An Increasingly Serious Black Sea Player
With Romania and Bulgaria joining the alliance in 2004, bringing up to three—with Turkey—the number of littoral member states, NATO became an even more serious presence in the Black Sea. Georgia and Ukraine aspired to join the alliance as well, yet in 2008 they were famously denied the first entry step in the form of a Membership Action Plan. Back then, few thought NATO’s presence was really crucial for a region whose progress in achieving stability and prosperity had been much praised. The “little war that shook the world,” as Ron Asmus famously described the Georgian-Russian war, followed that same year, and starting then Russia changed its posture in the region and indeed the world. Its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine since, accompanied by its heavy military buildup in the peninsula and the modernization of its Black Sea fleet, have led to a new and very different security landscape. With an aggressive Russia trying to dominate the region, and recently the sea itself, NATO’s regional presence became and remains more important than ever.
The alliance’s members in the Black Sea region and on its eastern flank, keenly aware of the new security threat, and joined by the United States, have insistently and effectively advocated for a strong NATO presence in the region, on land and sea. The last five years have seen a serious reorientation of alliance focus to the region and measures to reassure members there and to deter Russia’s further aggression. Although further enlargement of NATO is not foreseen in the near future, despite intense diplomatic and political efforts to include Georgia, it partners with all non-members in the region and conducts numerous joint exercises and trainings. While all this gives NATO a good posture there, one that is very different from that of 15 years ago, members in the region argue that more measures and a more enhanced presence is needed to counter Russia’s military threat effectively. In the same vein, the alliance needs a sharper focus on the hybrid-warfare tools that Russia employs in the region and elsewhere as well as a better maritime strategy in the Black Sea.
Russia’s aggression gave the region a unitary threat and, to a certain extent, united it in its need for a stronger NATO presence. How strong this presence should be and what form should it take is the subject of continuous negotiations among the littoral members that, while sharing the same perspective on the common threat, are conditioned by their different respective economic or social relations with Russia. In this respect, they are not different from the alliance members as a whole.
Throughout the past decade of increased Russian aggression and threat, countries in the Black Sea region had one steady ally and advocate: the United States. Starting in 2009, with the renewed decision to place elements of an anti-missile shield in the region, the United States has proven its commitment to the security of the region, and it has supported the newer NATO members in their efforts to focus the attention of the alliance on their needs. Despite the turmoil that presidential tweets and statements create within the alliance from time to time, and the apparent rift between the Trump administration and some European allies, the United States continues to stay focused on the region. And over the past two years it has increased its military expenditures directed toward the region.
Russia’s aggressive posture remains the best advocate for an enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea region. In the short term, maintaining a credible deterrent remains a high priority for the alliance and partners, especially as Russia becomes more aggressive in trying to impose its dominance in the waters it wants to control. In the medium term, NATO will need to focus more on countering Russia’s other warfare techniques—such as cyberattacks and informational warfare—that are meant to weaken not only individual members, but also the cohesion and stature of the alliance. In the Black Sea region, NATO has assumed an active role in ensuring regional security, and its presence will continue to be needed for years to come. In the long term, even if Russia’s military aggressiveness eventually fades, NATO’s presence will remain important politically, as it continues to stand as a symbol and promoter of its values as these are increasingly countered by an ever-stronger illiberal narrative coming not only from Russia but also other states, including increasingly some of the alliance members’ own governments.