Why is the Black Sea important to Russia?
Russia’s approach to the Black Sea builds on a centuries-old history of confrontation with Europe’s major powers and on Russia’s long geopolitical rivalry with Turkey. Its goals include warding off any threat from NATO, either to the Russian heartland or its strategic bastion in Crimea. It also wants to undermine NATO’s cohesion by trying to stoke fissures between alliance members along the Black Sea, and to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining the alliance.
More broadly, Moscow sees the Black Sea region as vital to its geoeconomic strategy: to project Russian power and influence in the Mediterranean, protect its economic and trade links with key European markets, and make southern Europe more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
Keenly aware of the potential for instability to flow from the Middle East into Russia—particularly the North and South Caucasus—Russia also sees this body of water as an important security buffer zone, protecting it from the volatility that could emanate from further south.
Moscow depends on the Black Sea for access to the Mediterranean and beyond, both for military operations outside its immediate neighborhood and for exports of Russia’s main commodity (hydrocarbons). Moscow sees the Mediterranean as largely NATO-dominated, but it hopes to spot opportunities to make political, economic, and military inroads with key regional states, as it has done in Syria. For example, Russia eyes opportunities to expand its influence in Mediterranean countries like Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Libya, and Turkey.
What is the history of Russia’s activity in the Black Sea?
In 1783, Catherine the Great fulfilled Russia’s historical quest for a warm water port by annexing Crimea for the first time. Warm water ports were valuable to Russia in that they are navigable year-round, unlike many ports in northern Russia. Ever since then, Russia has been an important power in the region, often going head-to-head with the Ottoman Empire and then with Turkey over access to the sea.
Other European powers, namely France and the UK, were also active in the Black Sea, particularly during the Crimean wars of the mid-nineteenth century. But during the Cold War, Moscow became the dominant power in the region. It controlled the northern and eastern shores of the sea, with docile socialist Romania and Bulgaria—then members of the Eastern bloc—to the west. Only NATO member Turkey served as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union in the Black Sea, which was occasionally referred to at the time as a “Soviet lake.”
In the two decades following the Cold War, Russia experienced a reversal of its fortunes in the Black Sea region, as Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO. Georgia and Ukraine also declared their intent to join the alliance—all of which risked shifting the regional balance in NATO’s favor. Russia retained control over the bulk of the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet via a series of agreements with Ukraine that partitioned the fleet between the countries and allowed Russia to lease the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol as the fleet’s base. But Moscow faced competition from Turkey, which embarked on a strategy to cultivate former Soviet states, particularly Muslim countries and those with Turkic-speaking populations, including Ukraine where Ankara has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Crimean Tatars.
Moscow self-justifies its wars with Georgia in 2008 and with Ukraine in 2014 as necessary to prevent the strategic balance from shifting decisively in NATO’s favor—should either country try to join the Western alliance—and to scare other former Soviet states from even considering aligning too closely with the West. Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine has shown Moscow’s willingness to use active warfare to prevent any other former Soviet state (beyond the Baltics, which joined NATO in 2004) from formally entering NATO—even if NATO membership was still only a distant possibility for Georgia and Ukraine at the time when Russia went to war with them.
Why has Russia become more aggressive in the Black Sea region?
Moscow believes that threats from the Black Sea region have grown in recent years and are more than just regional hazards. The Black Sea’s proximity to the Russian heartland means that a considerable part of European Russia could be within the range of U.S. sea- and land-based intermediate-range missiles. Russian officials have complained that the deployment of the NATO missile defense system in Romania represents the encroachment of U.S. strategic infrastructure in Russia’s neighborhood and is intended to undermine Russian security.
Today, Russia views the Crimean peninsula as a springboard to project power into the wider Mediterranean region. Moscow’s plans to rebuild influence in the region had atrophied after the Cold War, as had Crimea’s prominence in Russia’s mission to deter and defend against the United States and NATO in the event of an East-West conflict. Russia has since used its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent buildup of naval, ground, and air defense capabilities to remedy that weakness. Yet the Kremlin’s aggressive reaction to U.S. naval and air patrols in and over the Black Sea clearly highlights continued Russian perceptions of vulnerability there.
How is Moscow trying to influence broader Black Sea affairs?
Russia has obvious disadvantages in the Black Sea, due to a combination of geography and politics that limit its access to the wider Mediterranean region. Although Crimea and the southern Russian port city of Novorossiysk provide the Russian navy and tankers with access to warm water ports, all ships entering or leaving the Black Sea must past through the Turkish-controlled straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two strategically important passageways between the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
Ankara’s control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles was confirmed in the 1936 Montreaux Convention. Under the agreement, Turkey allows civilian ships to pass through the straits in peacetime and places some restrictions on military vessels not belonging to Black Sea littoral states. Russia has long been concerned about Turkey’s ability to use the straits as a chokehold during a conflict.
Today, the Kremlin is engaging in similarly complex geopolitical maneuvering with Turkey. Strongmen Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have a complicated relationship. Moscow has dangled an array of enticements before Turkey—including the S400 air defense system sale, the construction of a nuclear power plant, and diplomatic support during the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan—along with pressure and thinly veiled threats to Turkey related to Syria. Recent Washington-Ankara tensions, which continue under President Joe Biden’s administration, provide Moscow with the opportunity to undermine the cohesion of the U.S.-Turkey alliance and its posture on the southern flank. Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism and growing disillusionment with the EU also make it easier for Russia to take advantage of splits between Turkey and Europe.
How does economics play into Russia’s approach to the Black Sea?
For Moscow, the security of the Russian homeland and the ability to project power top all other considerations. But Russia also has important economic assets in the Black Sea region, which it wants to protect. The Black Sea is an important trade and transportation artery for Russia. Both Russia and Central Asian countries are highly dependent on the Russian port of Novorossiysk to export grain and oil by ship; this provides Moscow with useful leverage over land-locked Central Asia. Meanwhile, Russia is investing in new infrastructure to protect its Black Sea trade corridor and to create more alternative routes to skirt Ukraine. A series of oil and gas pipelines through Turkey, including the newly launched TurkStream pipeline, will buttress Russian-Turkish ties, improve Russia’s leverage with Turkey, and provide Moscow with new export routes bypassing Ukraine.
What’s more, Russia’s expanding energy ties in the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia, have positioned the Kremlin to use energy as a geopolitical weapon and to undercut NATO and EU influence in the fragile region. These pipelines serve more than just one function: they generate revenue and act as geopolitical tools in Moscow’s offense and defense of its interests in the wider Black Sea region and on Europe’s southern flank.
What does the future look like for Russia in the Black Sea?
Despite Russia’s recent buildup of Black Sea capabilities and proven willingness to intervene in the affairs of its Black Sea neighbors, the outlook in the Black Sea region does not favor Russia. Europe’s push toward a zero-carbon target by 2050 and an increasingly competitive gas market for both liquefied natural gas and Azerbaijani pipeline gas will undercut Russia’s economic leverage. Moscow may have stopped Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO, but in doing so, it has turned both countries into permanent enemies, whose presence on the Russian border and growing ties with NATO will require Russia to maintain significant military assets. Russian aggression in the Black Sea region has also caused other former Eurasian states to question Russia’s reliability and intentions, reinvigorating these states’ efforts toward multi-vector diplomatic and security strategies. Russian malign influence across the broader region likewise has been exposed in recent years, undermining popular and elite support for Moscow in several countries.
The Russian-Turkish rapprochement may be the most remarkable shift in Black Sea regional dynamics over the past decade. Yet Turkey remains an unreliable partner for Moscow, with a long tradition of adversarial relations with Russia. Ankara wants to expand its influence in what Russia sees as its privileged sphere—as most vividly seen in Turkish military support to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Turkey also continues to vocally support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including over Crimea, and to sell arms to Ukraine.
Finally, NATO increasingly accepts Russia as its prime adversary. This has reinforced calls for a more robust Western strategy toward Russia, particularly in the Black Sea and southeastern Europe. Facing these challenges, however, Russia is unlikely to back down and will defend its position fiercely.