Stepping Up NATO's Presence in the Black Sea Region: Causes and Consequences

The stepping up of NATO's military presence in the Black Sea region has been observed since at least 2014. It has been implemented as part of a broader agenda related to the aggravation of relations between Russia and the West, and the deterrence policy adopted by the Alliance. Activity affecting the Black Sea region has historically been somewhat overshadowed by the standoff in the Baltic region. In particular, in the south, there is no direct land border between Russia and any of the NATO member states. Nevertheless, Romania is in the Black Sea region, which is one of the main lobbyists of the deterrence policy against Russia. It is no coincidence that when NATO Secretary General met with the leader of this country, ritual words were said about the strategic importance of the Black Sea region.

The Black Sea is another theatre of bilateral brinkmanship, which NATO and Russia conduct for lack of options for resolving their current political contradictions. This is not done for the sake of impressing the opposing side as much as it's done by each party as a show for their own interest groups and voters. In this regard, it is not surprising that the Western side tries to cry louder, drawing attention to the ongoing military activity, which makes it possible to better mobilise a heterogeneous alliance for a common cause. From the point of view of political brinkmanship, the Black Sea region even has some comparative advantages over the Baltic Sea. The absence of a direct land border between NATO and Russia, as well as the relatively lower density of civilian air routes, can give rise to the idea that the risks of unintentional escalation are lower than on the northern flank. As the situation in the Baltics stabilises, which we can observe happening over the past few years, incentives for expanding NATO activities in the south are on the increase. 

The aforementioned intensification of military activity has several dimensions, including NATO warships and an increase in the number of aircraft in the Black Sea region. The events in the Kerch Strait in 2018 provoked additional NATO attention in the region. Speculation about this incident is often used in the argumentation in support of increasing the presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea. At the same time, the activity of extra-regional powers in this sea is still significantly limited by the Montreux Convention, which limits the passage of their warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Until now Turkey, which controls these straits, has strictly monitored the implementation of the Montreux provisions regarding the types and displacement of vessels crossing them. As a result, the activities of the Alliance in the region are facing external limitations.

The meeting between the NATO Secretary General and the leader of Romania and the relative statements are largely intended to symbolically encourage a high level devotion to the North Atlantic structures. The Romanian leadership feels a kind of envy that in the context of the alliance’s efforts to contain Russia, although the lion's share of attention is paid to Poland and the Baltic countries. Meanwhile, Bucharest demonstrates no less loyalty to the NATO institutions and the United States. Even before joining NATO, Romania gave Washington access to its military facilities - due to the similar environmental conditions, the Romanian infrastructure was used by the United States to train the European command forces heading to Iraq. In 2015, the first Aegis Ashore complex was deployed in Romania as part of the European segment of the US and NATO missile defence system.

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In this regard, Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban and Jens Stoltenberg made an important statement for the Russian side, confirming the current lack of plans to expand missile defence infrastructure in Romania. Speculation on this issue was intensified due to the collapse of the Russian-American IMF Treaty. Despite the fact that the prospects for missile defence systems deployment are determined primarily by Washington, the assurances of a senior NATO representative on this issue is a useful signal.

As for the prospects for relations between Ukraine and Georgia and NATO, in the practical sense, they are already extremely intense. For example, the Georgian armed forces are already fully integrated into the North Atlantic Alliance. A manifestation of this was the active participation of Tbilisi in the operations of the Alliance, including the Afghan conflict. Regarding the Ukrainian armed forces, the situation is more complicated, but they are also actively adopting NATO standards and their potential has increased significantly in comparison with the first half of the 2010s. The political links between Ukraine and NATO are limited by the position of Hungary, which seeks to use its participation in NATO to put pressure on Kiev with respect to bilateral issues (particularly language policy). However, we should not overestimate the practical implications of these restrictions.

At the same time, the expansion of NATO activity in the Black Sea region does not increase either Georgia's or Ukraine's prospects for formal entry into the alliance. Rather, this expansion means to replace the lack of grounds for advancement in this matter for the foreseeable future. Both the Georgian-South Ossetian war of 2008 and the Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014 had some sobering significance for the Western understanding of where the real red lines are for Russia and what poses a threat to the country's security in the eyes of the Russian leadership. Bearing in mind how rapidly the Western position on the issue of NATO expansion was changing in the mid-1990s, it is worth starting from the fact that today, the hope of NATO membership is neither real for Kiev, nor for Tbilisi. 

Returning to the general situation in the Black Sea region, it is worth emphasising once again that NATO’s build-up of military activity is largely symbolic and in essence does not change the balance of power. In military and political terms, the key change in the strategic situation in the region came in 2014: the entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation, among other things, provided an additional impetus for modernisation and the build-up of Russian forces on the peninsula. The geographical location of Crimea itself provides Moscow with a fairly comfortable position in terms of ensuring the military aspects of national security in the Black Sea. In this regard, there is no real reason to reassess Romania’s attempts to stimulate some kind of NATO activity on the southern flank.

An important circumstance, which also corresponds to Russian interests in the Black Sea, is the increased independence of Ankara’s position. Despite the fact that the latter remains a member of NATO, it has distanced itself from the Western allies, especially after the attempted military coup in 2016. Despite the fact that the partnership between Russia and Turkey is saddled with a number of serious contradictions, for Ankara it is not advantageous to aggravate relations with Moscow in a situation where it sees in the Euro-Atlantic partners as almost the main threat to its political regime.

In the current conditions, it is difficult to count on the resumption of the plans for the development of Black Sea cooperation that were born in the 2000s, but the risks of the bloc confrontation spreading in this region should not be overestimated.

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