June 3, 2020

Security in the Black Sea Region: Realpolitik or a New Unipolarity?

Servicemen of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in formation aboard the Novorossiysk small anti-submarine ship during summer training. Over 10 ships and boats of the Black Sea Fleet take part in the combat training in Sevastopol in June 2020.
Servicemen of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in formation aboard the Novorossiysk small anti-submarine ship during summer training. Over 10 ships and boats of the Black Sea Fleet take part in the combat training in Sevastopol in June 2020.

Five months before the start of the Russia-Georgia War, I wrote a paper entitled, ‘Security in the Black Sea: Back to Realpolitik?’ Six years and two months after the annexation of Crimea, I pose a different question: Realpolitik or a new unipolarity? I do so for three reasons.

First, since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, no general scheme of security has been realised in the Black Sea. But the annexation (what Russia calls the ‘accession’, prisoedenenie) of Crimea by the Russian Federation, its militarisation and the changing military balance oblige us to ask whether a form of regional unipolarity might emerge, de facto or de jure; indeed, whether this is Russia’s intention. Although the scale of Russia’s military infrastructure and deployments in Crimea do not yet equal those of the USSR, the peninsula’s incorporation into the Russian Federation and the Southern Military District is of strategic importance. It plays a pivotal role in the southwestern direction of Russia’s defence system, it is part of the strategic rear of Russia’s military contingent in Syria and, of course to a debatable extent, other military operations, official and unofficial, in the Mediterranean.

Not least important for littoral states and others, Russia’s naval and air forces have begun to play a markedly assertive role in guarding offshore energy assets seized from Ukraine, in constraining maritime transit and restricting the lawful naval operations of NATO littoral states. From 1-24 July 2019 Russia closed off five regions of the Black Sea in response to the scheduled conduct of the US-led multinational exercise Sea Breeze-19 and the Georgia-US bilateral exercise Agile Spirit. At their maximum extent, these restrictions applied to one-quarter of the overall area of the Black Sea, including the customary and advisable international shipping routes to Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania and Ukraine.

The second and related reason for raising this question is that, for a long time now, security in the Black Sea has largely depended on events outside it. Even so, during most of the Cold War, whatever was taking place outside (including the 1973 Israel-Arab war), a precarious balance prevailed inside. Now, for the first time since the 1946 Turkish Straits crisis, the security of the Black Sea region has become critically dependent on events inside it. Whilst many will point to the events of 2014, some represented here might say that this process began with the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 in which the Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea, which Russia then recognised as an administrative jurisdiction of Ukraine, played a not insignificant part. It is hardly incidental that Ukraine at the time was an ally of Georgia in all but name.

An Alternative Case

Nevertheless, a very different case can be made, and it would be surprising if it were not made before the day is out. The Soviet Union enjoyed a position of first amongst equals in the Black Sea – as did Imperial Russia between the Treaty of Kyuchuk-Kaynardzhi and the first Crimean War. With the exception of Turkey, the littoral territories of the Black Sea were either Union Republics of the USSR or members of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation. Effectively overnight, the dissolution of the USSR undid more than 200 years of history, reducing the Russian Black Sea coast to a territorial rump surrounding the port of Novorossiysk. This dramatic turn of events explains the determination of the Russian Federation to maintain a regime of ‘restricted access’ in the Sevastopol region for a number of years after the dissolution of the USSR. The Russia-Ukraine Interstate Treaty and the three intergovernmental Black Sea Fleet agreements of May 1997 appeared to establish an equilibrium that all parties could accept.

What destroyed this equilibrium from Russia’s perspective was not the events of 2014 but the enlargement of NATO to the Black Sea in 2004 and the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Alliance, a change underscored by the deployment of US ballistic missile defence systems that, in the view of the Russian General Staff, have offensive potential. At the start of 2014 all littoral states with the exception of Russia were either NATO Allies or NATO partners. That is a dramatic change. From the baseline of the principles and agreements that underpin the post-Cold War system and the OSCE itself, Russia today has been described as a revisionist power. But from the baseline that I have described, it also can be termed a reactionary power, seeking to restore what it believes is rightfully its own.

Legal Concerns

This sharp divergence of perspectives gives point to a third and most disturbing reason for asking whether a new unipolar system is in the making. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine — which by any standard definition are acts of war — have torn up the legal framework that other Black Sea states have taken for granted. Russia has denounced the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, repudiated the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Interstate Treaty and the Black Sea Fleet agreements, as well as the Kharkiv agreements concluded between Presidents Yanukovych and Medvedev in 2010, and it has effectively abrogated the 2003 Treaty of Cooperation on the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait. This legal vacuum is being filled de facto by Russian domestic law. On 25 May this year, the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea upheld Ukraine’s case against Russia regarding the impounding of ships and incarceration of their crews near the Kerch Strait on 25 November last. But in doing so, it was constrained to accept that Russia was carrying out a law enforcement operation rather than a military operation. This is a very dubious victory for Ukraine. Other aspects of the same judgement could be used to reproach Ukraine for any future naval operations that might violate Russian criminal law.

To this catalogue of concerns, one must also express anxiety about the future integrity of the 1936 Montreux Convention. On 19 April last year, Russia’s veteran and venerable Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko stated, ‘[w]e are firmly convinced that the Montreux Convention must be strictly observed as a serious guarantee of security’. He also stated, that ‘the most serious problem from the point of view of security is attempts by non-littoral countries to increase their presence there’. What he neglected to say is that NATO vessels have entered and left the Black Sea in complete compliance with the Convention. Complementing these official warnings about upholding the Convention are unofficial calls for its revision. I do not expect that these unofficial demands will become official demands. What should concern us is a campaign to uphold the Convention by means that effectively revise it.

If No Agreement, then What?

Let me return to the question I posed at the outset. Does Russia intend to create a system of unipolarity in the Black Sea? If so, it hasn’t said so, and I suspect it won’t. If it did, not only would it arouse resistance. It would have to proceed beyond indictments of the present Helsinki-based security order, and the West’s alleged abuse of it, and present a substantiated alternative. Leading state figures have spoken in general, if emphatic terms, about ‘learning the lessons of Yalta’ and re-establishing a system based on ‘balance of power’ and ‘respect’. But these statements do not amount to an alternative scheme of security. The one official attempt in this direction, the draft European Security Treaty presented by President Medvedev in June 2008 and published in November 2009, was regarded in Europe not so much as objectionable, but enigmatic, and it was quietly withdrawn. What I fear we must accustom ourselves to are Russian efforts to create a unipolar system de facto, without connecting the dots or explaining why the dots are there.

Let me raise a second question. Does NATO have a scheme of security for the Black Sea or, for that matter, a strategy? No, it does not. What NATO has since the Newport, Warsaw, Brussels and London summits is a set of deterrence and adaptation measures for the Alliance, a Tailored Forward Presence in its south-eastern region and ‘appropriate measures’ in the Black Sea region to provide, amongst other things, ‘peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint’. But what ties these measures together with the NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership or the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package? That question might provoke some clear discussion, but it does not yet have a clear answer.

Let me end where I began. Whatever the future holds, today there still is no general scheme of security in the Black Sea region. That is not surprising. The Black Sea lies at the intersection point between at least two world views, cultures of security and baselines for assessing legitimacy, security and threat. These divergences are a systemic reality, and they deserve to be taken seriously. The purpose of dialogue is to clarify rather than resolve them, to establish the boundaries of the possible and pursue the art of the possible — which is another way of saying statesmanship.


The presentation, ‘Security in the Black Sea Region: Realpolitik or a New Unipolarity?’, was delivered as the first of two keynote speeches at the online 947th Plenary Meeting of the Forum for Security Cooperation of the OSCE on 27 May in Vienna, which was devoted to the theme, ‘Regional Security: Black Sea and the Sea of Azov’. As stated by the author at the outset, the speech was delivered in an independent and personal capacity. Nevertheless, as reported by the Ukrainian news portal, Ukrinform on 28 May 2020, it was interrupted by three points of order from the Representative of the Russian Federation Delegation to the OSCE, Andrey Vorobyev, on the grounds that both its substance and the invitation to the speaker were ‘inappropriate’ [neumestniy] and in violation of the Forum’s mandate. These points of order were overruled by the Forum’s Chair, Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna, Ambassador Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk and denounced by two national delegations as illegitimate attempts at censorship.