How geopolitical competition in the Black Sea is redefining regional order

Containing Russia requires a holistic view of Black Sea security that considers how this is interlinked with the security of adjacent regions.

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Through its war against Ukraine and geopolitical revisionism in the Black Sea, Russia seeks to establish uncontested hegemony and project influence beyond its neighbourhood and into the Western Balkans, South Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. This would allow Russia to challenge European security from multiple positions. 

The Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean have increasingly merged into one geopolitical space, where regional and great power rivalries play out. 

Geopolitical competition in the Black Sea is redefining regional order, changing its geopolitical identity, and shaping relations between states in the wider region. It has also hollowed out the once popular idea of regional order premised on regional ownership and laid bare how the security of different regions is interlinked. The Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean have increasingly merged into one geopolitical space, where regional and great power rivalries play out. Turkey straddles the two regions and is emerging as a key actor and a potential beneficiary of the shifting geopolitics. 

A divided regional (dis)order

The Black Sea is essential for Russia’s self-perception as a great power. Its regional policy is to create and leverage vulnerabilities by challenging the territorial integrity of littoral states, weaponizing energy and trade dependencies, disrupting connectivity, and increasing its military presence. As a result, Russia controls two-thirds of the Georgian coastline following the 2008 war and occupation of Abkhazia. It has annexed Crimea and four Ukrainian regions and is trying to establish control over the entire Ukrainian coast. Russia has also propped up a pro-Russian regime in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria to put pressure on Moldova’s government. 

Russia’s attempts to dominate the Black Sea have inadvertently encouraged the region’s gradual integration into the Western political and security ecosystem. 

But Russia’s attempts to dominate the Black Sea have inadvertently encouraged the region’s gradual integration into the Western political and security ecosystem. The two parallel processes have resulted in a deepening split in the regional order.  

In response to Russia’s actions, countries in the region have sought integration into the EU and NATO. Three of the five littoral states are already NATO members (Turkey – since 1952 – Bulgaria, and Romania) and two (Georgia and Ukraine) are aspirants. Similarly, two (Bulgaria and Romania) are the EU members and the other three are candidate states. 

Romania and Bulgaria have also sought to bolster US and NATO presence in their territories. Turkey meanwhile – despite refusing to allow NATO warships in the Black Sea – is deepening its cooperation with its Black Sea NATO allies Bulgaria and Romania, recently establishing a trilateral Mine Countermeasures Task Group. This aims to make the region safer for shipping and allow Ukraine to export its grain directly to the international market, avoiding the Russian blockade. Structured cooperation of the Black Sea NATO allies also sends an important signal to Russia.

Turkey and Ukraine are in many ways natural allies, as they both reject Russian domination of the Black Sea.

Ukraine is central to Turkey’s vision of regional order, in counterbalancing Russia. Although Ankara has close relations with Moscow, its relations with Kyiv are strategic. Their cooperation in the defence industry, in particular, has increased. Turkey and Ukraine are in many ways natural allies, as they both reject Russian domination of the Black Sea.

Towards a new containment strategy

In its confrontation with the West, Russia needs to regain its advantage in the Black Sea through military victory in Ukraine. Its immediate objective is to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea coast, secure the land connection with Crimea, and establish control over Odesa. This would enable Russia to dominate the maritime trade and energy routes, undermine Ukraine’s independence and statehood, and diminish its value to the West. Russia feels squeezed in the Baltic Sea after Finland and Sweden joined NATO and is likely to double down in the Black Sea to offset losses in the Baltic. 

To limit Russia’s ability to achieve its objectives, the West should bolster Ukraine’s military capacity to repel Russian aggression. Ukraine has conducted a highly effective asymmetric campaign against the Russian navy, eliminating roughly one-third of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Greater capabilities would allow Ukraine to further reduce Russian naval presence and secure its ports for essential exports. In the long term, Ukraine could emerge as a considerable regional player and an indispensable pillar in containing Russian expansionism.

Russia feels squeezed in the Baltic Sea after Finland and Sweden joined NATO and is likely to double down in the Black Sea to offset losses in the Baltic. 

In parallel to the Ukraine strategy, NATO and the EU should develop a joined-up approach to the region, focusing on boosting societal resilience, building military capacity, and deepening security cooperation among the riparian NATO allies and partners. Turkey is crucial in this respect. Russia has been unable to reinforce its Black Sea fleet due to Turkey’s strict adherence to the Montreux Convention. At the behest of Ukraine, on 28 February 2022, Turkey closed off its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to warships, except those returning to a home base in the Black Sea. This was a positive step, potentially disrupting Moscow’s maritime logistical lines to Syria and the broader Mediterranean. 

While Russia initially welcomed Turkey’s position because it also restricted NATO’s manoeuvrability in the Black Sea, its heavy naval losses against Ukraine could change this. Ankara should resist potential pressure from Moscow to relax its enforcement of the Montreux rule. 

Regional interlinkages

For Russia, the Black Sea is a stepping stone into other regions, not least the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. To counter Russian revisionism, the EU and NATO must keep the accession prospect fresh and credible to non-member states in these regions. They must also act upon growing interlinkages between the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, which is emerging as a single space with a considerable overlap in security dynamics. 

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Russia has considerably increased its footprint in Mediterranean security, not least through its Mediterranean Squadron which was established in 2013. It has been a key player in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts and has close relations with Egypt and Algeria. By securing a considerable foothold and influence for Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean, Putin has realised a long-held dream of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. 

The Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean illustrate how European security and neighbourhood security are intertwined. In both arenas, the security of EU member states and candidate countries are at stake. 

As a NATO member that straddles the two regions, Turkey is key here too. As an immediate step, the EU and Turkey should launch a structured foreign and security policy dialogue that focuses on their shared neighbourhood, to further align their geopolitical aims and strategies. In the short to medium term, this dialogue should include other candidate countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. 

With a depleting naval presence, Russian power and influence in the Black Sea is reduced. Yet Russian geopolitical revisionism is at its zenith. The most pertinent question for NATO is how to contain a reduced but revisionist Russia. The new containment strategy should adopt a holistic view of Black Sea security that considers how this is interlinked with the security of adjacent regions. This means the West must reimagine its place and role in Europe’s broader eastern and southern neighbourhoods.