To ensure security in the Black Sea region.Author: Aurel POPA
For the past three decades, Russia has used the Black Sea region as a buffer zone against the West, maintaining control over it through protracted conflicts such as those in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These conflicts have been designed to prevent Western influence in this key region.
Russia has stepped up its aggression, culminating in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 through military intervention. This action was a turning point for NATO and the United States, which had to reassess their position in the region.
NATO responded to this new challenge by transforming its posture from defensive to deterrent, expanding its responsiveness and strengthening its regional operations in terms of logistics, personnel and technology. This new approach has enabled NATO to be prepared to act quickly in the event of further Russian aggression.
At the same time, the United States proposed and eventually placed a missile shield in Romania and Poland, which has become an important pillar of regional security. The missile shield was designed to protect Europe against ballistic threats from the Middle East, but also to deter Russian aggression.
However, some European countries initially opposed the deployment of the missile shield, citing the risk of inflaming tensions with Russia. But this changed when Russian aggression became clear and imminent, and European countries realised they had to work with the US and NATO to protect their regional security.
In response to the growing threats from Russia, which has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. in 2015, Romania and Poland proposed a project called New Bucharest, or B9 . The initiative included Romania, Poland and seven other Central and Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The aim of this initiative was to strengthen cooperation between these countries and enhance security in the Black Sea region by ensuring a military presence and a rapid response capability in case of threats.
This initiative aimed to provide a regional format for NATO, through which issues of importance to the alliance’s eastern flank, including those related to the Black Sea, could be addressed. However, despite this project, the southern component of the B9, i.e. Romania and Bulgaria, as well as the entire Black Sea area, did not receive the necessary attention from the alliance, compared to the northern component of the B9, which includes Poland and the Baltic states, which are more vocal in promoting their security interests. This imbalance needs to be addressed by NATO.
NATO and the United States have made significant efforts to strengthen the Alliance’s northern flank in recent years. This area includes the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Poland, which felt vulnerable to Russian aggression.
In 2016, NATO decided to deploy four multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to provide a stronger military presence in the region. These battalions are led by different Alliance nations and consist of around 1,000 troops. In addition, NATO has increased the level of training and exercises in the region and improved the infrastructure to allow faster deployment of troops and equipment when needed.
The United States has also played an important role in strengthening the Alliance’s northern flank. In 2017, the United States inaugurated a new permanent military base in Poland, housing approximately 4,500 US troops. In addition, the United States has conducted joint military exercises with the Baltics and Poland and provided advanced military equipment such as missile defense systems and Abrams tanks.
The United States has also stepped up its investment in Poland’s defence capabilities, including through the implementation of a regional security initiative called the Three Seas Initiative, which includes other Central and Eastern European countries. This initiative aims to improve regional infrastructure and strengthen energy and security cooperation.
The Three Seas Initiative is a platform for regional cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which includes 12 EU Member States: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The concept was launched in 2015 by the Presidents of Poland and Croatia, with the aim of developing economic, energy and transport cooperation between the member states and reducing the economic and development gaps between them and Western European countries.
The initiative focuses on regional connectivity projects, including the development of transport and energy infrastructure, the development of the digital market, and the development of the research and innovation sector.
The implementation of the concept is coordinated by a Big Three Initiative Secretariat, which is based in Poland and organises an annual summit of leaders from the 12 member countries. In addition, the Initiative works with other regional organisations, such as the European Union and NATO, to support the development and security of the region.
Efforts to strengthen NATO’s northern and south-eastern flanks have been aimed at enhancing security and stability in these strategic regions for the Alliance. While both regions face unique threats and challenges, there are significant differences in the approach and implementation of efforts to strengthen them.
NATO’s northern flank, which includes the Baltic States and Poland, has traditionally been considered one of the most vulnerable regions within the alliance. NATO has therefore made significant efforts to strengthen security in this area, starting with the implementation of a robust military presence through troop rotations, the establishment of military bases and the expansion of defensive capabilities, including missile defence. NATO has also expanded exercises and training activities in the region and strengthened cooperation with partners in the Baltic Sea area.
On the other hand, NATO’s south-eastern flank, which includes Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, has been seen as less exposed to military threats from Russia and other regional actors, which has proved to be detrimental in the current context.
In recent years, multilateral initiatives and international bodies, such as NATO and the EU, have failed to ensure security and stability in the Black Sea area, due to the absence of coordinated cooperation between member states and the specificity of the conflicts in the region. In this context, it is important to ask ourselves how we can address these problems in order to ensure security and the balance of power in the area.
One of the possible approaches is to engage directly with the conflict areas in the region, at the expense of an international perspective. This involves looking at local specificities and regional interdependencies to develop more targeted solutions tailored to the concrete situation in each area.
Romania has continuously advocated over the last five years for increased attention and significant strengthening of NATO’s south-eastern flank, highlighting the strategic importance of the Black Sea where vulnerabilities are now taking their toll. Russia’s war against Ukraine is essentially a maritime war.
The war in Ukraine has led to a rediscovery of the strategic importance of the Black Sea and the regional dimension of its security, stability and economic development in times of war and peace. It is precisely this regional aspect that must be taken into account by policy-makers as they develop strategies to manage the conflict and its consequences.
Following the incident of the intentional downing of the US unmanned aircraft caused by the intervention of Russian planes in the international waters of the Black Sea, some comments made by retired senior US naval officers have appeared in the press highlighting the naval vulnerability of Bulgaria and Romania.
The current vulnerability in the Romanian naval forces has at least two major aspects.
Most importantly, the consistent policy within NATO and its strategic partner of not challenging Russia by considering the Turkish naval force to be an effective deterrent, which has proven to be false. A case in point is the only Romanian submarine designed by the Russians specifically for the fight against nuclear-powered submarines with a particularly small acoustic footprint. The discovery of the Iranian Kilo class submarines was a priority for the strategic partner, who had the opportunity to study it in Romania, as the level of acoustic vibrations at hull level with the aggregates switched on was extremely low. Before joining NATO and in the early years, Romania benefited from NATO and American advice. As regards the submarine, which could be easily commissioned by simply changing the batteries, the advice was that this investment was not necessary as Romania did not need this capability.
The second aspect is given by the response of political decision-makers who, like part of the press, when the question of financing and equipping the army was raised, responded with reference to Article 5 of the treaty for more than two decades, systematically neglecting Romania’s security interests.
NATO and the EU have failed to develop a common strategy for the Black Sea due to diverging interests of member states and different threat perceptions. This was a costly misstep, as it allowed Russia to expand its influence and destabilise the region by supporting separatism in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is a stark reminder of the strategic importance of the region and the need for a regional approach to ensure its stability and development. It is now essential to develop a coherent and common strategy for the Black Sea, taking into account the interests of all Member States and focusing on ensuring Europe’s energy security, promoting economic cooperation and preventing conflicts.
From a diplomatic perspective, the US should focus its policy in the Black Sea region on Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Romania is the best option for hosting all NATO forces in this area, and through the Danube-Black Sea canal network, it allows for the efficient transfer of forces, thus avoiding the limitations on naval movements imposed by the Montreux Convention.
In order to develop an effective strategy for the Black Sea region, it is necessary to focus on the maritime aspects of this area. In this respect, US military investment in Romanian ports would be essential, with a particular focus on the port of Constanta, but also on Danube ports such as Galati and Braila. The allocation of significant resources for the development of military forces in the Black Sea region would also be essential. Particular attention should be paid to anti-ship missile units, air defences and long-range artillery to ensure that there is the capability to respond quickly and effectively to any Russian challenge. In addition, the US should develop its standing rotational forces in the Black Sea region, which would enhance its ability to conduct surveillance, patrol and intervention operations when needed. In conclusion, a well-developed and implemented maritime strategy could be key to the security and stability of the Black Sea and the surrounding region.
The Montreux Convention, which regulates access of foreign warships to the Black Sea, imposes a number of restrictions in this respect. However, from a legal point of view, there is a possibility for the US and other NATO states to deploy long-range anti-ship missile boats under 1000 t displacement on the Danube and the Danube-Black Sea channel without violating the Montreux Convention. In general military vessels have a relatively small draught. For example, corvettes are up to 3m and missile boats 2.5m. In this regard, NATO and the US could consider developing a force, comprising fast and efficient missile boats, specifically designed to counter large Russian platforms in the Black Sea.
This strategy would provide an opportunity for the US and NATO states to increase their military presence in the Black Sea and strengthen their strategic position in the region. It would also allow countering Russian capabilities in the Black Sea that could pose a threat to NATO ships and interests in the region.
In addition, this approach would provide a solution to the restrictions imposed by the Montreux Convention, which limits access of foreign warships to the Black Sea. Instead of focusing on large warships, which could be restricted by the convention, the US and NATO states could use smaller, more maneuverable ships with considerable firepower.
Senators Mitt Romney and Jeanne Shaheen introduced the Black Sea strategy bill last year. It calls on the US government to create a comprehensive Black Sea strategy, including mechanisms for regional political, military and economic engagement and a clear plan to counter Russian aggression in the Black Sea. A coherent Black Sea strategy would recognize the US interest in the Black Sea as a gateway to the Eurasian heartland, identify as a goal the creation of a dominant maritime position in the Black Sea in collaboration with US allies and regional partners, recognize Ukraine’s role in a future Black Sea order, and create a roadmap for future strategic action in the Black Sea. A fit-for-purpose Black Sea strategy, more simply, would give US policy a coherence it currently lacks.
Specifically, the Shaheen-Romney legislation would do the following:
A stronger foreign policy toward the Black Sea region, including increased support between the U.S., NATO, and the EU, and strengthened economic ties between the U.S. and the Black Sea region;
Request an interagency report from the Administration to outline existing efforts to support democracy, security, and economic prosperity in the Black Sea region and request an outline of policy options for increased engagement;
360 days after passage of the legislation, the need for a strategy to increase military assistance and coordination with NATO and the EU, deepen economic ties, strengthen democracy and economic security, and increase security assistance with Black Sea countries.
The Black Sea is an extremely important region in geopolitical terms, representing an ongoing battleground for supremacy in Eurasia. In this context, it would be appropriate for the White House to develop a specific strategy for the Black Sea, similar to the Indo-Pacific Strategy published in February 2022. However, a much more detailed strategic document is needed that identifies US interests in the region and provides a clear direction for military, economic and political action in collaboration with US regional allies.
Such a strategy would provide an opportunity to strengthen the US presence in the region and promote its interests more effectively. It would also allow for the creation of a network of alliances and partnerships to help ensure stability and security in the region. In addition, by developing a specific strategy for the Black Sea, the US would be able to demonstrate its commitment to its regional allies and give them a clear direction for joint action.
In conclusion, the development of a Black Sea strategy is essential to advancing US interests in the region and strengthening the US position in Eurasia. This strategic document should provide a clear direction for military, economic and political action in cooperation with regional allies, thereby helping to ensure stability and security in the region.
“Romania and the Eastern Flank of NATO” (2021), by Ciprian Sandu, published in Geopolitical Affairs
“NATO’s Strategic Approach to the Black Sea Region” (2020), by Oana Popescu-Zamfir, published in NATO Defense College Research Paper
“The Black Sea Region and NATO’s Southern Flank” (2021), by E. Noulas and P. Tzimitras, published in NATO Defense College Research Paper
“NATO’s Eastern Flank: A Strategic Transformation” (2018), by Keir Giles, published by Chatham House
“NATO’s Southern Flank: Challenges, Drivers and Trends” (2018), edited by Fernando Reinares and Carola Garcia-Calvo, published by the Elcano Royal Institute.
 Admiral(rtr) PhD. Aurel POPA, President of the Maritime Security Forum