U.S. and NATO forces deployed to the Black Sea in recent weeks have been met with an undeterred Russian response, prompting security concerns in the strategically important region. The USS Porter, a guided-missile destroyer, joined others as a steadfast reaction to growing Russian militarization of the waters, which have re-emerged as a center of great power rivalry especially since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move the west deemed illegal. The increased maritime presence is the largest U.S. deployment there since 2017. Already a “military fortress” according to London think tank Chatham House, Russia supported its own naval presence in response through the deployment of the Admiral Makarov frigate and further missile defense systems in Crimea and have sought to disrupt NATO training exercises in shows of force that have come close to full-blown confrontation, reports Voice of America.
The Black Sea, sandwiched between Crimea, Turkey, Europe and West Asia, has historically been an imperative part of Russian foreign and domestic policy. In a report for the Center for European Policy Analysis last year, retired U.S. Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges called the region “the literal and philosophical frontier between liberal democracy and autocracy,” a message which is becoming enshrined in NATO military strategy once more. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia last month to “end its recognition of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to withdraw its forces,” citing historical unrest following Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008. Its recognition of the regions has contributed to domestic unrest in Georgia, a key western ally in Russian containment.
The U.S. and NATO’s firm response to Russian hegemony in the Black Sea is perhaps long overdue and marks a break from Trump-era policies that weakened mutual ties with European NATO allies. Both sides recognize the geopolitical value of the waters, particularly with regards to the energy market which Russia has traditionally used to subdue western resistance to its expansionist ambitions in the east. Though there are essential reasons to constrain Russia’s motives, a head-on military engagement cannot be the only solution, especially given Russia’s openness to using force in the Black Sea before. The renewal of New START reduces the risk of grave nuclear escalation and thaws relations slightly, but diplomatic—and perhaps economic—avenues should also be sought to reduce risks of inadvertent conflict. As Ben Hodges also notes in his paper, great power competition can reduce the likelihood of great power conflict when done in a measured way, but increased Russian use of hybrid warfare techniques necessitates a fresh response from the conventional for NATO.
Crimea might have brought the Black Sea into the strategic spotlight once more, but for Russia, it has always been critical. After wrestling back control from the Ottoman Empire in the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, it would take the end of the First World War and the collapse of both empires for control to slip into Turkish hands once more. The 1936 Montreux Convention re-established Turkish control over key chokepoints, including the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, but Soviet pressure in the region prompted U.S. engagement for the first time and was a key factor in the 1947 Truman Doctrine. An uneasy peace remained for the rest of the Cold War, but the cession of Crimea to newly independent Ukraine following the Soviet Union’s collapse meant instability lingered. A historical “bargaining chip” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Crimea has long remained at the center of Russian strategy in its “near abroad.” After the Color Revolutions and expansion of NATO in the 21st century appeared to challenge that hegemony, Moscow escalated in a series of forceful steps that climaxed with the occupation of the peninsula in 2014. That move especially appears to have placed the Black Sea back on the list of strategic imperatives for NATO.
What both sides do now will be critical to the next decades of peace on the Black Sea. Russia values the importance of the waters for its international ambitions, including access to the Mediterranean, where it has supplied conflicts in Syria and Libya. For NATO, the security of its member Turkey and the rest of Europe against an unchecked Russia is key. A monopoly on the Black Sea also keeps Europe in an energy stranglehold; the EU admits that a majority of its natural gas and oil supplies come from Russia, and that influence is invaluable to Putin, as the 2009 disputes with Ukraine show. The U.S. must seek to repair relations and face the problem together with its NATO allies, pursuing diplomacy over aggression, highlighting Russian misconduct, and even sanctioning Crimea-based exports until Russia comes to the table.
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