NATO and Russia – what about the Black Sea?

What should be done in order to deter Russia from further aggression in this strategic area?

In 2007 the George W. Bush administration decided to bring Georgia and the Ukraine to NATO. It was a daring gamble that raised a few difficult questions. First of all, where was the Russian Black Sea fleet supposed to go to when Ukraine entered NATO? The Russian Black Sea fleet had been stationed in Ukraine (Crimea) for most of the past two centuries and for more than the two centuries Russia had strived to establish exclusive control of the Black Sea. It waged numerous wars against Turkey, mainly for one reason – to capture Constantinople and the Turkish Straits in order to effectively lock the Black Sea. Russian statesmen regarded the Black Sea coast as the most vulnerable part of the empire, and after losing the Crimean war in 1856 their desire and resolve to seize Constantinople only increased further. 

Russian dreams about seizing the Turkish Straits were effectively shattered when Turkey was admitted to NATO in 1952, but of course the Black Sea still remained a key component in Moscow’s security outlook. In 1992, Russia (which was much weaker, much less aggressive and much more democratic than it is today) meddled in Abkhaz war. In fact Russia didn’t just meddle there, but more or less openly supported Abkhazians against Georgians, who were set on securing more independence from Moscow and were refusing to enter the Commonwealth of Independent States. Geography definitely contributed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia is situated on the Black Sea coast and so this region, and is of territorial importance, meaning that from the perspective of Russia it could not remain under Georgia’s control. Finally, with thanks to Russian assistance Abkhazians won the war and Russia established itself in this vitally important region. In contrast, when a similar conflict took place in South Ossetia – another part of Georgia – between 1990 and 1992. Russia did not engage actively in the territory and in fact even mediated to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. Geography, again, was a decisive factor here. Unlike Abkhazia, South Osettia is a land-locked region and Russia had hardly any vital interests there.

One might have asked a simple question: if the Russia of 1992 was ready to engage in a limited war over a piece of the Black Sea coast and to back dissent in an area where it had no key interests then what could one have expected from the Russia of 2006, when stakes were much higher. Including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO would have caused Russia to lose control over the Black Sea coast and its Black Sea fleet would have had to be relocated (to where and at what cost nobody seemed to care). One had to bring up this issue before the Bush administration (including then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reputed as the US government’s leading expert on Russia) that was, by that time, seriously weakened due to the Iraq campaign, which, inter alia, damaged Washington’s relations with its key European partners in NATO – Germany and France. At the 2008 NATO summit both Germany and France blocked the NATO membership path for Georgia and the Ukraine. “Let me take care of Angela [Merkel]”, – President Bush told his Georgian colleague only to find out that Merkel was not going to support his bid for anything.

The Russian-Georgian war took place shortly after the summit. Georgia – the weaker link in Tbilisi-Kyiv connection – was easily beaten and its NATO membership prospects were seriously undermined as Russia deployed troops in South Ossetia, some 40 kilometres from Tbilisi. As for the situation in Ukraine, public opinion was further averted from NATO and the image of the Alliance tarnished. By attacking Georgia Russia proved itself to be strong whereas NATO looked weaker as it scrambled for an answer it couldn’t find. Ukraine’s NATO case seemed lost. The second Maidan revolution revived hopes that Kyiv was turning to the West again but despite the movement’s outcome Ukraine’s NATO membership still looked like a distant prospect. That was why Russia’s actions (the annexation of Crimea and the waging of a limited war in the eastern Ukraine) surprised everyone. No doubt Russia was encouraged to act brazenly by the simple fact that it “got away with it” too easily when it invaded Georgia six years before.

Having deployed more troops in Abkhazia and annexed Crimea over the past few years, Russia now dominates the Black Sea more than it has at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Countries like Georgia and Ukraine (that were promised NATO membership years ago but eventually suffered the most from the Russian aggression) are endangered more than ever. NATO, on the other hand, still proves unable to deal with the Black Sea question. NATO’s anti-terror operation –  “Active Endeavour” – launched after the 9/11 attacks in the United States remained limited to the Mediterranean and was never extended to the Black Sea. Indeed, Turkey, failing to see the benefit of the operation opposed it.

Prior to this year’s summit in Warsaw there were talks about launching a patrol operation in the Black Sea. However, no sooner had these talks started than it was revealed that Bulgaria was opposed to the initiative. One might speculate that Bulgaria was dissuaded from expressing its support by the cunning and ubiquitous Russians, but it’s more likely that Bulgaria just failed to see how it would benefit, and also wanted to express its frustration at being treated as a junior partner within the alliance. Just a few days before this year’s the summit, the Turkish president wrote a letter to his Russian counterpart where he expressed his regrets over the Russian pilot shot by the Turkish armed forces some months ago. As Turkey reconciled with Russia it became clear that there would be no NATO patrol in the Black Sea.

One of the key outcomes of the Warsaw summit was that more armed forces were agreed to be allocated to NATO’s eastern front. This is something that should make both Tbilisi and Kyiv happy – they need strong and reliable NATO and NATO has to take care of its most endangered member states in order to remain strong and reliable. However, this development still leaves the Black Sea exposed, and it is clear that the alliance will not reach a consensus on this issue. It is not just Bulgaria or Turkey holding the process up – there are quite a few member states in the western Europe that believe Russia should not be antagonised or provoked in any way. But how should NATO approach the fact that the balance has been destroyed in the Black Sea region. It is clear that something has to be done in order to deter Russia from further aggression in this key strategic territory?

NATO will most probably continue to struggle to form a viable consensus  over this issue, and potentially the only workable answer is some kind of US military presence in the Black Sea. US warships have been visiting the region on quite a regular basis after the annexation of Crimea. As we have seen, US military presence is viewed as the most effective deterrence against Russia – even more effective than NATO membership. Since the annexation of Crimea, the Baltic States and Poland have been begging for American troops on their territory. In fact, during the war of 2008, the Russian troops that invaded Georgia stopped only when a US warship entered through the Turkish Straits. This is the lesson that has to be remembered because it offers some hope. NATO cannot formulate a Black Sea policy but there are some individual NATO member states (at least one) that can take the burden of filling the security vacuum in the region that is vital for ensuring international peace.    

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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