The U.S. and NATO Seek to Blunt Putin’s Black Sea Ambitions

The Black Sea, to borrow a line from Arlington Stringham*, has always produced more history than it can consume locally, and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it has been producing history at an alarming rate.

The sea, abutting three NATO member states and two countries slugging it out in the deadliest war in Europe since World War II, has been the scene of dramatic military showdowns, a stinging naval setback for Moscow, and high-profile diplomatic dealings in the 14 months since Russia launched its war in Ukraine. Control over the Black Sea is a central component of Russia’s strategy in the war and one of the main reasons it annexed Crimea—the peninsula dangling off the southern coast of Ukraine—in 2014, an illegal land grab that presaged the current bloody conflict.

For Washington and its NATO allies, countering Russian influence in the Black Sea is central to retaining their influence on Europe’s southeastern flank and keeping critical commodities flowing from the so-called breadbasket of Europe to vulnerable markets in the Middle East and Africa. Yet for too long, a growing number of Western policymakers and U.S. lawmakers argue, the Black Sea region has occupied the periphery of the West’s strategy to counter Russia rather than a central tenet of it. Now there’s a growing movement in Washington, Brussels, and regional capitals to put the Black Sea at the center of NATO’s strategy.

“Allowing Russia to define the rules of the Black Sea puts our allies and interests at risk, and it deserves its own comprehensive strategy to ensure that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin cannot gain a foothold there,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a senior Democratic lawmaker, told Foreign Policy.

Shaheen and Republican Sen. Mitt Romney introduced legislation last month to push the Biden administration to craft a strategy for the Black Sea and push for an increased U.S. military footprint and economic engagement in the region. Republican Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, and Democratic Rep. Bill Keating introduced a companion bill in the House.

Other Western defense officials and diplomats, some of whom spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, say the Black Sea falls into a seam between NATO’s strategy on Ukraine and its eastern flank on the one hand, and the West’s policies on its southern flank and the broader Middle East on the other hand. NATO needs to patch that seam up as it readies for a longer-term showdown with a militarily revanchist Russia, these officials argue.

“For a long period of time, we’ve had a gap in terms of security for the northern part of [NATO’s] eastern flank and the southern part of the eastern flank,” said Andrei Muraru, Romania’s ambassador to the United States, in a recent interview. “The whole Black Sea region is exposed to Russia.”

The debate over how to stitch the Black Sea into the West’s strategy on Russia is picking up ahead of a hotly anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive this spring that could potentially target Crimea, and a pivotal summit of NATO leaders this summer in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“When you look back at what NATO has said and what they have done on the Black Sea before this war, well, the answer is remarkably little,” said Steve Horrell, a former senior U.S. naval intelligence officer and current scholar with the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank. “It just always flew below the radar.”

Crafting a coherent strategy could be easier said than done, given the outsized role that NATO ally Turkey plays in the region, as the Black Sea gatekeeper with possession of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits that serve as the single, narrow outlet into the Mediterranean. Turkey has for years had a fraught and tense relationship with Washington and other NATO allies and views an enhanced NATO footprint in the Black Sea, or any change to its role as the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, with suspicion and trepidation.

Turkey has slow-rolled Finland’s and Sweden’s accessions into NATO (though Finland finally got in this week) and boosted economic ties with Moscow to prop up its anemic economy even as other Western countries seek to tighten the sanctions noose around Russian industries. Yet at the same time, it helped broker a crucial grain deal to ship Ukrainian commodities, especially grains, out of the Black Sea to world markets and has sent Kyiv crucial military assistance.

Turkey, using its legal powers under the 1936 Montreux Convention, closed the straits between the Mediterranean and Black seas to warships from countries that don’t have ports in the sea shortly after Russia’s invasion last year. While the move blocked additional Russian warships not returning to their home ports from sailing into the Black Sea, the move also blocked warships from non-Black Sea NATO powers from going in. The last U.S. naval vessel to enter the Black Sea was the USS Arleigh Burke, a destroyer that left the sea in December 2021.

In other words, no Western Black Sea strategy can work without Turkey’s buy-in, and Turkey’s buy-in will be tough to get. “Turkey is lukewarm to any proposal that would change the status of the Black Sea or change the terms of access to the Black Sea,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on the region with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

Over a year into the conflict, the Black Sea has been the scene of some of the most dramatic scenes of the war between Russia and Ukraine, including the stubborn Ukrainian defense of Snake Island that galvanized Ukrainian resistance in the early days of the war, and the April 2022 sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, the crown jewel of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, dealing a significant naval and symbolic blow to Moscow’s war efforts.

Even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Black Sea has served as a central theater in Europe’s bloody history.

It was a main artery of trade for ancient Greece and Rome, a source of food for Athens, and the site of Scythian conquests and Mongol conquests a thousand years apart. Crimea was ground zero for the spread of the bubonic plague to Europe, was long a bone of contention between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and was the scene of needless carnage and military bungling between great European powers in the 19th-century Crimean War that effectively shattered Europe’s alliance system after the Napoleonic wars. The Black Sea port of Novorossiysk was the scene of what was effectively the Bolshevik Revolution’s victory over the Western-backed and anti-communist White Army during the Russian Civil War.

Southern Ukraine along the Black Sea corridor was also the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and worst atrocities during World War II, and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin forcibly deported the entire community of native Crimean Tatars to consolidate Moscow’s control over Crimea and the Black Sea. In 2008, Russia launched an invasion of Georgia, another Western-oriented country on the Black Sea, marking Europe’s first 21st-century war and foreshadowing how Putin’s neo-imperialist ambitions would drive the future invasion of Ukraine.

The ultimate significance of the Black Sea in the current conflict remains to be seen, but it has already emerged as a potential flashpoint for a broader conflict between Russia and NATO. In March, a Russian fighter jet slammed into a U.S. drone conducting surveillance over the Black Sea, downing it. Top White House officials condemned the Russian jet’s moves as reckless and irresponsible as the drone was flying over international waters, while Moscow claimed the drone flew over territory within the boundaries of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Shaheen said this type of incident is precisely why Washington needs a coherent strategy for the region. “Had the U.S. had a more comprehensive presence in the Black Sea, we might have been able to limit Russia’s strategic advantage in the region and secure the drone’s crash site,” she said.

Putin, for his part, has fixated on Moscow’s control of Crimea as crucial to his broader showdown with NATO and sees the Black Sea as critical for projecting Moscow’s hard power into the Mediterranean and beyond.

“Russia views its access to warm-water ports in the Black Sea as a major strategic asset,” said Cagaptay.

Ukrainian officials have in recent days sent confusing—and somewhat conflicting—signals that it could be open to negotiating the status of Crimea in future peace talks with Russia, though liberating Crimea still could be a central goal in any coming Ukrainian offensive against battered Russian forces.

Beyond the military value of Crimea, Putin has made clear the peninsula—and, by extension, Moscow’s control over the Black Sea—transcends cold, hard strategy. Putin has mythologized Crimea’s importance to Russian heritage and history in public speeches—including spurious comparisons of Crimea as Russia’s holy land akin to Jerusalem—that have baffled historians. Putin has also compared himself to Peter the Great, the Russian tsar who launched expansionist wars to conquer territory in the early 18th century and established the Russian Empire that would seize Crimea a generation later, under Catherine the Great. The historic parallels may hit the mark in some ways that aren’t flattering to Putin: Peter the Great left much of present-day Ukraine to the Ottoman Empire and set up tsarist Russia for political upheaval by never establishing a clear succession process—an issue that has haunted the country ever since.

Still, the parallels reveal Putin’s own modern imperial ambitions for a 21st-century Russia and highlight the indelible link between the Black Sea, Crimea, and Putin’s own skewed views of his legacy on Russian history.

“If Putin wants to restore Russia to its status as a leading European power, something that it achieved under the rule of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great,” argued Peter Rutland, a scholar of Russian history at Wesleyan University, “then he needs Crimea.”

*Of course, Stringham originally—and tragically—got the line from Lady Isobel.

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