A new Black Sea strategy for a new Black Sea reality–Autor: Luke Coffey, and Can Kasapoğlu
We bring to your attention an article by Luke Coffey, and Can Kasapoğlu, senior researchers at the Hudson Institute. Their work at Hudson focuses on politico-military affairs in the Middle East, North Africa and the former Soviet regions. They specialize in open-source defense intelligence, geopolitical assessments, international arms market trends, and emerging defense technologies and related concepts of operations.
An article that presents an interesting analysis of the subject, but also suggests some solutions to existing problems.
With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there is a new geopolitical reality in the Black Sea region. After the capture of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in May, Russia has effectively turned the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake and is also seeking maximum control of the Black Sea. Turkey has reminded the world of Ankara’s regional importance by closing the Turkish Straits to ships of the warring parties (in practice the Russian Navy, except for home platforms in the Black Sea), which it did under the authority granted by the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Despite overwhelming odds, Ukraine managed to deal significant blows to the Russian Navy – most sensationally by sinking the flagship Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet’s missile cruiser, and by hitting Russian ships with surface drones in October.
Black Sea geopolitics is a complex phenomenon. Any comprehensive regional politico-military policy must therefore provide a multi-domain strategy. This report will focus on the maritime agenda. Future reports will present findings on air and land warfare trends in the wider Black Sea region.
The need for a new strategy by the US and its allies must be developed as a comprehensive Black Sea strategy that addresses a new geopolitical reality, one shaped in particular by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This strategy should be based on the following assumptions:
– Ankara will continue to block warships from transiting the Black Sea through Turkey’s straits for the foreseeable future. Although Turkey has invoked Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, which refers to belligerent navies (ships that do not have their home port in the Black Sea), diplomatic rhetoric from the Turkish Foreign Ministry has suggested that Ankara would also ban naval activities from outside.1 There is no reason to assume that this restriction will be lifted any time soon, as the closure is directly related to the ongoing war. These restrictions have implications for NATO and Russia: they will reduce NATO’s maritime presence in the Black Sea and reduce Moscow’s ability to project maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Russian General Staff cannot send non-Black Sea naval platforms into the hot zone until the war is over. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is on its own now. As policymakers develop a strategy for the Black Sea, they will need to take these important facts into account.
– Ukraine’s rapidly developing battle-tested maritime defence capabilities offer an opportunity to improve Black Sea security and beyond. The Ukrainian-produced Neptune anti-ship cruise missile combined with creatively used and adapted disruptive weapon systems such as the Bayraktar TB2 drones, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Naval Strike. The missiles, have proven effective in coastal defense. At the time of writing, Ukraine has destroyed eight Russian naval vessels and damaged four others  – even though Ukraine effectively has no fleet. Lessons learned from Ukraine could be applied to a new generation of coastal defense and a new concept of operations (CONOPS) – centered on robotic warfare capabilities, intelligence superiority, and anti-ship missile advantage – that could be relevant in places like Caspian Sea Azerbaijan and even Taiwan.
– Romania has the geostrategic advantage of becoming a central A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) hub for NATO. In response to Russia’s increased threat to European security, the alliance has increased the allied military posture on its eastern borders. By setting up new multinational battle groups in the alliance’s east (Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary), NATO has geopolitically expanded its enhanced forward presence from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.  A logical next move would be to enhance Romania’s A2/AD capability by deploying a complex anti-ship missile deterrent system, layered air defenses, heavy MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) and tactical ballistic missile systems (i.e., HIMARS/ATACMS), powerful air and naval forces, and robotic warfare systems.
– The war in Ukraine will continue in some form for the foreseeable future. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has shown any willingness to negotiate. Thanks to successful counterattacks in Kharkov and Herson in the autumn of 2022, Ukraine sees itself on the front foot for the first time in the war. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Lugansk, Donetsk, Herson and Zaporizhzhia regions and the recently announced mobilisation to strengthen the Russian army show that Moscow has no interest in peace talks. In addition, massive Russian mobilisation and conscription efforts have inevitably altered force-to-land and force-to-force ratios. While these force-generating measures will not win the war for Putin, they can maintain a potentially extremely exhausting stalemate. Policymakers need to understand that the war in Ukraine is likely to last a long time, even years, and they need to start planning accordingly.
– The Russian Black Sea Fleet and the military presence in Crimea are problems not only for eastern NATO but also for its south. Russia’s 2015 Expeditionary Force in Syria was logistically and militarily secured by the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol, Crimea. The illegal annexation of the peninsula provided a dangerous gateway for strengthening Russia’s presence in southern NATO. In addition, the Black Sea Fleet expanded the Tartus base in Syria. The facility, a remnant of the Cold War, has become a Mediterranean touchstone for the Kremlin’s great power ambitions. At the time, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, considered a Russian contingent in Syria to be an “A2/AD bubble” with submarines to execute combat operations in the Levant, marking an open violation of the Montreux regime. This threatening Russian “arc of steel” has even extended into Libya to support the subversive operations of the private military company Wagner. Turkey interrupted Russia’s “Syrian Express” invoking Article 19 of the Montreux Convention. However, when the dust settles in the Black Sea region, Moscow will want to return to the status quo ante bellum. Overall, helping Ukraine regain its sovereign territory of Crimea is a strategic priority for keeping eastern NATO safe, while countering Russian aggression in the Black Sea is a security issue for the alliance’s south.
– Turkey will continue to play a special role in the Black Sea region. In short, Turkey is most driven by the status quo as a Black Sea littoral state. In the eyes of the Turkish elite, the status quo in Turkey’s northern waters manifests itself in the Montreux Convention; for Ankara, everything else in the Black Sea calculus is transactional. While Turkey’s prioritisation of the status quo has sometimes led to convergences between Turkey and Russia, Ankara’s calculus also extends to halting the Kremlin’s aggressive stance in the region. In 2015, when Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 frontline bomber led to a Turkey-Russia rift, Turkey called for more NATO activity in the region, pointing to the risk of the Black Sea turning into a “Russian lake.” Thus, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russian army’s attempts to occupy Odessa fall under unacceptable revisionism in the Turkish geopolitical paradigm. This is why, when the war broke out, the Turkish government’s initial playbook involved invoking the Montreux Convention, stepping up military assistance to Ukraine, and at the same time maintaining strong intelligence and diplomatic activity towards Moscow. For geographical, economic, political and historical reasons, Turkey sees itself as having a special role in the Black Sea region.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlined this fact. Policymakers should embrace Turkey’s self-understanding and leverage its influence and role in the Black Sea region to ensure security and stability. Finally, while Turkey’s Montreux sensitivities are there to stay, Ankara’s regional ownership paradigm in the Black Sea has reached its limits. In the wake of the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, it is almost impossible for any Turkish government to open joint regional initiatives that include allies, partners and Russia-NATO. This is why Turkey’s Western allies should focus on a new model of Black Sea cooperation with Ankara – including models of intra-NATO naval cooperation between the three littoral allies – instead of hopelessly demanding concessions from the Montreux regime.
– Russian military capabilities and readiness in the Black Sea will remain low. This will have an impact on Russia’s maritime presence in the Caspian Sea, the Baltic Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Under the restrictions of the 1936 Montreux Convention, Russia cannot strengthen its naval presence in the Black Sea from anywhere but the Caspian – and here Russian options remain limited. Closing the straits to warships will also have a medium- to long-term impact on Russia’s maritime operations in the eastern Mediterranean supporting Syria.
Five reasons why the Black Sea matters The Black Sea is at an important crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and the wider Caspian region.
There are five countries on the Black Sea littoral: Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Although Moldova does not have a Black Sea coast, it is geopolitically part of the region. The Moldovan port of Giurgiulesti connects the country to the Black Sea via the Danube River. Throughout the region’s history, the Black Sea has proven to be geopolitically and economically important. Even for a country thousands of miles away, such as the United States, the Black Sea is crucial to transatlantic interests and America’s geopolitical roadmap.
There are five main reasons why the Black Sea is strategically important to the US:
First, the Black Sea region is home to trusted allies and partners. Three Black Sea states (Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey) are in NATO and fall under the alliance’s collective defense guarantees; these come from Article V of the Washington Treaty, which contains a clear casus foederis clause. Two other countries (Georgia and Ukraine) aspire to join the alliance. It is also worth noting that the Black Sea countries have demonstrated a greater political will to deploy troops in support of NATO operations than countries in other regions. For example, in recent years of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, one third of all European forces serving have been contributed collectively by Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine.
Second, the Black Sea region hosts unfinished business for Euro-Atlantic and NATO integration. Euro-Atlantic integration has been successful in much of Europe, but the region around the Black Sea remains an area for NATO and EU enlargement. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine each have varying degrees of engagement with the EU and NATO. Moldova and Ukraine are officially EU candidate countries, while, due to concerns about democratic return, Georgia retains its official ‘applicant’ status. All three are also in the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme and have association agreements with the EU. Turkey has also been an EU candidate country since 1999, although no significant progress has been made in recent years. Georgia has sought NATO membership since 2008, but political weakness in France and Germany has blocked any significant progress. In October 2022, Ukraine formally applied for NATO membership, but its prospects of joining the alliance remain low while it is engaged in a war with Russia. Moldova has not formally declared its intention to join NATO, but Dorin Recean, the country’s national security adviser [and recently Prime Minister!], said recently that “Moldova can no longer rely solely on foreign policy instruments, one of which is its neutral status, to ensure state stability”.  This was the strongest statement in recent years by a senior government official that Moldova might consider a NATO track.
Third, the Black Sea region is an important regional transit and shipping hub. Some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, oil and gas pipelines, fibre optic cables and trade routes cross or connect to the Black Sea. Two major fibre optic cables cross the Black Sea: the Caucasus Cable System and the Black Sea Fibre Optic Cable System. The region is also rich in natural resources. Although exact totals are not publicly available, the Black Sea is estimated to hold trillions of cubic meters of natural gas and 10 billion barrels of crude oil reserves. As hydrogen becomes an increasingly important part of the energy mix, the Black Sea will play a role. The region has been described as “the next hydrogen hub.” A network of major oil and gas pipelines connects the Caspian Sea region to the Black Sea.
Fourth, Russia is using the Black Sea as a platform for operations further afield, and this has consequences affecting the Middle East. For example, Russia has used its Black Sea presence in occupied Crimea to launch and support naval operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the early days of Moscow’s intervention in Syria, the Moskva – a Russian Navy guided-missile cruiser and flagship of the Black Sea Fleet before being sunk by Ukrainian forces in April 2022 – played a vital role in providing air defenses for Russian forces.  Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and wheat have been transported from Crimea to Syria to help the Assad regime cope with food shortages. Hundreds of trips have been made between the Crimean port city of Sevastopol and the Russian naval base in Tartus to transport military equipment and resupply.
Finally, in an era of great power competition, China and Iran also play a role in the Black Sea that policymakers need to be aware of. China sees the Black Sea as part of the European terminus of its Belt and Road Initiative and has invested in the region. However, it has failed to establish the same economic foothold in the Black Sea that it has in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In addition, European countries are increasingly aware of China’s predatory investment practices. To the south, Iran wants to establish a Persian Gulf-Black Sea connectivity route through the Caucasus. Tehran sees this as another possible way to engage with the outside world when economic sanctions limit options. Last year, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian hosted Lazăr Comănescu, secretary-general of the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, in Tehran to discuss possible areas of cooperation closely. Iran has become the main supplier of drone warfare systems to the Russian military during the ongoing war in Ukraine. As of January 2023, Iranian munitions and (probably) ballistic missiles have become threats to the Black Sea and Eastern Europe for NATO allies and partners. In return, Tehran is to receive advanced Russian weapons systems, including the Su-35 air superiority aircraft. Overall, the Russia-Iran military axis has become more dangerous than ever with the new geopolitical situation triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Turkey’s role as a ‘chimera’ in the Black Sea
Turkey’s Black Sea policy is complicated and best described as a chimera. Like the mythological creature that was part lion, part goat and part snake, Turkish Black Sea policy combines disparate elements, all of which must be taken into account. In other words, the contemporary Turkish Black Sea paradigm is multifactorial: it is the product of different political vectors, following different politico-military directions and ultimately forming a complex strategic vision. It has four main pillars:
1. The primacy of the Montreux Convention regime in Black Sea politico-military affairs. While most writings have confused this position with an effort to maintain balance with NATO and Russia, the primacy accorded to the Montreux Convention is actually a function of Turkey’s NATO membership, which urges the nation to prevent any potential problems in its northern waters. Given its collective defence responsibilities within the alliance, and in particular those mentioned in Article V of the Washington Treaty, the Turkish government cannot maintain a neutral position if another NATO member is attacked.
2. The importance of maintaining the ‘diplomatic edge’ in the region. So far, Turkey has skilfully managed competition and cooperation with Russia mainly through compartmentalisation and commercialism – two concepts that encapsulate a long history of complex bilateral relations. Turkey has taken a leading role in setting up multilateral mechanisms in the region to prevent the Black Sea from becoming a theatre of military conflict between NATO and Russia. In the event of such a clash, Turkey, as a NATO member, could not remain neutral.
3. Turkey’s NATO nation status. Turkey joined NATO in 1952. During the Cold War, Turkey was one of two countries bordering the Soviet Union (the other being Norway). Turkey hosts a major air base at İncirlik, which is used mainly by the United States and NATO Land Command. The X-band radar at the Kürecik radar station in south-central Turkey is a crucial component of Europe’s missile defence system; the geometry and geography make Turkey the best location for this radar. Turkey is a strong supporter of NATO’s open-door policy (although this does not dominate the headlines in Western news bulletins) and has supported NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. More importantly, Turkey, with its robust naval posture and growing field of robot warfare, remains the strongest Black Sea littoral nation in the NATO alliance. In other words, a military network assessment would suggest that Turkey is more or less NATO in the Black Sea.
4. Turkey’s growing defence ties with Ukraine. Ukraine offers Turkey a Western but non-NATO defence partnership – similar to the partnership with the Israeli military in the 1990s – that provides more generous technology transfer and co-production than Euro-Atlantic countries offer. While many experts anticipated that defence ties between Turkey and Ukraine would weaken in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara and Kiev have in fact stepped up their collaborative efforts to jointly develop critical military technologies. Turkey’s historical kinship ties with the Crimean Tatar population, oppressed by the Russian invasion after 2014, add a particular advantage to the growing strategic bilateral ties between Turkey and Ukraine.
Basic paradigm: Montreux Convention for beginners
The 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates the transit of warships through Turkey’s Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, forms Turkey’s core paradigm in the Black Sea. The Convention oversees certain restrictions on the transit of warships for off-shore countries. No more than nine warships belonging to foreigners in the Black Sea are allowed to transit the Black Sea at any one time, and the total tonnage of the transiting flotilla may not exceed 15,000 tonnes. For warships from a single non-Russian state, the maximum total tonnage allowed at any one time is 30,000 tonnes. The total non-coastal shipping presence may not exceed 45,000 tonnes. The Convention also prohibits non-littoral navies from staying in the Black Sea for more than 21 consecutive days and requires visiting navies to notify Ankara at least 15 days before sailing through the Turkish Straits.
The Montreux Convention also includes categorical limitations. Carriers are not allowed to transit the Turkish Straits to the Black Sea. Submarines of Black Sea littoral states are allowed to transit the Turkish Straits, but are subject to strict regulations. They may not sink in the Turkish Straits and may only pass through the Turkish Straits “for the purpose of returning to their bases in the Black Sea for the first time after their construction or purchase, or for the purpose of repair in shipyards.” This is why the activity of Russian submarines in Syria is a clear violation of the convention. The delicate balance established by the Montreux Convention played a key role in keeping the Black Sea region stable during the Cold War, when relations between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were strained. This mainstream Turkish line of thinking argues that Russia does not want to change the Montreux regime because Moscow sees it as a barrier preventing Western capabilities from spilling into its southern seas.
Ankara’s invocation of the Montreux Convention in 2008 during the Russian invasion of Georgia is a good example of the Turkish perspective. At the time, Ankara refused passage to the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, hospital ships carrying humanitarian aid to Georgia. Although the ships were non-combatants, their tonnage – 69,360 tons each – violated the size limits under the Montreux Convention.19] This refusal does not mean that the Turkish government sided with Moscow against Tbilisi. Weeks later, Turkey allowed the USS McFaul, USS Mount Whitney and USCGC Dallas to pass through the Turkish Straits on their way to Georgia because their passage complied with the conditions described in the Montreux Convention.
Turkey’s dual track: pursuing NATO’s agenda while maintaining balance with Russia
Since joining the alliance in 1952, Turkey has been an important NATO nation with robust war-fighting capabilities and unique geopolitical characteristics. Turkey is NATO’s window to the former Soviet space. It is the only NATO country with borders in the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Black Sea, the Balkans and the Mediterranean all in one. Without Turkey, the Aegean Sea would mark NATO’s eastern end; and the Turkish Strait, which connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, would be totally alien to the alliance. During the Cold War, a non-aligned Turkey would have meant facing at least 22 more Soviet Red Army divisions in Eastern Europe. More importantly, for NATO, only a few allies match Turkey’s military capability, which is a real realpolitik factor to incorporate into any net assessment (and one often neglected these days). Today, only the US and Turkish armies outnumber the doctrinal order of battle of Russia’s western military district.
In more than half of NATO member countries, the armed forces as a whole are outnumbered by 45,000 Russian VDV, airborne service.20 While these facts were mere statistics before the war in Ukraine, they are bitter realities with dire defense policy results today.
Turkey has traditionally followed two separate geopolitical paths in the Black Sea. One, of course, stems from the nation’s NATO identity. When Bulgaria and Romania have been striving for NATO membership, for example, Turkey has strongly supported their accession. The other path, however, relates to Ankara’s geopolitical vision of the Black Sea’s critical strategic agenda. Until the end of the Cold War, Ankara’s highest priority was to create regional cooperation in the Black Sea. The approach was equally appealing to all littoral states, including Russia. In the eyes of the Turkish elite, regional consultation mechanisms could address regional disputes, thus avoiding complicated crises that could attract outside intervention. Moscow agreed to follow Turkey’s lead because it saw the regionalisation of Black Sea affairs as a means of reducing transatlantic influence in its south. Turkey’s policy was manifested through the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), which was established in 1992 to foster regional dialogue and economic engagement.
The intensified strategic dialogue between Russia and Turkey has led to the emergence of several cooperation frameworks. The most notable political outcome led by the Turkish initiative is BLACKSEAFOR (Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Force), established in 2001 with the participation of Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria to boost regional cooperation in the field of naval security and the Bulgarian coastguard agenda. Ankara’s decision to launch Operation Black Sea Harmony in March 2004 can be seen mainly as part of its effort to maintain a delicate strategic balance and regional cooperation in the Black Sea. The operation, which was later joined by Russia and other Black Sea littoral states, was designed to counter terrorist threats, mimicking NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While serving counter-terrorism purposes, Black Sea Harmony was also intended to foster Russian-Turkish security dialogue and maintain Black Sea stability in turbulent conditions. Both BLACKSEAFOR and Operation Black Sea Harmony are now defunct due to the breakdown of relations with Russia and other Black Sea nations.
The limits of commercialism and compartmentalisation
While Turkey-Russia ties may seem complicated, close examination reveals a significant pattern. Relations between the two nations are shaped by careful compartmentalisation of various activities – that is, by keeping cooperative activities separate from those related to conflict zones.
For example, Turkey and Russia were on conflicting sides in Libya, but managed to continue their acquisition of the strategic SAM S-400 system. In 2019, at a time when Turkish TB-2 fighter drones were hitting Kremlin-backed and Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems in the Libyan battlefield, Russian cargo planes were delivering S-400s to the Turkish air force.
Also, while the Turks and Russians were on competing sides in former Soviet space, they managed to maintain a strict minimum of cooperation in Syria. While the incumbent Turkish government repeatedly condemned Russia’s actions in Libya and illegal annexation of Crimea, the same administration did not refrain from acquiring the S-400 which triggered sanctions under the US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act). However, Turkey’s relations with Russia and Ukraine (and the wider transatlantic alliance) have often been misunderstood by the Western strategic community, which sees Ankara’s calculation as a “balancing act”.
However, Turkey-Russia and Turkey-Ukraine ties differ structurally in their geopolitical DNA. This compartmentalisation by both Ankara and the Kremlin is pragmatic in nature and inherently favours selective and limited cooperation. The paradigm of limited cooperation is married to “limited confrontation” when Turkish and Russian strategic interests remain at odds; in this way it highlights the transactional nature of bilateral ties. The limited confrontation model has been violated from time to time by worrying exceptions, such as the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 frontline bomber by Turkish combat air patrols in 2015 or the killing of 36 Turkish soldiers in Idlib, Syria, in the countryside in 2020.
However, ties between Ankara and Moscow have endured both incidents. A careful assessment of the Russian military leadership’s rhetoric prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine shows that the “Kalibrization” of the Russian navy – equipping the Russian navy with Kalibr cruise missiles, which provide a conventional long-range strike capability, was a turning point in Moscow’s strategic calculus. “Kalibrizing” enabled the Caspian Fleet to launch long-range attacks from the Caucasus frontier and enabled missile launches from the Black Sea submarine fleet in the Mediterranean. Following these sensational Kalibr salvos in Syria, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov claimed that Russian naval power was then superior to that of Turkey in the Black Sea. Gerasimov even claimed that Russia could easily hit the Turkish straits.
Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea Fleet had deployed 21 surface ships, seven submarines (six Kilo-class upgraded with Kalibr launch capability), as well as nearly 30,000 troops.
Militarily, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s upgraded Kilo-class submarine and Kalibr missile program both pose direct threats to Turkey. More importantly, by sailing the upgraded Kilo-class submarines back and forth for combat operations in Syria, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has already violated the Montreux regime. Turkey probably felt it had to deal with Russian violations, given the lack of support from its NATO allies after the downing of the Russian Su-24 at the start of Moscow’s expedition to Syria. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of Russian combat operations in Syria in 2015, Turkey noted that the invasion of Crimea enabled the Russian expeditionary campaign in the Levant. The “arc of steel” then expanded into Libya. Of greater concern is the improved Russian military posture in Crimea after the annexation, which includes dual-capable assets such as the Tu-22M3 tactical bomber certified for nuclear missions.
These Russian moves have marked a stalemate for Turkey’s Black Sea regional dialogue plans. The ongoing invasion of Ukraine was the latest manifestation of a bitter truth, with Russia’s siloviki elite not completely agreeing with Turkey. They acted as if they were doing it to avoid further NATO presence in their south. All in all, Turkey is a keeper of the status quo in the Black Sea region; and in the eyes of any Turkish government, the status quo is centered on the Montreux Convention. Indeed, Turkey’s “regional ownership” strategy in the Black Sea has, at times, brought Ankara and Moscow closer together. However, such pragmatic convergences have happened only to negate foreign influence that could lead to spiraling tensions.
At the same time, however, Turkey did not refrain from selling critical weapons to Kiev to defend itself against Russian invasion. Turkish TB-2 drones even participated in the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship missile cruiser Moskva.
Link between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov
Caspian Sea is an important, though often overlooked, region for the United States. It lies at the heart of the Eurasian continent, is a crucial geographic and cultural crossroads linking Europe and Asia, and for centuries has proven to be strategically important to many countries for military and economic reasons. It remains so today. The Sea of Azov is a small body of water once divided between Russia and Ukraine and connected to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait.
However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the fall of Mariupol in May of that year, the Sea of Azov has effectively become a Russian lake. In the wider discussion of security in the Black Sea region, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov are often an afterthought.
However, there are three reasons why the security of all three seas is intertwined and why the US and NATO cannot operate in one without considering the implications and security situation in the others.
1. One of the two canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the outside world is the Volga-Don Canal, which connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. In the spring and summer months, when the canal is not frozen, Russia uses the Volga-Don Canal to move warships between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov. Russia’s Caspian Flotilla ships played a direct role in supporting Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
2. Russian warships operating from the Caspian Sea have launched cruise missiles against Ukraine. In the past, Russian cruise missiles in the Caspian Sea have also been used against targets in Syria.
3. Iran and Moscow share many targets in the Caspian region. Russia-Iran cooperation in the Caspian Sea threatens the wider region, including NATO and its partners. Russian and Iranian navies conduct joint military exercises in the Caspian Sea. Iran has long been suspected of transporting oil to Russia using the Caspian Sea as a way to avoid economic sanctions. Most importantly, Iranian drones used by Russia in Ukraine have been transported by ship to occupied Crimea via the Caspian and Volga-Don Canal or via an air corridor over the Caspian Sea. The ability to move warships from the Caspian region to the Black Sea (and vice versa) allows Russia to project power in an important part of the world, while giving Russian policymakers flexibility and options in times of conflict in the wider region. Russia sees the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea as one geopolitical space – so should NATO military planners and policymakers.
The way forward
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means the old way of thinking about the Black Sea no longer applies. Russia’s war is also a reminder of Turkey’s geopolitical importance as a NATO member and Black Sea littoral nation. The US should be a leader within NATO and develop a new strategy for Black Sea security. The US and its NATO allies can do this by taking the following actions:
– Preparing to establish a Black Sea maritime patrol mission as soon as Turkey lifts its restrictions on foreign warships transiting the Turkish Strait. NATO should establish a Black Sea maritime patrol mission, modelled on the successful Baltic air policing mission, to maintain a robust NATO presence in the Black Sea in line with the 1936 Montreux Convention. This would require non-Black Sea NATO countries to commit in advance to a regular and rotating maritime presence in the Black Sea.
– Providing more ships to allies and partners in the region. The right to self-defence does not stop at the shore. As described above, the Montreux Convention imposes restrictions on the size and number of non-Black Sea warships that can enter the Black Sea at one time. remain in the Black Sea. The most direct way to circumvent these obstacles is to help allied and friendly countries in the region increase the size and capabilities of their navies. In coordination with Turkey, the US should develop individual maritime security action plans for Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia to improve their navies.
Finally, among NATO’s Black Sea allies, Turkey has a rapidly growing unmanned surface vessel program. Extending Turkey’s growing naval robotic warfare advantage to other allies and partners in the Black Sea would be a smart move and could be achieved by building on related allied frameworks, such as NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) project.
– Enhancing Allied A2/AD capabilities. In addition to building and growing allied navies, NATO should build robust coastal defence networks, improve radar systems and enhance surveillance capabilities. The case of the Moskva missile cruiser revealed the vulnerabilities of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. More significantly, building coastal defence networks is cheaper and more sustainable than investing in traditional navies.
– Using the US Coast Guard. When Turkey lifts its restrictions on foreign warships transiting the Turkish Strait, the US should develop a plan for the US Coast Guard to become more active in the Black Sea.28] There is a precedent worth building on: in 2021, USCGC Hamilton completed a visit around the Black Sea, marking the first time the US Coast Guard has operated in the Black Sea since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia.
– The opening of a NATO-certified centre of excellence for Black Sea security, jointly run by Turkey and Georgia but located on Georgian territory. There is no precedent for a NATO-certified centre of excellence in a non-NATO country, but setting one up could improve NATO-Georgia relations and show how important the Black Sea region has become for Europe’s overall security. The Centre of Excellence would provide a forum for meaningful dialogue and training on how to address the challenges associated with Black Sea security. The joint involvement of Turkey and Georgia would also illustrate how NATO and non-NATO Black Sea countries should work together in the region.
– Call for the creation of a Four Seas Initiative to include the Adriatic, Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. This initiative could build on the existing Three Seas Initiative – a bloc of regional countries in Central and Eastern Europe politically, economically and geographically connected to the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas.
Including the Caspian Sea and associated countries in the region could reflect the region’s interdependence in terms of economic development and transport. Currently, the Three Seas Initiative only includes EU member states. This serves as an artificial constraint on regional cooperation because so many countries in the region are not EU members. Creating a Four Seas Initiative will force the region to look beyond the EU.
– Obtain diplomatic engagement in the region using the GUAM format. The Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development – GUAM is a regional bloc that encourages cooperation between Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. All four countries are important for advancing US national interests in the region. Russia is concerned almost exclusively with events in Ukraine and the impact of economic sanctions. The US should take advantage of Russia’s lopsided geopolitical balance and start engaging more with groups like GUAM. Congress should host a special inter-parliamentary meeting with legislators from GUAM parliaments to build relationships and explore areas of cooperation. The last U.S.-GUAM meeting at the foreign minister level was in 2017. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should immediately call for hosting a US-GUAM summit to boost cooperation between the US and GUAM countries.
– Consider the strategic connection between the Sea of Azov, the Volga-Don Canal and the Caspian Sea when developing any Black Sea strategy. Russia attaches particular importance to the Volga-Don Canal, as it connects the Sea of Azov (and the Black Sea) to the Caspian Sea, thus allowing it to advance its war aims in Ukraine. Russia routinely launches cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea against targets in Ukraine. Iran is increasingly supporting Russia’s war efforts by transporting drones across the Caspian Sea for use in Ukraine. In practical terms, therefore, NATO planners must see the most extreme point of NATO’s Black Sea border as the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.
– Helping friendly Caspian countries improve their maritime security. The Caspian region is of vital importance to the Black Sea, especially in terms of energy and trade transit. The US should work in coordination with Turkey to improve the security and military capabilities of partners in the region, especially Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The US government’s decision to provide military assistance to another country should be based on American security interests and not on pressure from certain groups lobbying Congress.
– Working closely with Turkey. Any proposal to increase US involvement in the Black Sea should include engagement and consultation with Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member with sovereign control of the straits, and Washington should assure Ankara that nothing from the US or NATO in the Black Sea is intended to undermine that control. The goal is to increase NATO’s presence in the Black Sea to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian aggression. Turkey’s Montreux-led policy is clearly there to stay. However, Ankara’s regional cooperation frameworks, which have traditionally encouraged the participation of Russia and other Black Sea countries, are no longer in place. No Black Sea nation would want to collaborate with siloviki-led Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine. Thus, the US should work closely with Turkey to establish new patterns of cooperation in the Black Sea and to foster strategic interactions between NATO allies and partners in the region.
– Ensuring that NATO’s door remains open to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. No non-NATO country, including Russia, should have a veto over the potential future membership of Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine. These three Black Sea countries know what it is like to suffer from Russian aggression. Ukraine and Georgia aspire to join the alliance one day. Moldova could seek membership in the future. Without close cooperation and relations with all three, NATO cannot have an effective Black Sea strategy.
– Promote Turkish-Ukrainian defence ties. Ankara’s Black Sea policy is not neutral, let alone aligned with Russia. Turkey has a deep-rooted defence partnership with Ukraine. Ankara and Kiev enjoy a growing portfolio of military cooperation, ranging from Turkey’s co-production of indigenous MILGEM-class corvettes in Ukrainian docks to Turkish drone maker Baykar’s first Ukrainian-powered unmanned aircraft, the Kizilelma. Supporting and encouraging the Turkey-Ukraine defence partnership should be a geopolitical priority for the US and other NATO members. In the long term (and especially if Ukraine is to become a NATO ally), Turkey-Ukraine bilateral defence ties could become a military alliance, forming a natural geopolitical counterbalance against Russian aggression.
– 1. “Türkiye to implement Montreux Convention due to war in Ukraine,” TRT World, February 28, 2022, https://www.trtworld.com/europe/t%C3%BCrkiye-to-implement-montreux-conv…;
– 2. Oryx, “Attack on Europe: Documenting Russian Equipment Losses During the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” February 24, 2022, https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equi….
– 3. NATO, “NATO’s Military Presence in the East of the Alliance,” December 21, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/fr/natohq/topics_136388.htm?selectedLocale=en
– 4. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Top NATO General: Russians Starting to Build Air Defense Bubble over Syria,” NATOSource (blog), Atlantic Council, September 29, 2015, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/top-nato-general-russi….
– 5. On the “arc of steel,” see Jim Garamone, “NATO Leader Says Russia Building ‘Arc of Steel’ in Europe,” US Department of Defense, October 6, 2015, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/622080/nato-l….
– 6. On the “Syrian Express,” see Stuart Williams, “Despite tensions, Russia’s ‘Syria Express’ sails by Istanbul, AFP, January 5, 2016, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/despite-tensions-russias-syria-express-….
– 7. Turkish Presidency, “President Erdoğan Addresses ‘Balkan Countries Chiefs of Defense Conference,'” May 11, 2016, https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/43924/suriyede-tum-kirmizi-cizgiler….
– 8. One of the two canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the outside world is the Volga-Don Canal, which links the Caspian Sea with the Sea of Azov. Russia has used the Volga-Don Canal to move warships between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov.
– 9. EURACTIV, “Moldova Can’t Rely Only on Neutral Status, Security Aide Says,” September 27, 2022, https://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/moldova-cant-rely-o…;
– 10. For the natural gas estimate, see Aura Sabadus, “Why the Black Sea Could Emerge as the World’s Next Great Energy Battleground,” Ukraine Alert (blog), Atlantic Council, March 30, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/why-the-black-sea-co…. For the oil reserve estimate, see Tenaris, “Unlocking the Black Sea’s Deepwater Potential,” March 2011, https://www.tenaris.com/media/ruddm2jo/1-unlocking-the-black-sea-s-deep…;
– 11. Claudia Patricolo, “The Black Sea Region Is Emerging as the Next Hydrogen Hub,” Ceenergy News, October 4, 2021, https://ceenergynews.com/hydrogen/the-black-sea-region-is-emerging-as-t….
– 12. Matthew Chance, “On Board the Warship Moskva: The Naval Power behind Russia’s Air War in Syria,” CNN, December 17, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/middleeast/syria-russian-warship-moskva/….
– 13. Jonathan Saul and Polina Devitt, “Syria’s Assad Gets Food Lifeline from Crimea,” Reuters, June 21, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideastcrisis-syria-crimea-insight/s….
– 14. Gulliver Cragg and Elena Volochine, “The Crimean Port of Sevastopol, a Strategic Link between Russia and Syria,” France 24, March 20, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190320-focuscrimea-sevastopol-port-naval-….
– 15. Founded in 1992 as a Turkish initiative to promote regional economic relations, the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation currently has 11 full members and another 14 observers, including the United States. Three EU countries are full members (Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria) and another 10 are observers. For the meeting between Amirabdollahian and Comanescu, see “BSEC Highlights Importance of Persian Gulf-Black Sea Corridor,” MEHR News Agency, May 30, 2022, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/187372/BSEC-highlights-importance-of-Persi….
– 16. Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Implementation of the Montreux Convention,” https://www.mfa.gov.tr/implementation-of-the-montreux-convention.en.mfa.
– 17. Ibid.
– 18. Mitat Çelikpala and Emre Ersen, “Turkey’s Black Sea Predicament: Challenging or Accommodating Russia?” Perceptions 23, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 72-92.
– 19. John C. K. Daly, “Referee and Goalkeeper of the Turkish Straits: The Relevance and Strategic Implications of the Montreux Convention for Conflict in the Black Sea,” Jamestown Foundation, May 10, 2022, https://jamestown.org/program/referee-and-goalkeeper-of-the-turkish-str….
– 20. For a comprehensive reference, see International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2022 (Routledge, 2022).
– 21. For example, see the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ post on Twitter, September 20, 2021, https://twitter.com/TC_Disisleri/status/1440024403115446272.
– 22. Joshua Kucera, “Russia Claims ‘Mastery’ over Turkey in Black Sea,” Eurasianet, September 25, 2016, https://eurasianet.org/russia-claims-mastery-over-turkey-black-sea
– 23. Giray Derman Saynur, “Analysis-Growing Strategic Competition in Black Sea and Threat of War,” Anadolu Agency, July 10, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/analysis-growing-strategic-competitio….
– 24. Sergiu Celac, “The Regional Ownership Conundrum: The Case of the Organization of the BSEC,” in Next Steps in Forging a Strategy for the Wider Black Sea, ed. Ronald D. Asmus (Washington, DC: German Marshall Fund, 2006), 215-20.
– 25. Sinan Tavsan, “Turkish-Made Drones Likely Involved in Moskva Sinking,” Nikkei Asia, April 18, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Most-read-in-2022/Turkish-made-drones….
– 26. There is also a proposal to create a Eurasia Canal, which would transform the Kuma-Manych Canal (currently only an irrigation canal) into a shipping canal linking the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. If realized, this would be the shortest route from the Caspian Sea to the outside world.
– 27. For example, non-Black Sea state individual warships in the Turkish Straits must weigh less than 15,000 tons. No more than nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days. See “Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits,” July 20, 1936, https://cil.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/formidable/18/1936-Convention…
– 28. For the purposes of the 1936 Montreux Convention, US Coast Guard ships are considered warships.
– 29. The Three Seas Initiative is a joint Poland-Croatia project launched in 2016 by 12 Central and Eastern European countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). It aims to strengthen trade, infrastructure, energy, and political cooperation among countries bordering the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas.