ability to import gas from the Caspian and the Middle East, Ankara is likely to have increasing flexibility in its gas negotiations with Moscow. Turkey was in the past dependent on Russian gas, but it is increasingly Gazprom that will depend on Turkish transit. And if Turkish pipeline projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which is to deliver gas to Europe, are completed, more European countries will benefit from diversified supply, and will be less susceptible to the use of energy as a tool of political pressure as a result.

Military Competition in the Black Sea

The bipolar dynamic is more pronounced in the military sphere, where competition is at its most intense since the end of the Cold War. True, the frozen conflicts that ring the region have been a persistent feature since the early 1990s. But today, more than at any point over the past 30 years, the great powers’ militaries are facing off in the Black Sea.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War started the trend. Russia’s clumsy but overwhelming defeat of Georgia sent a message that hard power was back in the Black Sea basin. Russia has spent the decade since modernizing and reforming its military based in large parts on the lessons it learned and mistakes it made fighting Georgia. After seizing Crimea, Russia sought to solidify its gains by rearming the peninsula and strengthening anti-access and area-denial capabilities. The war in Syria has only heightened the military importance of the Black Sea, because Russia ships most of the military supplies used in Syria through the sea en route to the port of Tartus.

NATO has also stepped up its activity in the Black Sea. The United States has increased the presence of warships in the region, deploying most recently two destroyers to the region to make port calls in Romania and Bulgaria. Yet outside powers’ military deployments in the Black Sea are limited by the 1936 Montreux Convention, so a significantly enhanced NATO presence would require buy-in from the three NATO states on the Black Sea coast. Romania has strongly backed creating a NATO Black Sea force, but Bulgaria is opposed and Turkey has wavered. The military balance in the Black Sea, in other words, depends not only on Russia’s growing capabilities, but also on how other states choose to respond.

Shifting Regional Strategies

Every country with an interest in the Black Sea — both those that sit on its shores, and those, like the United States, who are linked to the region via military alliances and energy trade — have had to reassess their strategies in recent years. Wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have remilitarized the Black Sea. The clash between Russia and the West has polarized the region’s international politics along a bipolar frame. Amid these regional changes, Black Sea countries have domestic political movements which do not fit neatly into broader regional trends.

Yet the Black Sea is a region about which the United States has devoted relatively little strategic thinking. The British Empire was said to have conquered half the world “in a fit of absence of mind,” lacking a grand plan, only realizing after the fact what it had done. Growing U.S. presence in the Black Sea over the course of the post-Cold War decades was something similar. It was far from an accident, stemming from the desire to enlarge NATO and the E.U. to stabilize fragile governments and pacify conflicts, but it was not exactly planned, either. It happened without a decision about what resources the United States was willing to deploy, and where it would draw the line between which interests it would defend and which it would not.

Russia’s Black Sea strategy has also emerged as much from experience as from advanced planning. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Moscow tolerated its declining influence and focused on rebuilding at home. Some countries in the region, as well as most Western powers, believed this trend would continue. When Russia used force in 2008 and 2014 to try to halt this decline, it surprised its neighbors. It may have even surprised itself.

Yet strategic misinterpretation has been a constant in Black Sea politics over the past decade. The 2008 and 2014 wars happened in large part because Georgia and Ukraine underestimated Russia’s determination to retain its position of power in the region and overestimated Western powers’ willingness to help them. Yet the continued independence of Georgia and Ukraine suggests that the Kremlin has misread things, too, overestimating the utility of military force and underestimating the capacity of its smaller neighbors to resist Russian influence. And both great powers in the region have repeatedly underestimated the influence of local politics, as big countries so often do.

Any attempt to devise an American strategy toward the Black Sea, in other words, will require not only a clearer reckoning about which U.S. interests in the region are worth defending, but also a deeper understanding of the regional factors with which U.S. policies will intersect.


Chris Miller is Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Flickr/Kira Laktionov