Black Sea Security and Development: The Need for a Regional Strategy

December 12, 2022
The Black Sea has been a theater of war and a pillar of economic potential. A repeated cycle of conflict and peace has been hovering over the region due to the complex relationship between Russia and Turkey, and the interests of reigning global powers of the time. Precarious stability has become the area’s main feature.

A false sense of permanent stability emerged with the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, when a geopolitical balance in the area appeared to arise. The 1992 founding of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)1 was an acknowledgement of this period of relative calm and the region’s potential to exploit it. The inter-governmental body’s mission of to cooperate seemed plausible at the time. But the brief period of harmony ended, in words, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech,2 and, in action, with Russia’s invasion of Georgia a year later.

Russia’s interest in the Black Sea area, and its stated and manifested intention to keep it as a buffer zone to the West, have been ignored and underappreciated. NATO and the EU have failed to discuss a Black Sea strategy due to a divergence of member states’ interests and threat perceptions. This has been a costly misstep, and it must change.

The war in Ukraine is a brutal reminder of the region’s strategic importance and the imperative of a regional approach to ensure its stability and development.

Since the conflict began, several of Ukraine’s neighbors have come together to facilitate military assistance and support the transport of its exports, notably grains. This regional solidarity is critical, and Romania and Bulgaria have particularly important roles in this regard. Their participation, as well, in sea and air exercises, with nearby NATO partners, notably Georgia, contribute to the alliance’s regional deterrence posture. This has undoubtedly prevented the war’s escalation, at least so far. On the energy front, Azerbaijan’s reemergence as a major provider of gas to Europe reinforces the area’s significance, and a joint project the country is developing with Georgia and Romania speaks to the importance of regional connectivity. It also reflects the deep dimensions of regional military and economic security, which the United States and the European Union need to integrate into a strategy to achieve post-conflict Black Sea security, stability, and development.

That transatlantic effort needs to start now and should comprise two main components:

  1. Military security

Over the last three decades, Russia’s use of the entire Black Sea region as a buffer to the West led to its stoking of protracted conflicts (Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia). The Kremlin has more recently turned to outright military aggression culminating, until this year, in the 2014 annexation of Crimea. NATO responded belatedly by converting its posture from defensive to deterrent, extending its ability to react, and consolidating its regional technical, human, and logistical operations. In related moves, the United States proposed and, eventually, placed in Romania and Poland an anti-missile shield that became the backbone of regional security. European countries came to accept its installation only when Russian aggression became self-evident.

In 2015, Romania and Poland initiated the Bucharest Nine, or B9,3 which provided NATO with a regional format with which issues relevant to the alliance’s eastern flank, including the Black Sea, could be addressed. Still, the B9’s southern component (Romania and Bulgaria) and the entire Black Sea area received less alliance attention than the B9’s northern component (Poland and the Baltic states), which was more vocal in promoting its security interests. This imbalance needs to be addressed.

Using lessons from other regional formats, recent and historical, NATO should enhance security in the Black Sea area, and preserve post-conflict peace and stability, by:

  • Ensuring a lasting military presence in the south of the alliance’s eastern flank. Regional peace and stability will be achieved only when all conflicts, open and latent, are settled. Until then, enhanced deterrence is needed. The alliance and its member states reacted promptly, if belatedly, to the outbreak of war in Ukraine by deploying troops and equipment along the eastern flank, including in Romania and Bulgaria. The presence of these troops and the further provision of modern equipment should remain part of a medium-term plan to maintain NATO’s posture in the region.
  • Prioritizing maritime security and freedom of navigation. Excessive militarization of the Black Sea in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea has become a threat to security and freedom of navigation. This year’s grain crisis revealed the extent to which Russian actions can impact these issues and have economic consequences. Romania and Bulgaria have poor military fleets and, despite modernization efforts, substantial improvement will take years. Until then, two actions to increase maritime security are needed:
    • NATO should not just maintain its Black Sea naval exercises, as it did in 2022, as the war in Ukraine was unfolding, but increase their frequency, so that member states’ ships are always present. Georgia, as a NATO partner, should continue its participation in these exercises, thereby extending the geographical reach of the deterrence posture.
    • The idea of a Romanian-Bulgarian-Turkish flotilla, which did not come to fruition after being raised in 2016, deserves reconsideration, despite current political difficulties. Collaboration with Turkey, the country that controls access to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and Bosporous straits, with a modern and strong fleet, remains key to security in the area.

  • Improving military mobility within and among the Black Sea’s littoral states. Bulgarian and, especially, Romanian infrastructure remains unsuited for promptly transporting military personnel and equipment. Despite past plans, transport throughout the alliance’s eastern flank remains difficult. Funds from the Three Seas Initiative and other European sources should be used to modernize land-based infrastructure, improve regional connectivity, and accommodate military needs.
  • Developing a Black Sea strategy. NATO needs to develop and implement a regional approach to Black Sea security. This should be closely linked to, yet distinct from, the strategy for the alliance’s eastern flank for several reasons. First, the eastern flank excludes Turkey, which is key to regional security. Second, the security interests of Moldova and Georgia, littoral Black Sea states and NATO partners, are insufficiently represented in the alliance’s nine-country eastern flank format. Third, and arguably most importantly, the Black Sea is shared with Russia, which gives the region strategic weight that is best addressed in a format limited to littoral states that are NATO members and partners.
  • Addressing Moldova and local “frozen conflicts”. Moldova’s security is integral to wider regional security, and, through Transnistria, directly relevant to Ukraine. Past proposals to settle the Transnistrian conflict, whether from Russia or other countries, and some of which with the international community’s support, proved ineffective. Russian troops and equipment stationed in or transiting Transnistria pose a serious threat to Moldova’s security and account for the Kremlin’s greatest source of political and economic leverage over the small nation. Until a solution for Transnistria is found, and Moldova’s security is enhanced, mainly through improved defense capabilities, Ukraine’s border will be neither stable nor secure.
  1. Economic reconstruction and regional security

July’s Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano furthered the needed collective transatlantic effort in the country’s reconstruction. A subsequent gathering in Berlin in October did not, however, provide much clarity on funding sources and the conditions under which those sources would provide assistance. A third conference in London in 2023 will, ideally, accomplish this. Transatlantic generosity and solidarity are, thus far, insufficient for ensuring a successful reconstruction effort. That demands an approach that ensures sustainable and efficiently targeted investment, which, in turn, necessitates regional participation and stability.

Any such reconstruction campaign evokes parallels with the Marshall Plan and its role in rebuilding Europe after World War II. That effort was possible only once hostilities had ceased. A full effort for Ukraine is also impossible without the restoration of peace. Nevertheless, launching discussions now on post-war reconstruction is prudent, if only to sort out political, financial, and technical difficulties so that action may be taken immediately after combat ends.

The Marshall Plan promoted “necessary stability” for economic recovery and the survival of democratic institutions. In Europe, “necessary stability” must be national and regional. A stable Ukraine cannot exist in an unstable Black Sea region. Ukraine’s economic recovery and longer-term security can be guaranteed only through close economic and military ties to countries in the region. As this year’s grain crisis and the creation of “solidarity lanes” proved,  cooperation on commercial transportation is critical for the former. For the latter, Ukraine requires cooperation with nearby countries and with NATO member states and their partners. Security also demands a long-term NATO air, land, and sea presence in all the alliance’s member states on the Black Sea. This presence must accompany improved military mobility and preserve freedom of navigation.

In the short term, freedom of navigation in the Black Sea will be limited, and Ukraine must rely on land routes for its exports to Europe. Romanian and Bulgarian terrestrial infrastructure have already served as lifelines. Over the summer, as the grain crisis persisted, it was Romania’s dilapidated roads, railroads, and maritime capacities that transported Ukrainian goods. Both countries, however, under pressure to move increased amounts of freight, are requesting funding to improve the needed infrastructure. Romania’s Constanta, with investment, could become Europe’s second-largest port and the transit hub for Ukrainian imports and exports. The Danube is also underutilized despite its enormous potential and could ease the strain of restricted Black Sea navigation. To realize this, policymakers and investors should push for greater synergies between available and planned funding for river transport, more political cooperation among states through which the Danube flows, and raising awareness of the river’s strategic importance. The Three Seas initiative, whose goals encompass infrastructure development and regional connectivity, should include the Danube in its portfolio.

Regional cooperation is equally important for diversifying Ukraine’s energy sources so that its dependence on Russian gas declines. Fortunately, this trend is underway. Ukraine is already connected to the European electricity grid and receives 2,000 megawatts daily from Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. It also relies on reverse gas flows from these countries and supplements these imports with US liquefied natural gas shipped via Poland. Other countries are also wisely diversifying. Work on the future Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector (AGRI), which will transport gas from the Caucasus to Central Europe, is evidence of this. Such projects, which more closely bind the region politically and economically, should be encouraged. They promote linkages that reduce Russian hegemony and lay the foundation for policy approaches that can provide the Black Sea region with the security, stability, and prosperity that serves the interests of the entire transatlantic community.

Lastly, the transatlantic community would be making a major strategic mistake by not using Ukrainian reconstruction to anchor Moldova’s economy and security more firmly in the West. As an EU candidate country, Moldova has an opportunity to integrate into the transatlantic community. But the country needs support if it is to survive and thrive. Investment, aligned with required policy and legal reform, are paramount for its economic stability, which will guard against Russia’s regional destabilization efforts. Although military neutrality is enshrined in its constitution, Moldova needs and aims to enhance its defense capabilities. NATO should help its partner country in this regard. By also being included in reconstruction efforts, Moldova could ensure these have a larger impact.

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The war in Ukraine has led to a rediscovery of the Black Sea’s strategic importance and the regional dimension of its security, stability, and economic development in times of war and peace. It is precisely this regional aspect that policymakers must consider as they develop strategies to manage the conflict and its aftermath.

  • 1The Black Sea region comprises the littoral states, and Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation, at its founding, defined the region as such. The United States adopted the definition in 2000, when Washington, recognizing the region’s importance and potential, started developing Black Sea policy.  
  • 2Putin revealed a new foreign policy doctrine at the conference and described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tragedy.
  • 3The B9 brings together countries on NATO’s eastern flank (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia). The B9 is a joint initiative of Romania and Poland.