The Black Sea continues to be embroiled in a tug-of-war amid intensifying great power competition. Russia has made some significant military moves in the region this year and seems to be working hard to secure its strategic gains. While NATO has the Baltic Sea “covered” through its enhanced forward presence, and despite the rising tensions an actual physical war is unlikely, the Black Sea still represents a “black box” for many reasons. One, Russia is a Black Sea nation and enjoys military presence there through its own ports and maritime domain. Two, Russia has obtained additional influence over the Black Sea by taking de facto control of the Crimea peninsula after illegally ceasing it from Ukraine back in 2014. Three, there is a clash of major geopolitical interests as three out of six Black Sea nations are members of NATO, although Turkey has become increasingly anti-Western, and it is difficult to speak of it as deeply committed to the Alliance’s values and strategic interests. Turkey itself can be seen as an independent Black Sea actor, and the strength of its alliance with Russia serves as one of the major determinants of power balance in the region. Then there is the “grey zone” issue – Black Sea nations that are not NATO or EU members (although they enjoy ally status) and have been subject to ceaseless Russian hybrid warfare efforts as Moscow looks to establish permanent hegemony over as much of the space as possible. Georgia and Ukraine, as well as Moldova (although not directly bordering the Black Sea, can still be considered a Black Sea state) have breakaway conflict zones all backed by Russia and controlled by Russian military presence.
Perhaps the most dangerous situation in the Black Sea is currently posed by the conflicting de facto and de jure realities of the Crimean Peninsula. Because Russia’s annexation of Crimea is considered illegal according to the international laws and norms, Russia’s de facto control of the peninsula, the ports, and the waters surrounding it, is also seen as illegal and illegitimate under the international law. Crimea is placed under international sanctions and major international ships are not allowed to make port calls there, but Moscow also insists that the surrounding waters are off-limits to Western ships. Most importantly, Moscow enjoys de facto control of the peninsula and has placed significant military forces there. This is essentially a disagreement over two alternative realities, and that disagreement has been regularly causing dangerous incidents.
Back in April, when Russia staged a major military build-up in Crimea and on Russia’s border with Ukraine, the move was seen as a major act of aggression by US and European leaders as well as by Ukraine. Although Russia claimed this was a military exercise, the message was loud and clear – Russia was demonstrating its military might and readiness should the West decide to militarily back Ukraine against Russia, or make any bold moves to undermine Russia’s version of the “reality” in which Crimea belongs to Russia. Later, in June, there was another major incident in the waters surrounding Crimea. A British Royal Navy destroyer named Defender was accused of breaching the Kremlin’s territorial waters on June 23rd. Russia said it chased the warship out of the waters by bombing its path and firing warning shots. Next, the government summoned the British Ambassador to Russia for a “formal diplomatic scolding” and warned her that next time it would actually bomb any British naval vessels that would breach the Russian-controlled waters. The British government denied any wrongdoing and said, “the British warship, which was travelling from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the Georgian port of Batumi, was acting in accordance with the law and had been in international waters.” But even if the warship had gone into the official Crimean waters, according to the international law those would be Ukrainian, not Russian waters, and thus the warship would not be doing anything illegal. While the two sides can debate the status of these waters for years on end – which they have without resolution, the clear danger of deadly incidents and the likelihood of an armed conflict on the Black Sea only grows. Experience of such incidents also shows that unlike in the Baltic Sea, Moscow has a much shorter fuse in the Black Sea and is almost looking for a conflict. Moscow displays the greatest sense of entitlement and is more willing to challenge any Western presence there. Vladimir Putin has been clear that he views the Black Sea as Russia’s rightful sphere of not just influence but control.
But the Black Sea is more complex than Russia presents it to be. The United States, EU and NATO have their own significant presence and influence over the Black Sea maritime domain and although they are less willing to go all in (Ukraine and Georgia are still not membership candidates for the EU or NATO despite their best efforts), they keep on advancing their interests and strengthening their alliances in the region. Over two weeks Ukraine and the US co-hosted Sea Breeze military exercises on the Black Sea. Vessels from 32 nations, including NATO member states, took part in the drills which focused on multiple warfare areas “including amphibious warfare, land maneuver warfare, diving operations, maritime interdiction operations, air defense, special operations integration, anti-submarine warfare, and search and rescue operations.” The exercise involved 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams. Sea Breeze is an annual, multinational effort. The countries participating include Albania, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, France, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Sea Breeze drills are not designed to pose a threat to Russia, rather, the exercise aims to train the interoperability of different forces – to foster cooperation and collaboration between NATO and its allies. However, given the current geopolitical climate, it is impossible to expect Moscow to not view the drills as a display of aggression. Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted to closely monitoring the exercises and said it is ready to act if it needs to “protect its own national security”. It has already brought back a warship from the Eastern Mediterranean back to Sevastopol. The warship is equipped with long-range cruise missiles and was previously used for Russia’s operations in Syria. There are reports of USS destroyer Ross being shadowed by Russian warships and warplanes during the exercises in international waters. The Netherlands also accused Russian fighter jets of “unsafe” behavior in an encounter with its frigate.
Sea Breeze drills end on July 10th. While a full-out war is unlikely, the tensions are palpable and further highlight the insecurity and the volatility of both - the Black Sea maritime domain and the surrounding region.
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program. Maia also serves as the Deputy Director of Research at FPRI. Her research interests include geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet “frozen” conflicts.