The sabre-rattling in Ukraine is heating up the Black Sea

As things heat up between Russia and Ukraine, George Vișan explains the stakes for each player and the strategic landscape in the Black Sea region.

Seven years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea and began a proxy war against Ukraine. These events marked the beginning of the most brutal and serious armed conflict in the Black Sea region since the end of World War II. The advent of war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 has had a negative impact on the regional security environment. Furthermore, subsequent events have changed the regional balance of force in Russia’s favour. 

Russia: projecting force within the Black Sea region and beyond

Since 2014 the Russian Federation has been engaged in a proxy war against its neighbour Ukraine. The purpose of the Kremlin’s military campaign against Kyiv has been to stop it from joining the West and thus bring Western influence closer to Russia’s border. Russia claims the former republics of the Soviet Union as its own sphere of influence.1Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 when it became clear that rather than joining Russia’s Eurasian Union, the country would have preferred to have closer relations with the West, by signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Russian elites construed Ukraine’s option for the EU as a further step towards NATO accession. Despite being a part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Ukraine’s NATO accession was not on the table in 2014 and seemed a very unrealistic possibility. There was no consensus in 2014 within Ukraine in favour of becoming a NATO member, and there was no consensus within the Alliance for Ukraine to join it. 

In February 2014, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms took over military installations in Crimea, as well as key civilian infrastructure. On 18 March 2014, Crimea was officially annexed by the Russian Federation after an illegal referendum. In parallel with its actions in Crimea, Russian-sponsored individuals started a breakaway movement in eastern Ukraine, in the coal-rich and mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region. When Ukrainian armed forces decisively beat back the rebels in Donbass, Russian forces intervened on their behalf, decimating the Ukrainian troops with precision fire and armoured assaults.

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and the ongoing Normandy Format talks, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine to this day. Russia is fighting a proxy war of attrition against Ukraine, the goal of which is to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to turn Kyiv away from its Western path. 

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “Russia’s strategic goals in the Black Sea include maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and facilitating the defense of the Russian homeland. In the Eastern Mediterranean Russia seeks to expand power projection capabilities, demonstrate expeditionary reach to potential partners and influence a variety of ongoing diplomatic issues in its favor”2

The value and relevance of the annexation was proven in 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in Syria using Crimea as the main staging ground for the operation. The only limitations regarding the use of Crimea as a power projection asset are geographical and legal: the Straits of Bosporus & the Dardanelles, and the Montreux Convention. In the Black Sea, Russia’s military presence is reinforced by its naval base at Novorossiysk and by the troops deployed in the breakaway ‘republics’ of Abkhazia and Ossetia, in Georgia. 

Over the past seven years Russia has managed to gradually overturn the military balance in the region in its favour. Moreover, the Kremlin has learned how to take advantage of the existing differences between NATO members and use it to its favour. Turkey’s grievances with the US, Greece and France have been exploited and used as a wedge against NATO.

One of the Russian Federation’s main priorities after it took over Crimea from Ukraine has been to revamp the military assets based in the peninsula: the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), air bases for naval aviation and the Russian Air Space Forces, as well as infrastructure for the land forces. 

Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has received six new Kilo class submarines and three new Admiral Grigorovich class guided missile frigates. It should have received six of this new type of guided missile frigate, but Ukraine cut off the supply of turbine engines. Nevertheless, until Russian industry can replace the Ukrainian turbines with similar products, in place of the three frigates, the Black Sea Fleet has received small missile corvettes capable of launching land attack cruise missiles. Moreover, the shipyards in Crimea have started building fast attack craft for the Russian navy. 

The Crimean peninsula has been transformed into a ‘strategic bastion‘ by Russia in order to protect its territorial acquisition as well as to project power. It has also become one of the places where Russia showcases its latest military technology, for both strategic reasons and marketing purposes. In Crimea the Kremlin has deployed S-400 Triumf long-range integrated air defence systems, as well as Bal & Bastion-P coastal defence systems3. It has created an area denial and anti-access (A2/AD) network  which secures the newly acquired territory, provides a good air and maritime picture, increases the cost to outside actors of projecting force, and allows it to blackmail neighbouring countries into submission during a crisis. In the near future Russia will improve its surveillance and awareness of the Black and Mediterranean Seas by deploying the Voronezh-SM long range radar in Sevastopol4.

Lacking new large surface combatants, the Russian navy has been forced to deploy Kalibr cruise missile on every newly commissioned submarine and surface combatant.5 This tendency towards ‘Kalibri-sation’, as the Military Balance has called it, is being used to compensate for the newer and larger surface ships which are now beyond the capabilities of the Russian shipyards, as well as for the cost of such vessels. It represents a trend for escalation dominance and operational flexibility, as the Kalibr missile in its land attack variant is capable of hitting targets as far as 2000 km away. 

Of particular note for the Black Sea region is the development and deployment of the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. This is likely an Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile adapted for launch from MiG-31K long-range interceptors6. Its stated purpose is to take out ballistic missile defence interceptor bases, such as the one at Deveselu in Romania. This particular combination of missile and aircraft was first deployed in the Southern Military District which encompasses the Black Sea region. This is a very potent combination of carrier and vector: the MiG-31 is a high-speed long-range interceptor designed at the height of the Cold War to deal with US SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The Iskander-M is equipped with an electro-optical guidance system which allows is to make terminal manoeuvres before hitting its target. The MiG-31K and the Kinzhal could be used to strike time-sensitive targets in the region such as air bases, naval bases and reinforced command centres. 

Russia plans to further escalate the arms race in the Black Sea region by deploying the first hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile in the world, the 3M22 Zirconwhich is currently undergoing operational testing. If the system works as advertised by Kremlin propaganda, it will provide the Russian Navy with a capability without parallel in NATO navies. Moscow considers hypersonic weapon systems as a major component of its conventional deterrence. 

Of particular concern for US planners is the so-called ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy, which is defined as “a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use”. The Kremlin could use this strategy in a potential conventional war against NATO to secure territory Russia seizes by threatening and even using tactical nuclear weapons. However, it must be noted that this strategy has not been mentioned in any Russian policy-planning document, but has been inferred by US military and nuclear weapons experts.

Although Russia seems to have achieved some sort of local military superiority, it has by no means overtaken NATO. Overall the Alliance, and the United States in particular, still have the lead. However, Russia is trying to use some of its few competitive advantages in missile technology to offset NATO’s military preponderance by trying to exploit its dependence on follow-on reinforcements.19 The process of modernising the Russian armed forces began in 2011, but has not yet been completed. Russia’s armed forces still depend on battalion tactical groups (BTGs, similar to Western battle groups) rather than standing operational military formations. Russian forces now have around 136 battalion tactical groups made up exclusively of professional soldiers; the target is 200 such groups20

Russia’s military posture may not be sustainable in the future for a multitude of overlapping reasons. First, Russia has overextended itself militarily over the past seven years: it has been involved in conflicts or has deployed troops to Ukraine, Syria and Libya. It maintains a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and has plans to build bases in the region. Losses from these conflicts have mounted over the years, sapping political support at home. Second, its economy has been affected by the cumulative effects of the sanctions imposed after 2014, the drop in oil prices and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, with access to Western technology being curtailed, Russian defence programs have stalled or been delayed7. Third, the pandemic is forcing the Kremlin to pay attention to domestic developments. The handling of the SARS-CoV 2 pandemic has not been stellar, Russian authorities being forced to acknowledge at the start of 2021 that more Russians have died of the pandemic than previously announced. Finally, the protests that have developed following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his subsequent arrest is forcing the Kremlin to prioritise the survival of the regime, rather than force projection.

In the ex-Soviet space, Russia’s reputation as an ally and security provider has taken a serious hit after Azerbaijan’s success in reclaiming some of its territory in the Nagorno Karabakh region, following a short but highly sophisticated war in 2020. Moreover, an outside power (Turkey) has been allowed to give military support to a client state (Azerbaijan) in Moscow’s ‘backyard’ (Central Asia) without visible consequences. The security guarantees provided by the CSTO and Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its near aboard have been called into question. In the case of Armenia, the Kremlin has sacrificed strategic credibility for dubious local political gains.

Russia presents a complex strategic picture of military and diplomatic prowess, but also of political fragility. This situation defines Moscow more as a regional actor, with some limited capabilities of power projection, than as a global player which could keep up with the US or China. However, this disparity between capabilities and status should not lead to underestimating Moscow’s will to generate instability in its near abroad. 

NATO: a two-speed approach for the eastern flank 

Seven years after the annexation of Crimea and five years after NATO’s Warsaw Summit, the alliance is maintaining a two-speed approach for the eastern flank: Poland and the three Baltic states are recipients of the Enhanced Forward Presence force-posture approach, while Romania and Bulgaria have to make do with the Tailored Forward Presence. A two-speed approach regarding the security and defence of the eastern flank is not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture. The Trump administration exacerbated this issue with a schizoid policy regarding NATO and a Janus-faced approach to Russia. Despite deploying more troops on the eastern flank and allocating more funds to the European Deterrence Initiative, the Trump administration did not fundamentally alter NATO’s military posture on the eastern flank.8 Moreover, it failed to articulate a new NATO strategic concept; also, President Trump’s instinctive distrust of multilateral alliances dealt a severe blow to the Alliance’s cohesion. The decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw troops from Germany, because Berlin was not meeting its 2% of GDP spending target and for supporting the ill-conceived North Stream 2 gas pipeline, has needlessly exacerbated relations with one of Washington’s most important allies in Europe and has called its commitment to Europe’s security into question.9 Overall, the American attitude towards NATO in the past four years has had a negative impact on the Alliance’s cohesion, and has contributed to what President Emmanuel Macron has termed NATO’s ‘brain death‘. 

If Washington exposed profound divisions between the president and the deep
administration over strategic directions and tactical execution, some Western European members have sent mixed signals that have negatively impacted NATO’s posture on the eastern flank. Germany and France have indeed deployed troops in the Baltic states and Poland; however, Berlin is still underinvesting in defence and cooperating with Russia in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Paris considers terrorism to be the greatest security threat it faces, and is mainly focused on the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.10 The eastern flank is merely an afterthought on the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay – or even a source of irritation, when the countries in the region acquire US military equipment11

Turkey: NATO’s linchpin in the Black Sea region

Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits combined with its military prowess, make it the most important alliance member in the Black Sea region. However, most of Turkey’s strategic attention has been focused on the Mediterranean Sea, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as far as the Indian Ocean. However, the main issue with Turkish foreign policy is not necessarily its reach, but its predictability. 

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus. Most debates concerning Turkey right now concentrate on its dispute with Greece over maritime exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean, the procurement of the S-400 Triumf integrated air defence system and its descent into authoritarianism. Turkey has a complex relationship with Russia, characterised both by competition and cooperation. The Kremlin did indeed exacerbate the tensions existing between Ankara and its western allies over Syria, Iraq and the attempted coup in 2016 in order to separate it from the Western alliance. However, Turkey proved to be a genuine competitor to Russia in Syria, Libya and in the South Caucasus. Ankara was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s successful campaign in Nagorno Karabakh and deployed advisors, foreign fighters and state-of-the-art military equipment in support of the Azeri forces. In Libya in 2020, Turkish equipment and military advisors helped the GNA to stem the attacks launched by the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose main supporter is Russia12

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus.

Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 missile system is both a cautionary tale of political hubris and diplomatic brinkmanship as well as a lesson to the rest of the Alliance. Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the military assistance it received in protecting its territory from ballistic missile attacks and air raids during the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Ankara has technical and technological ambitions that the Western allies have not taken seriously, as they have not offered a level of technological cooperation commensurate with Turkey’s expectations. The Turkish defence industry has progressed a great deal, and the Turkish authorities want to cash in by creating lucrative partnerships with large Western manufacturers. Technical cooperation concerning the development of an integrated air defence system would represent a high-tech prestige project for Turkey which would emphasise the advancements in science, technology and military power Ankara has made over the past 100 years in general, and under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in particular. In the case of the S-400 procurement, Erdoğan felt that his country was not being taken seriously and needed to send a signal to its allies in NATO. However, his brinkmanship may have not paid off, as the United States has eliminated Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter programme and has imposed a number of sanctions against it. The F-35 programme is far more lucrative in financial terms, and has more cutting-edge technology than what the Russian Federation may offer in the long run. 

The Kremlin may have overplayed its hand when it comes to separating Ankara from the US and its NATO allies. Despite the ongoing controversies regarding the Erdoğan regime, Ankara’s disputes with Athens in the Eastern Mediterranean, tensions with Paris over Libya and Syria and with Washington over the S-400 procurement and Syria, Turkey remains anchored within the Western camp and disapproves of Moscow’s policies in the Black Sea. Turkey is helping Ukraine rebuild its navy and its shipbuilding industry by selling its latest type of multirole corvette. In 2020, Turkey discovered a rich gas field in the Black Sea13. This discovery may help resolve some of the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, while at the same time focusing Ankara’s attention on the Black Sea. 

Romania: the fulcrum of NATO in the Black Sea region

The importance of Romania for the Western alliance has steadily grown since it became a member of NATO in 2004. Bucharest’s strategic partnership with Washington its and support during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have enhanced Romania’s strategic profile. In 2011, Romania along with Poland became the host nations for the US ballistic defence system in Europe. Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance, that is NATO and the European Union. A defining feature of Romania’s strategic posture is the large popular support enjoyed by NATO and the EU in the country, as well as the general consensus of its political elites concerning the benefits of being a member of these two organisations. 

The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine began in 2014 have greatly affected Romania’s security posture in the Black Sea. For the first time since World War II the region has become a theatre of war. The main threat in Bucharest’s perception is the re-emergence of the use of force as the primary means of resolving disputes between states and territorial revisionism.14

After 2014 Romania’s diplomatic and military efforts concentrated on improving its defence posture by allocating 2% of its GDP to defence, securing the deployment of NATO and US troops on its territory in order to deter any potential aggression, and promoting a Black Sea agenda in NATO and the EU, in order to maintain the international diplomatic focus on the region. Bucharest has been moderately successful in its efforts to improve its strategic posture in the face of the Russian challenge.

Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance.

Largely neglected until 2014, defence procurement plays an important role in counterbalancing Russia. In 2017 Bucharest began an ambitious defence acquisition programme worth €9.3 billion in order to revamp its military. However, after four years most of Romania’s procurement programmes are suffering from delays due to litigation, and have been implemented later than originally planned15. The branch of the Romanian armed forces most affected is the Romanian Naval Forces, which have seen all of their procurement programmes delayed. Without a modern navy, Romania cannot be a credible actor in the Black Sea region.

After 2014, the US and NATO deployed troops on the eastern flank of the alliance on a rotational basis. Ever since becoming a member of NATO, one of Romania’s main aims within the Alliance has been to host US or allied troops on its territory on a permanent basis. The rotational nature of the US and allied forces deployed in Romania is suboptimal, and not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture on the eastern flank. This is made worse by the alliance not treating the eastern flank as a single, coherent space. The distinction made between Enhanced Forward Presence status for Poland and the Baltic states on one hand, and Tailored Forward Presence for Romania and Bulgaria on the other, translates into a less credible deterrence posture on the southern tip of the flank. Although Bucharest has been lobbying to have this status changed, it has so far failed to achieve a change of policy. 

The Trump administration, despite improving the US presence on the eastern flank, also introduced an element of unpredictability, as was demonstrated by the ill-conceived decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw US troops from Germany.16 Most of those troops would have been sent back to the US, while the rest would have been deployed on the eastern flank and in Italy. Worse, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit originally deployed to Romania and Poland in 2015, would have been sent back to the US. Besides the political hurdles Romania faces concerning the deployment of Alliance troops on its territory, the country’s poor infrastructure hinders the deployment, mobility and re-enforcement of US and NATO forces.

Nevertheless, despite Romania’s misgivings regarding the status of US and NATO troops on its territory, there have been some palpable benefits for Bucharest. The US has pre-positioned heavy equipment in Romania and is investing in modernising Romanian military bases. Recently the US has deployed unmanned Predator aerial vehicles at the Câmpia Turzii air base in order to improve the Alliance’s naval command over the Black Sea. Moreover, Bucharest is hosting a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU), the Headquarters Multinational Division South-East, East, the Multinational Brigade South-East, and is also investing in modernising its basesespecially Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanța. 

Romania is promoting a Black Sea agenda within NATO and the EU. The most successful diplomatic projects so far have been the Bucharest Nine forum (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The B9 is an intra-alliance forum which promotes the issues of eastern flank, while the Three Seas Initiative promotes economic development for the member states in the EU adjoining the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas. 

Bulgaria – the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank?

Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. On one hand there is the cultural and historic relationship between Bulgaria and Russia; on the other, Sofia is a member of both NATO and the EU. Bulgaria’s security dilemma in the Black Sea is further complicated by its fraught relationship with Turkey. Sofia is concerned at Turkey expanding its influence into the Western Balkans. Moreover, Bulgaria wants to leverage its geographic position in order to become an energy hub in the region. Consequently, Sofia’s policy is oriented towards avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, but also maintaining and benefitting from its status as NATO and EU member.

Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region.

Compared with the eastern flank’s northern tip, the southern tip has not agreed on a particular strategic assessment regarding the threat posed by the Kremlin. Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region. When Romania proposed in 2016 the creation of a Black Sea flotilla to train and patrol in the region, Bulgaria initially agreed to the Romanian project, but then withdrew its support for the project before NATO’s Warsaw Summit. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov then stated that he wants to see “sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists, and not becoming an arena of military action … I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”17

In the Black Sea region Bulgaria, along with Romania, are the only regional states that are both members of the EU and NATO. They are also among the poorest members of these international organisations, which limits their defence capabilities as well as their regional influence. Sofia has started to modernise its air force and its navy, after a long period of time in which it had underinvested in defence. Bulgaria has bought 8 F-16 Block 70 multirole fighters, and it is likely to buy 8 more in the near future in order to have an operational squadron. Lürsen has won a tender to build two multirole patrol ships, roughly equivalent to multirole corvettes. Bulgarian is participating in the Multi-National Brigade South East, based in Romania. The United States uses four Bulgarian bases and training facilities in Bulgaria, and will deploy 2500 troops in the country over the next 10 years.

In Russia’s assessment Bulgaria may be the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank. This is proven by the latest espionage scandal that has affected Bulgarian-Russian relations and has cast doubt over Sofia’s credibility as a NATO ally. A network of six Bulgarian active and retired military personnel has been caught spying for Russia. What made matters worse is that some of its members were officers in the military intelligence service of the Bulgarian armed forces. 

Ukraine needs to maintain diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas

Kyiv is currently facing a triple challenge. First, there is the conflict in the Donbas that has yet to be resolved. Second, the pandemic has affected Ukraine quite hard, and the government has had trouble finding vaccines for inoculating its citizens. Third, it has been difficult to continue the democratic upgrade of Ukraine’s institutions while fighting a war. 

Russia failed spectacularly in 2014 when it decided to use force against Ukraine in order to support its proxies in the east of the country. The Kremlin’s main aim was to undermine and irreparably damage Ukrainian sovereignty; but despite this, Ukraine managed to survive the Russian armed onslaught. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong. It reconfirmed the old political science adage that ‘states make war and war makes the state’18; Ukrainian statehood has been consolidated by the conflict. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 as Ukraine’s president demonstrated both the country’s capacity to resist prolonged aggression, as well as the need for structural reforms in order to make the state more accountable to its citizens.

Ukraine is trying to build up its civilian and military institutions with the help of the West. Nevertheless, the help that has come from Europe and the US has not come without controversies. Germany and France insist that the conflict in Ukraine is civilian in nature and does not represent an instance of foreign aggression. The Minsk and Normandy negotiation formats are premised on this notion, and consequently favour Russia. The Kremlin has consistently ignored the Minsk agreements, despite Kyiv adhering to them. The lack of US participation in both formats further tips the scale in Moscow’s favour. 

Although NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine within its ranks in the near future, it has helped the Ukrainian military deal with the Russian threat. Advisers and trainers from NATO countries helped the Ukrainian armed forces get back on their feet after the initial defeats at Donețsk and Ilovaysk. The US, Turkey and the UK are providing training and are selling naval vessels to Ukraine to rebuild its navy. Non-lethal and lethal equipment has been donated or sold to the Ukrainian military; most importantly Washington has provided Kyiv with Javelin anti-tank missiles to deal with advanced Russian armour. Unfortunately, in the case of US military aid this has been entangled in American partisan politics. As the 2020 elections approached the Trump administration conditioned US military aid on Kyiv providing incriminating evidence on Donald Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. When the information was leaked to the press it led to Trump’s first impeachment trial; the scandal came close to compromising US-Ukrainian relations.

Kyiv has also invested its limited resources in modernising the Ukrainian armed forces. Leveraging its existing industrial base, Ukraine is developing locally designed anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles. Ukraine is forging industrial partnerships with Turkey and Poland to build tactical UAVs, multirole corvettes and advanced anti-tank missiles

Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong.

On the diplomatic front, Ukraine is trying to put Crimea on the front burner of international diplomacy by promoting the Crimea Platform project. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine still catches the eye of the international community, Crimea is being treated as de facto Russian territory. In Western chancelleries the prevailing wisdom is that Ukraine has no chance of taking back Crimea, either by peaceful means or through force. However, it is diplomatically important to keep Crimea on the international agenda, especially now that it has become an asset for Russian power projection. 

For Ukraine, maintaining diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas in the near and medium term is important. Crimea may be drowned out by other issues on the international agenda such as the pandemic, strategic arms limitations and climate change. Faced with internal pressure and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, Russia in the near future may be tempted to ‘freeze’ the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Such a development would have a negative impact on Ukraine, which would find itself in a strategic limbo. 

Georgia: resisting creeping annexation 

‘Creeping annexation’ is how Georgian officials are describing the process through which gradually Russia is annexing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first instance of military aggression in the Black Sea region and showed that ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet space can be rekindled. In 2021 Tbilisi obtained a symbolic but significant victory at the European Court of Human Rights, which acknowledged that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are under occupation and that Russia committed war crimes during the 2008 conflict. Nevertheless, this decision changes very few things on the ground. Russia’s military presence in the breakaway territories has increased, while Georgia is facing a troubling political crisis. Before the 2008 war, Georgia was described as a post-Soviet success story; now it looks more like a ‘frozen conflict success story’ for the Kremlin. 


The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia has obtained a certain military advantage at the regional level, but it is not clear whether this is sustainable over the long run. NATO and the US need to have a coherent approach to the eastern flank in order to deter Russia and secure the Black Sea. This approach should consist in viewing the eastern flank as a single and integrated military space. A unified Alliance military posture should be applied to the entire eastern flank. The U.S. should increase its presence on the eastern flank while maintaining an adequate response force in Germany. Paris and Berlin should also increase their military presence on the eastern flank: this will improve the case for European strategic autonomy. Key infrastructure for military mobility should be improved as soon as possible to improve the deployment of follow-on forces.

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia.


1 Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016)

2 Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for Lloyd J. Austin Nominee for Appointment to be Secretary of Defense, p. 39

3 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2020), p. 170

4 Ibid., p. 170

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), op. cit, p. 6

6 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2019), p. 169

7 Overall some of the comparative advantages of NATO over Russia are: better and competent command structures; the advantage of ‘home turf’ in defending the eastern flank; better training and a greater pool of experienced troops than Russia’s armed forces; better communications and command facilities; superior ISR capabilities; a more balanced force structure overall.

8 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Op. Cit, p. 171

9 Author’s conversation with a Russian defence analyst.

10 The EDI began in 2015 with $985 million in funding. The effort peaked at $6.5 billion in FY2019, while in FY2020 it was reduced to $5.91 billion. Source: Congressional Research Service, ‘The European Deterrence Initiative: A Budgetary Overview’, 16 June 2020, pp. 1-3, available at

11 Heinrich Brauß, ‘The US Troop Withdrawal Plan: Bogus Strategic Claims and a Warning Signal for Europe’, DGAP, pp. 1-3, available at

12 Interview du Président Emmanuel Macron au think tank américain Atlantic Council, Élysée, February 5, 2021, available at See also Le Grand Continent, ‘The Macron Doctrine. A conversation with the French president’, 16 November 2020, available at

13 Ibid.

14 Jason Pack and Wolfgang Pusztai, ‘Turning the Tide: How Turkey Won the War for Tripoli’, Middle East Institute, pp. 1-22, available at

15 Reuters, ‘Turkey lifts Black Sea gas field estimate after new find: Erdogan’, 17 October 2020, available at

16 Strategia Națională de Apărare a Țării pentru perioada 2020-2024: Împreună pentru o Românie sigură și prosperă într-o lume marcată de noi provocări, available at

17 George Vișan, ‘The Known Unknowns of Romania’s Defence Modernization Plans’, ROEC, 3 July 2017, available at

18 Suspended in 2021 by the Biden administration pending a review of the US military global commitments.

19 Reuters, ‘Bulgaria says will not join any NATO Black Sea fleet after Russian warning’, 16 June 2016, available at

20 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990-1990, (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1993)