May 24, 2024

From Anger to Destruction: Russia in the Wider Black Sea Region

A Romanian Special Forces squad is seen on one of the decks of Romanian frigate ‘King Ferdinand’ during the Sea Shield 2024 NATO-led drill in the Black Sea, outside Constanța, on 16 April 2024.
A Romanian Special Forces squad is seen on one of the decks of Romanian frigate ‘King Ferdinand’ during the Sea Shield 2024 NATO-led drill in the Black Sea, outside Constanța, on 16 April 2024.

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has transformed the landscape in the wider Black Sea region over the last two years. Many times before had the regional countries sounded the alarm – the war was coming.

Russia could not tolerate democracy in Ukraine and democratic reforms nearby, human rights and individual liberties, economic growth and political transformations — for it set an example for the population at home. Thus, it had to kill the precedent at any cost. Having made the leap from anger to destruction, Putin’s Russia decided to bring the war back to Europe as an instrument to solve foreign problems, satisfy extreme ambitions, and keep control domestically. Nazis in Kyiv, coup d’état, NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s territory, or a messianic role to protect traditional values — any motif suits if one’s goal is to find a pretext for military aggression. 


Five Security Trends

The war in Europe has already redrawn the security architecture on land and at sea. Yet, the most exposed at this point — besides Ukraine — is the Black Sea, a landlocked sea with a sole exit via the straits of Bosphorus and Dardanelles guarded by Türkiye jealously protecting the Montreux Convention of 1936. Although not devoid of benefits, the Convention creates challenges, especially when it comes to NATO’s Article 5. 

  • The war in Ukraine has triggered evolutionary changes now unfolding in the region. It has put enormous pressure on the people of Ukraine and its military capabilities. Amid civilian infrastructure and residential areas constantly under attack, Ukrainian soldiers have to defend the country without knowing whether their families, way behind the frontline, are safe. 

In occupied Crimea, militarisation is underway at an enormous scale — beyond comparison to the Russian military presence following the 2014 annexation. Since February 2022, the peninsula has become a springboard for attacks against mainland Ukraine.

Most important, however, is a change in Russia’s de facto neighbourhood: insecurity and instability, challenges to all rules, violence or threats thereof. Now there are no rules, no delimitation, and no recognition of national borders — but aggression and use of force at sea and on land, as well as Russia’s unilateral claims on areas for its military exercises blocking those for free trade and freedom of circulation.

  • The war has amplified threats, risks, and vulnerabilities in the wider Black Sea area: nuclear, conventional, hybrid, and alike. For instance, the Kremlin has flirted with the threat of tactical nuclear weapons for information warfare purposes or deterrence and posturing — the last resort of the Soviet superpower heritage (since the Red Army proved to be a less reliable tool and weak enough to be vanquished with conventional weapons).

Conventional war is a direct threat to NATO’s eastern flank, especially to Romania. A Russian landing in Odesa and advancing towards the Danube Gorges and across the Prut River still remains a possibility. The Republic of Moldova (with its separatist region of Transnistria) makes too little difference to the strategic balance to be able to stop the Russian troops. Meanwhile, hybrid measures have drastically amplified the rifts in societies: conservatives vs progressives or even pro-Russian vs pro-Ukrainian groups. These debates flooded social media and put enormous pressure on the governments to reduce support for Ukraine. 

  • The questioning of states’ maritime borders, through aggressive policies and hampering of the delimitation processes, is a critical challenge. Albeit not a party to the Romania vs Ukraine proceedings at the International Court of Justice (The Hague), Russia is still able to defy Romania’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), endangering investments and off-shore drillings. 

Yet, the primary threat comes from naval mines. Dropped anonymously into the waters, dozens have arrived at the Black Sea shores; some have exploded, damaging civilian vessels and hurting the crews onboard. It has been affecting supply lines, raising the cost of insurance of the vessels and thus the cost of goods, including critical supplies, shipped via the Black Sea. 

To that one may add the effects of electronic warfare — a direct aggression against NATO littoral states by interfering and disrupting civilian telecommunication and GPS navigation (to say nothing of the military ramifications). GPS jamming and spoofing — although occasionally occurring before the full-scale invasion — have now become a regular problem that the littoral states have to grapple with onshore, in territorial waters, and in EEZs.

  • Critical energy and underwater infrastructure in EEZs is highly vulnerable, with Russia’s boarding of the Turkish ship in Bulgarian waters or taking over of Ukraine’s drilling platforms being just two dangerous precedents of such hostile behaviour. From pipelines to investments, there are numerous infrastructure projects in the Black Sea area. For instance, in 2023, the EU signed an agreement to bring green energy from the wind farms in Azerbaijan (on- and offshore the Absheron Peninsula in the Caspian Sea) by land through Georgia and by underwater cable to Romania. Then, there is a Europe-funded data cable that is supposed to follow the same route and is now directed via Bulgaria. 
  • Defence and deterrence. The impact of Russia’s aggression is not limited only to land capabilities and electronic warfare against Ukraine. It is, first and foremost, the problem for the naval capabilities — orientation, freedom of circulation, buzzing, and unprofessional conduct (as was the case of the UK’s destroyer HMS Defender shadowed by the Russian military while passing through the waters near Crimea in 2021).

If it is acceptable to hold freedom of navigation missions in the Taiwan Strait — it must also be so in the Black Sea where three littoral countries are NATO members. It is not only about the North-South – Odesa-Istanbul transport route, which was re-established by Ukraine through the territorial waters of Romania, Bulgaria, and Türkiye after Russia had attempted to block grain exports. It also applies to the East-West transport lanes: from Constanța to Anaklia or Batumi. These cases illustrate the threats and limitations that civilian vessels — not to mention the military ones — have been facing in the Black Sea since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Pedestrians walk past an artwork by the Chesno movement designed as a stamp depicting Russian warships sunk in the Black Sea, in the centre of Kyiv, on 15 March 2024.


The Dos and Don’ts

The wider Black Sea region cannot be separated from NATO’s eastern flank, as well as NATO’s efforts to mitigate the risks and threats arising from the war of aggression launched by Russia against Ukraine. Even in principle, we cannot accept any regional solution — even if the support for the trilateral demining mission in the Black Sea by Romania, Türkiye, and Bulgaria is here to stay. We cannot accept any NATO inside NATO” — it will only diminish the Alliance’s role in our common defence. And we cannot accept a duplication — let alone a competition — that an EU army or a similar initiative non-complementary to that of the Alliance would represent. There are, however, three practical solutions to this conundrum of security threats in the wider Black Sea region. 

  • First, it is about presence and deterrence: both the US and NATO should reconsider previous missions in the area — and resume all of them. Freedom of circulation via the Straits and in the Black Sea ports is to be affirmed and enforced. Since we are discussing the military capabilities that do not belong to the conflict parties involved in a confrontation, it would not be in violation of the Montreux Convention, stricto sensu.

Moreover, the current context is beneficial to Ukraine. It might not have achieved supremacy in the western Black Sea area, but it has denied this area to the Russian Navy through the most courageous attacks on the Crimean Peninsula and at the naval construction and repair sites, as well as by targeting all Russian naval capabilities remaining there. Without a permanent and vicious presence of Russian military vessels in western Crimea, all missions related to the freedom of navigation in the ports of NATO littoral countries — as well as the Allied ones upon invitation — could be granted. This is the case of Ukraine and Georgia.

  • Second, preparing for the long-term, high-intensity, large-scale war is the most important task at stake. There have been multiple assessments issued by countries’ defence agencies (and at least a dozen statements by top officials) on the eventuality of a war with Russia two, three, five, seven, or eight years from now, which is barely enough time to prepare.

It is first about accepting — at the political level, via a provision in the NATO Washington Summit Final Communiqué in July — that the perspective of a long-term, high-intensity, large-scale war waged by Russia against NATO is a threat consistent with the current war in Ukraine. And not least, it is about communicating to the citizens the importance of defence and deterrence — in order to avoid war, we must prepare for it.

Next, it is about adapting contingency and regional plans, training, and building reserves and forces. It is about studying and adjusting to this new threat perception and security environment. It is about generating and training the manpower in sufficient numbers — that is professional troops, conscripts, volunteers, and reservists in correct proportions to confront such a threat. It is about the reserves per se since a high-intensity, long-term war consumes enormous human resources.

The defence industry must become a war industry. It means increasing production and storage capacity, as well as conducting exercises adapted to the new threats, all while supplying Ukraine. Here, mass production, resilient supply chains, sufficient ammunition, and other capabilities are essential to provide a sustainable line for defence and deterrence. Last but not least, doctrines and strategies must draw from the lessons in Ukraine.

Finally, it is about operationalising the concept of forward defence: not an inch of the NATO territory will fall under enemy control. We reaffirm our iron-clad commitment to defend each other and every inch of Allied territory at all times, protect our one billion citizens, and safeguard our freedom and democracy, in accordance with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty,” reads Article 1 of the Vilnius Summit Communiqué. It dwells on the lessons learnt from Ukraine where one can see how difficult it is to regain territory. The concept (now under consideration at the Military Committee) should be developed further and evolve into proactive and pre-emptive actions, once a threat to NATO’s borders is materialised and imminent.

  • Third, European capabilities must complement those of NATO. The European leg of NATO must — without a doubt — improve its military capabilities. European countries already realise the urgency. Germany has pledged to reach the 2 percent defence spending target. Zeitenwende — even though taking off slowly, has been moving ahead and defined Berlin’s stance towards Moscow, which is obvious from the successive compromises made by Germany regarding the delivery of military aid to Ukraine.

It is also about enforcing — and reinforcing — the existing efforts instead of undermining what has already been achieved. It concerns the European Sky Shield Initiative, Germany’s anti-ballistic missile initiative proposal that has already been embraced by 19 European countries, as well as supplementing NATO’s anti-aircraft and anti-missile capabilities — another lesson learnt from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Such initiatives must complement NATO’s efforts, strengthening unity within the Alliance and excellent cooperation with the EU. 


Romania’s Contribution

Since 2023, Romania has increased its defence budget to 2.5 percent of GDP. Bucharest has modified its military planning legislation to account for the new reality of a looming large-scale, high-intensity, long-term war. A new Law on Defence entered the parliament — despite the fact that Romanians have five rounds of elections this year, in one case superposing the European elections with local ones. A new Defence Strategic Review is in the works to support the future National Defence Strategy and is due to reach the next president in June 2025.

Albeit far from enough, it is an important step in the right direction. It will allow the next parliament and cabinet to reflect and act on the much-needed changes in legislating and governing to prepare for the war with Russia — and thus deter it from happening.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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