The Black Sea region is becoming more and more subject to geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation. This is due to the fact that the region acts as a kind of bridge or crossroads, as it is a connecting link between Europe and Asia. Situated between Russia, Southern Europe and the Middle East with access to the Mediterranean and Central Europe, it represents much more than a zone of local importance. In fact, the Black Sea region is a geopolitical axis, the strategic importance of which is constantly growing. The region has always attracted attention and generated interest among both regional and non-regional forces; it has played a significant, and in certain historical periods decisive role in international relations.
The collapse of the USSR hurt Russian positions in the region. This was primarily due to the division of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine, including the infrastructure and related industries. On the other hand, there was a period of economic and political uncertainty in both countries, which led to a drop in the combat readiness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. As a result, Russia, for the first time in well over a century, lost its military parity in the Black Sea region. The strengthening of other countries in the region was a consequence of the weakening of Russia’s military and political influence there.
NATO has long shown an interest in the region and been active there. Between the breakup of the USSR and the 2014 Crimean independence vote, Crimea was part of Ukraine and the Black Sea Fleet, reliant upon naval bases leased from Kiev, was slowly dying; during that time, Turkey markedly strengthened its influence in the region. As a member of NATO, it has a large army and at that time had the most powerful fleet in the region, which was regularly modernised. There was an improvement in its infrastructure, including the creation of new bases on the Black Sea. In addition to rolling out technical equipment enhancements, Turkey stepped up the training of its personnel. The number of military exercises and manoeuvres conducted by Turkey in the Black Sea has been constantly growing.
In March 2014, however, the situation changed: after reuniting with Russia, Crimea again became the country’s southern strategic outpost, and Russia began the modernisation of the fleet and its infrastructure. However, many problems have not yet been resolved. In particular, the Black Sea Fleet remains the “coastal fleet” of the Soviet era with limited high seas capabilities. In 2018, 37 of the fleet’s ships had been produced before 1991, underscoring the need for their replacement. However, the commissioning, for example, of new patrol ships is complicated by the need to find new suppliers of engines to replace the old Ukrainian ones.
Of course, against this background the growing activity of NATO in the Black Sea region cannot but worry Moscow. Its militarisation will undoubtedly negatively affect the military and political landscape, and complicate the already-difficult regional security situation.
There is no need to talk about certain Euro-Atlantic prospects for Ukraine and Georgia. NATO’s “open doors” once offered to Kiev and Tbilisi will be closed indefinitely. The unfinished conflict in the South-East of Ukraine, the intentions of the Ukrainian authorities (even at the rhetorical level) to annex Crimea, and the Georgian government’s refusal to recognise of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia make these countries hopes for NATO membership very distant. However, there is no need for their formal inclusion in the Alliance. At the moment, it is a multifunctional military organisation. Since the end of the Cold War, the bloc has transformed, expanded, and acquired new functions of a non-military nature, in particular, economic, scientific, and informational ones.
For example, since 1999, in the framework of economic cooperation, a joint Ukraine-NATO project has been carried out on the language retraining of former servicemen. Annual courses are held on the drafting and implementation of the military budget for representatives of the Ukrainian ministries: economy, defence, and finance. Scientific and technological cooperation between Ukraine and NATO is developing in such areas as biotechnology, IT, technological developments and materials, industrial and power generation technology, and environmental protection.
Military cooperation is also developing. Ukraine and Georgia, despite not being members of NATO, took part in a number of its operations. Georgia in 1999 sent its peacekeepers to the Forces of Kosovo (KFOR). In 2004, it began cooperation with NATO within the framework of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Ukraine in the 1990s participated in NATO IFOR and SFOR missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and KFOR in Kosovo. Since 2003, a Ukrainian contingent has taken part in the activities of the Coalition Forces in Iraq. In 2007, Ukraine participated in Afghanistan as part of the ISAF mission. In 2005, it joined the NATO Active Endeavor operation, and also participated with individual NATO member countries in the Blackseafor and Black Sea Harmony projects.
And this all happened before 2014. Following the coup in Ukraine, cooperation only intensified. Therefore, neither Kiev nor Tbilisi need to join NATO. Despite not being members, they have been actively interacting with the bloc for many years.
Russia should give its response to NATO’s activities in the Black Sea region through the strengthening of its naval presence in the Black and Mediterranean Seas. And this, in turn, is inextricably linked with the modernisation of the Russian Navy, as well as the solution of a number of related issues, primarily the solution to the logistical problems. In addition, Russia should return to the concept of so-called “footholds” – naval bases located in strategically important regions of the globe, allowing to solve the problems of supplying and repairing Russian ships. Such bases are also called logistics facilities, and allow the fleet to solve operational tasks at strategic distances. Thus, the presence of military bases abroad is not a tribute to fashion, but an urgent need.