Russia’s Strategy in the Black Sea Basin

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a special series in collaboration with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Black Sea’s Back.”
On May 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated the Kerch Strait bridge, linking the Crimean Peninsula to the Russian mainland, seven months ahead of schedule. In doing so, he signaled Russia’s determination to reshape the geopolitical and geo-economic balance of the Black Sea region, despite Western sanctions. Although Moscow is in no position to dominate the Baltic Sea, its efforts to turn the Black Sea into a mare nostrum are bearing fruit. Over the past several years, the Kremlin has mastered the Baltic feint: By engaging in aerial and maritime provocations in a region highly monitored by the West, Russia is able to entrench its position in the Black Sea without notice. While most U.S. strategists worry about the Suwalki Gap on the Polish-Lithuanian border as a potential Russian invasion route into Central Europe, it is Russia’s buildup in the Black Sea that should concern policymakers. By using the Black Sea as a springboard, Russia can project power beyond its immediate surroundings — into the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean — and strengthen its reemergence as a great power.

John Kerry once quipped that Russian foreign policy hearkens back to the 19th century. But in this instance, Putin and his team have reached back a century further, borrowing from the illustrious Prince Gregory Potemkin. A favorite of Catherine the Great, Potemkin engineered Russia’s first annexation of Crimea and served as the first governor-general of “New Russia” (Novorossiia) — territories that today comprise southeastern Ukraine. He championed the view that Russia’s destiny lay to its south and advocated accordingly for expansion into the Balkans, Caucasus, and northern Middle East. Catherine’s so-called “Greek Project” — a plot to extend Russian control around the Black Sea by dismantling the Ottoman Empire and supplanting it by restoring what was once known as Byzantium in its place as a Russian puppet state — was a product of Potemkin’s bold machinations.

Potemkin’s Greek project presupposed continued enmity between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. In the mid-19th century, however, Nicholas I and his foreign minister, Karl Nesselrode, tried to flip the script. Abandoning the Potemkin approach, they sought to cultivate a friendship with the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II and thereby drive the Ottomans from their traditional partnership with Western European powers. Their approach succeeded, and in 1833, the two parties signed the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi. In return for acceding to Russian strategic demands — chief among which was granting the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean — the Sultan received the full support of the Russian Empire in his fight against internal opponents. Unfortunately for Nicholas, however, one short-term treaty could not lead to the Ottoman Empire’s permanent realignment, especially given the previous century’s record of hostility. After Mahmud’s death, his son Abdulmejid I turned back to the British and French to resist further Russian encroachment. What happened next is well-known: Russia suffered a devastating loss in the Crimean War that limited the march of Russian power toward the Mediterranean.

Were the two contemporaries, Putin’s recent efforts would have garnered much support from Potemkin. The president’s predilection to use the Black Sea resort town of Sochi as a de facto capital (it is Putin’s preferred location for bilateral summits with world leaders and events such as the Syrian People’s Congress) elevates Russia’s south to the importance that Potemkin envisaged. Potemkin would, of course, also have applauded what Russia considers to be the second annexation of Crimea in 2014. This has enabled Moscow to deny rival powers access to the Black Sea basin in the event of a military conflict. Indeed, key elements of Russia’s soft power offensive today — shoring up pro-Russian parties in countries like Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia, maintaining the strategic partnership with Armenia, and trying to pull Georgia closer to the Russian orbit — preserve Potemkin’s 250-year-old legacy.

At the same time, Putin has embarked on Nicholas I’s strategy with considerable success. Although the tsar’s outreach to Sultan Mahmud proved ephemeral, Putin appears to be enjoying better luck in forging a strategic partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This partnership of convenience has survived several hurdles, including the crisis that erupted after Turkish fighters shot down a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border in 2015. Yes, Turkey does not recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea, and the two countries have continuing differences over Syria, but Erdogan is willing to compartmentalize those disagreements to secure benefits for Turkey in other areas — whether obtaining S-400 air defense systems or nuclear power plants. Ultimately, Moscow seeks to incentivize Ankara not to oppose Russia’s resurgence in the Black Sea region in return for concrete boosts to Turkish prosperity, which Erdogan needs to sustain his domestic political position. The undesirable alternative would see Ankara return to its traditional Ottoman-era and Cold War position of aiding the West and blocking Russian ambitions. Luckily, Russia has several carrots to offer its partner. These include collaboration on discrete issues in Syria as well as energy infrastructure. Significantly, although still a formal member of NATO, Turkey has accepted this de facto strategic partnership. As with the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi centuries before, Turkey’s acquiescence to Moscow’s courtship has helped secure Russia’s position in the Black Sea, enable Russian access to the Mediterranean, and facilitate Russia’s energy deliveries westward, allowing the Kremlin to retain its implements of influence.

This resurgence of Russian military capabilities in the Black Sea challenges the West’s default strategy in the region since the Soviet Union’s collapse: the inexorable expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions to encompass the entire Black Sea littoral and contain Russia within its then-limited northeastern coast. Expansion fatigue combined with political instability in Europe’s southern periphery has taken the wind out of the sails of the West’s project. At the same time, Russia’s actions against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 expanded Moscow’s control of the Black Sea coastline by detaching Abkhazia from Georgia and seizing Crimea. There is no appetite, particularly in Europe, for the heavy lifting necessary to bring the rest of the Black Sea littoral states into NATO and the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia has taken the lead in presenting itself as the best arbiter for pressing regional issues — from resolving the legal status of the Caspian Sea to ending the Syrian civil war. Moscow’s message is clear: Black Sea countries do not need the United States to get involved.

The signature Western initiative in the region that remains is the Southern Energy Corridor — a project to develop the necessary infrastructure linkages and security relationships to allow Eurasian natural gas to reach Western consumers without having to pass through Russian-controlled territory. The linchpin state in this effort is Azerbaijan, which not only possesses its own major gas reserves but also serves as a key transit hub connecting Central Asia to Europe.

Yet, even here, Russia has adapted its approach. The ham-handed Russian attempt during the 1990s to force Azerbaijan to forego the “Main Export Route” from Baku to Ceyhan, Turkey, has been replaced by a more accommodating approach. Moscow no longer seeks to block, but rather to co-opt. Russia’s TurkStream pipeline, currently under construction to connect the Russian mainland with European Turkey, will provide the basis for Russia to supply gas not only to Turkey but to Southern Europe as a whole. It will help extend Russian influence in places like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary — and even to Italy, where a new government may be much less inclined to support continued sanctions on Moscow. At the same time, Russia may also work with Azerbaijan by supplying the country with gas, and thus indirectly join the Southern Energy Corridor project. This would undermine the strategic rationale of a project that was supposed to lessen Russian energy influence in southern and central Europe.

Ironically, given the U.S. identification of Russia as a major adversary, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal may have unintentionally strengthened Russia’s position in the Black Sea. The Southern Energy Corridor, if it is to be successful in reducing Russian influence, requires a greater volume of gas than Azerbaijan alone can provide. As U.S. sanctions snap back on Tehran, a Caspian settlement becomes much less likely. Iran’s acceptance of the sea’s delineation rested in part on being able to set up joint projects with other Caspian littoral states. There is no indication that the Trump administration is interested in issuing waivers for any such projects. With no settlement, another part of the West’s Southern Energy Corridor strategy — the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves westward — will likely fall by the wayside. Other efforts to use the Southern Corridor to its full extent, either by having Turkmenistan swap gas with Iran or for Iranian gas to be piped westward, are also out. Therefore, either Russia’s TurkStream will fill in the gaps, or Russia itself will become a participant in the Southern Corridor and, in either event, Russia’s influence will not be lessened.

Two years ago, I noted that “Russia is making its bid to be the arbiter of the Black Sea basin.” Many American analysts admitted Russia’s growing military capabilities, but hoped that energy dynamics would move against Russian influence, but Moscow has learned to take advantage of these trends to support its political goals, at a time when the United States lacks a coherent strategy. Today, Russia is closer than ever to achieving its goal of becoming the dominant power in the Black Sea.

Nikolas Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair at the U.S. Naval War College and a non-residential fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed are his own.