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The New European navigation channels – editorial

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Author: Radm(LH) (ret) PhD. Sorin LEARSCHI

At the edge of Europe, the Black Sea is not quite “internationalized”, the region being subject to Russian interests and interference, and it is interesting that this geopolitical reality has somehow been neglected by NATO, leaving a safe haven for it. Turkey, by virtue of the strategic position it holds thanks to the power given to it by the Montreux Treaty, is a geostrategic actor with the legislative advantage with which it has been empowered. Over time, history has felt the effects of Russia’s supposedly global interests, having returned after the great shock of the break-up of the USSR, interfering with the lesser expressed interests of the European Union, which saw itself as a neighbour of its main supplier of energy resources. Perhaps it has always been desired to give Russia a safe space in which it could feel that it was not subject to NATO pressure, a space which, however, could be relatively easy to blockade from a naval point of view. Things have changed over time, perhaps also due to the development of ever-faster missile strike capabilities and, in particular, ever-larger range, which has led to a lower level of confidence in defence capabilities.
In June 2022 in Madrid, NATO presented and approved its new strategic concept and made significant changes in force posture to strengthen deterrence and defence. The measures represent “the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence and defence since the Cold War”. The concept sets a high level of ambition, but NATO still has much work to do to achieve it. The threat from Russia has returned to Cold War levels, and NATO’s strategy is to reposition itself. The inclusion for the first time of the Black Sea area as a distinct area of maximum interest suggests a desire to close a door previously left ajar for Russia. The Black Sea region remains a complicated area, and the common stability project has poor prospects for realisation. At this point, the internationalisation of the Black Sea, with unimpeded access to the global ocean, deserves special attention, even in the current climate. Starting from the necessity and desirability of these inland waterways and analysing the value of investments, some technical studies are needed to determine the feasibility of these large infrastructure projects. Over the years, several navigable routes have been discussed which could provide adjacent access to the Black Sea through the construction of canals, or even “eliminate” ship traffic at sea.
One project with an estimated investment value of $17bn is the construction of a canal desired by China (in the Road & Belt initiative) to link the Aegean Sea and the Danube from Greece via Northern Macedonia and Serbia (Thessaloniki-Belgrade). This canal would contribute to shortening the supply routes of Central Europe, from a navigation perspective, but would reduce the amount of ship traffic transiting Romania and Bulgaria and the objective of contributing to the stabilisation of the Black Sea, Serbia under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, might rather show differences of vision due to strategic reasons related to its partnership with Vladimir Putin.
The idea by Nicolae Iorga and Take Ionescu that a canal linking the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, respectively Poland to Ukraine and Romania (Vistula/Gdansk-Galati – 72 km), representing a Romanian-Polish connection with commercial and security implications, may be a solution to consider in the future.
President Erdoğan’s Istanbul Channel project, which was intended to be completed by 2024, is still a regional solution. Lack of financial funds have caused this deadline to be postponed. Its governance regime is a current and future issue to be considered.
But also the Nipru-Bug canal, seen as a bridge between the Baltic and the Black Sea, is a solution, but not of interest today, due to the geographical conditioning of transiting Belarus.
Multiple studies available in independent academic and think-tank spaces show that these potential channels would increase regional trade flows and tourism, irrigation potential in agriculture, could reduce cargo pollution, and smaller military vessels can sail from the planetary ocean to the Black Sea without being subject to the limitations of the Montreux Convention that empowers Turkey to restrict access of military vessels through the two straits if it feels threatened.

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