This Commentary is the first in a series of essays that will examine the strategic significance of the Black Sea region to the United States and NATO. Read the second essay here and the third essay here.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 refocused global attention on the strategic significance of a region that rests on the fault lines of two former empires—the Russian and Ottoman Empires—with involvement by European powers, such as Great Britain, France, and Germany. This analysis provides an overview of the region with a view that the past is prologue to the region’s future as restive powers reanimate empirical political and military strategies in a modern context.
Of Conflict and Treaties
Six years of conflict between Russia and an overstretched Ottoman Empire from 1768 to 1774 led to the signing of the 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which provided Russia direct access to the Black Sea region (via the Kerch and Azov ports). Russia was also granted the right to protect Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and the nominally independent Crimean Khanate was placed under its influence. Nine years after the treaty was signed, popular resentment toward reforms introduced by the Russian co-opted ruling elite, combined with the constant inflow of settlers to the Crimea, fueled regional unrest, giving Catherine II’s envoy, Prince Grigory Potemkin, a long-awaited pretext to annex Crimea through military means with little armed resistance. The Crimean city of Sevastopol was established the same year, and from 1783 onward, Russia emerged as a growing Black Sea power as the Ottoman Empire slipped onto a slow, declining path.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire continued, as did the regional power struggle in the Black Sea, over which neither side was able to claim a decisive victory. The bloody 1853–1856 Crimean War between the Ottoman Empire and Russia left hundreds of thousands dead. France and Britain sided with the Ottomans during the conflict, as they feared Russia’s growing strength would result in Russia’s hegemonic position in the region. Although this never materialized, a stronger but more isolated Russia repeatedly failed to seize control of the strategic Bosporus and Dardanelles (Turkish Straits) from the Ottoman Empire. One of Russia’s primary motivations in entering World War I was to seize control of the Turkish Straits, which backfired when the Ottomans and Germans closed the straits, strangling the Russian economy.
After the collapse of both the Russian and Ottoman Empires during and at the end of World War I, there was an unsuccessful attempt to redraw the map of the region. The first attempt was the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, and the second and more successful attempt was the 1923 Peace Treaty of Lausanne, which created the basis for the Republic of Turkey. Having acquired a more secure strategic position, Turkey was able to call upon the Lausanne Treaty to manage growing tensions among European powers in the region, which resulted in the 1936 Montreux Convention that established Turkish control over the straits and guaranteed free passage of warships belonging to Black Sea states not at war with Turkey. Non–Black Sea powers were restricted in sending their military vessels to the Black Sea (they must be under 15,000 tons per vessel, 45,000 in aggregate, and could only stay in the Black Sea for 21 days). The United States was not a party to the Montreux Convention.
The Post–World War II and Post–Cold War Order
This fragile balance threatened to unravel at the end of World War II when tensions flared between the Soviet Union and Turkey, as the Soviet Union pressed Turkey to renegotiate the Montreux Convention so that the Soviets could share control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles with Turkey. Known as the 1946 Turkish Straits crisis, the Soviet Union increased its Black Sea military presence and pressed the Turkish government to accept its demand for military bases on Turkish soil. In an attempt to shield itself from Soviet pressure, Turkey sought help from the United States, which responded by sending U.S. warships to the region. Although the Soviet Union eventually backed down, the incident was one catalyst for the 1947 Truman Doctrine, which sought to contain a growing Soviet threat in the Mediterranean by anchoring both Turkey and Greece as members of NATO by 1952. Throughout the Cold War, there was an uneasy equilibrium in the Black Sea among Turkey, NATO, the United States, and the Soviet Union. From 1976 on, Turkey allowed Soviet aircraft carriers built in Ukraine (Kiev-class, then Kuznetsov-class) to pass through the straits.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Black Sea region was less geostrategically significant from a Western perspective, but it remained instrumental in shaping Russia’s concept of its “near abroad.” The most important strategic issue following the end of the Cold War was the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, which was encapsulated in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine agreed to the removal of its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom (supported by France and China) to protect its territorial integrity.
Despite this policy success, an uneasy relationship continued between Ukraine and Russia over the strategic Crimean peninsula. Given as a ‘gift’ by Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union in 1954 in honor of the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Tsarist Russia, Crimea became a persistent bargaining chip between the two states. Russia retained military infrastructure, notably a base in Sevastopol that was necessary to the operation of the Black Sea Fleet. At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were 100,000 Russian personnel, 60,000 service members, and 835 vessels, including 28 submarines, which were effectively used to pressure Kyiv regarding the legal status of Sevastopol City and its critical infrastructure. Moscow, whose move was also driven by a nationalistic fervor for Crimea, was able to effectively use its lasting political ties with Crimean officials (Crimea retained autonomy and its own constitution until 1995) to increase pressure on Kyiv. In 1997, the Ukraine-Russia Friendship Treaty split the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia (81 percent) and Ukraine (19 percent) and allowed Russia, in exchange for the cancellation of most of the Ukrainian debt and concessionary energy prices, to lease the Sevastopol base for 20 years, a term extended until 2042 in 2010.
A New Russia Emerges
Although Russia maintained the perception that its former Soviet Republics—and the Black Sea area—belonged to its natural sphere of influence, it lacked the political, economic, and military power to fully impose its will. This began to change with a more assertive Russian regional policy in response to the so-called Color Revolutions, which occurred in Russia’s neighborhood in Georgia (the 2003–2004 Rose Revolution) and in Ukraine (the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution), where leaders who were more susceptible to Russian influence and interests were replaced by pro-West and pro-Euro-Atlantic leaders. At this same time, NATO membership expanded to include Bulgaria and Romania in 2004, which resulted in three out of the six Black Sea littoral states being members of NATO, and two other states, Ukraine and Georgia, working in close partnership with the alliance with a potential view toward NATO membership. NATO viewed the Black Sea as “important for Euro-Atlantic security” (Bucharest Summit Declaration, 2008).
Russia viewed these events as NATO encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence and took measures to reestablish its influence and enhance its military presence in the Black Sea. Russian energy was used as an instrument of influence over Ukraine in 2006 and then again in 2009, when Russia temporarily ceased the supply of natural gas to Europe through Ukraine and increased Russian energy prices. In August 2008, Russian military forces, which had retained forces in South Ossetia since the onset of the Georgia–South Ossetia conflict in 1993, defeated an attempt by the Georgian president to regain control over the breakaway region, then entered Georgia, overwhelming Georgian forces, and nearly seized the capital Tbilisi (some 350 military personnel and 400 civilians were killed on both sides in the standoff). Defying a cease-fire agreement, Russia recognized the “independence” of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia shortly afterward and has since increased its control over Georgian territory and continues to integrate both regions administratively.
The second and more geostrategically and militarily consequential event was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, days after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a popular uprising in the spring of 2014. In violation of both the Budapest Memorandum and the Friendship Treaty, Russia’s remilitarization of the peninsula and military intervention in eastern Ukraine paved the way for several military reinforcements in the region, with the deployment of S300 and S400, Bastion-P coastal defense units, and other antiair- and antisurface-missile systems. Former supreme allied commander in Europe, General Philip M. Breedlove, in 2015 characterized Crimea as a Russian “platform for power projection.” This entrenchment of Russia’s forces in the peninsula was accompanied by an increasingly aggressive use of nuclear rhetoric, with the Kremlin hinting at possible future nuclear deployments in the peninsula and stating it retained the nuclear option to defend Crimea if necessary.
The final step in reestablishing Russia’s military presence in the region was Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia demonstrated its ability to project elements of the Black Sea Fleet and deployed both defensive (S300) and offensive (SS-26) systems in the theater of operations. Russia now actively operates an air base in Latakia, Syria, and is currently renovating and expanding its naval facility in Tartus into a larger base capable of hosting up to 11 ships at once. It also has an agreement with Cyprus allowing Russian vessels to dock and is negotiating to establish a military base in Egypt (rumors regarding Libya were dismissed by Russian officials).
The Return of the Black Sea’s Geostrategic Significance
A hegemonic power in the nineteenth century, an overstretched power during the Cold War, and an exhausted power after 1991, Russia has returned to the Black Sea region and Eastern Mediterranean as the European and American presence in the region is in retreat. Will the Kremlin attempt to secure more unfettered access to the Eastern Mediterranean, such as expanding its presence at Tartus? Will the Kremlin continue to enhance its military presence in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, increase pressure on Bulgaria to reduce NATO’s presence, while orchestrating a Turkish-Russian rapprochement to gain more influence over the Turkish Straits?
For Russia, the geostrategic factors of the Black Sea region have not changed since 1853, with NATO and the United States replacing individual European states as Russia’s main geopolitical competitors: Crimea is the military source, Turkey is the pivot, and the Turkish Straits are the strategic throughput; and the end goal is access to and military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as a counterbalance to U.S. and NATO expansion eastward and its presence in the Aegean and Central Mediterranean.
Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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