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Dumitru Minzarari

June 12th, 2024

How can NATO improve its security strategy in the Black Sea?

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Dumitru Minzarari

June 12th, 2024

How can NATO improve its security strategy in the Black Sea?

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The Black Sea has been somewhat of a black hole in the West’s security strategy since the end of the Cold War. This neglect of the Black Sea as a subject of Western risk assessment should be surprising. After all, the most dangerous conflicts in Europe – both hot and frozen– have been around the Black Sea or in its proximity. 

This neglect is a mistake. The Black Sea has a trait that makes it especially important for NATO. This is the contiguity effect that the Black Sea provides for the littoral countries that don’t share a common land border. The Black Sea is an area where the militaries of littoral countries can come into direct unobstructed contact, while still being near their national borders. Given the sea’s relatively small size and the speed or range characteristics of modern military equipment, that contiguity effect becomes even more powerful. Russia’s annexation of Crimea exacerbates this, making the Black Sea an even tighter space strategically speaking. Conversely, to a very large extent, Ukraine’s success in significantly attriting Russia’s naval assets in the Black Sea was due to the permissive effect of the (short) distances involved. 

As such, while NATO is insulated from Russia by Belarus (weakly) and Ukraine in the central part of Eastern Europe, it has de facto direct borders with Russia in the Black Sea region. Even though NATO has paid more attention to the Black Sea region since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, its approach is still overly reactive and risk-averse. That is to say, it is built on Cold War-era deterrence practices and thinking. The secret behind a more effective NATO strategy in the region lies in adopting an anticipatory approach. 

What does this mean for NATO? 

The contiguity effect increases the probability of military confrontation, as existing research on war strongly suggests that territorial contiguity is a driver of interstate conflict. While this contiguity elevates security risks around the Black Sea, it does also come with some alleviating factors. The Black Sea embodies a security duality – alongside the contiguity effect, it also provides a buffer or delaying effect. The military implications of this include early warning of attack, and the logistic and manpower deployment limitations that arise from amphibious operations. That makes the Black Sea area an operational and strategic environment that is particularly suitable for military denial and strategic containment, respectively.

The significant degradation by Ukraine of Russia’s naval assets in the Black Sea over the last year, may suggest a diminished Russian naval threat. This impression is not completely accurate. Russia retains the ability to contain NATO navies in the Black Sea, and to directly challenge Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova by sea. Consequently, Russia can still pose a credible and significant challenge to NATO interests in the Black Sea.

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Black Sea are evident in Russian domestic policy debates, official statements and documents. Analysts close to the Kremlin have advocated that, in the Black Sea, Russia must strive to instrumentalize the EU’s dependency on Russian energy resources by controlling or obstructing the development of energy projects that originate in other countries. As part of this set of actions, Russia aims to maximize its control over the transit of crude oil and gas from the Caspian and Central Asia. Achieving these objectives would arm Russia with the ability to either coerce or co-opt individual NATO countries. 

Moreover, Russia has entertained the idea of going beyond economic tools to use military coercion to pressurise Romania and Bulgaria, and acquire bargaining leverage over Turkey. 

Addressing security threats in the Black Sea area

To be effective in protecting and advancing its strategic interests in the Black Sea and the region, NATO should adopt an anticipatory approach and military posture. This approach is visible in NATO’s strategic documents, although it is less noticeable in its policies and actions in the Black Sea. For instance, the NATO Strategic Concept (NSC) formulates that the Alliance should “contest and deny across all domains and directions” against any aggressor as part of its deterrence and defence efforts which should be of a forward nature. 

Military threats emerge outside of NATO territory, and in order to diffuse them, the Alliance must promptly confront these treats at source. This can only be done by engaging outside NATO territory, rather than taking a passive stance. In modern times, it is impossible to defend NATO territory and interests while watching the world outside the NATO fortress burn. 

Theoretically, the NSC states that NATO must “anticipate and prevent crises and conflicts” and NATO’s Concept for Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area astutely emphasises the need to proactively prevent the escalation of conflicts in peacetime.

Yet, paradoxically, NATO has repeatedly shied away from the kind of forward, anticipatory actions that aim to prevent crises from escalating into war. Had NATO provided military assistance to Ukraine before February 2022, the probability of full-scale Russian military invasion would have significantly diminished. This passivity has encouraged Russian escalation. Macron’s initiative to send troops to Ukraine in – at least initially – non-combat roles represents a positive example of a credible deterrent measure. This is because this signals a strong NATO resolve to deny Russia’s attempt to build a new status quo in Ukraine and the region. It also signals to Russia’s leadership that the cost of aggression will significantly rise while casting doubt on the achievability of Kremlin military objectives. Strong, anticipatory actions have the effect of mitigating Russia’s misperceptions about the West as weak.

The optimal Black Sea strategy for NATO is to use the ongoing war to address its biggest security threat in the region – a Russia-occupied Crimea. It should prioritise assisting Ukraine in recovering control over the peninsula, removing Russia’s anti-access/area denial capability that covers most of the Black Sea. Should combat activities cease, NATO will lose this opportunity, allowing Russia to consolidate the current status quo for an indeterminate period.

About the author

Dumitru Minzarari

Dr. Dumitru Minzarari is a Lecturer in Security Studies at the Baltic Defense College. Before this, he was a research associate with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, covering Russia’s domestic, foreign and security policies. Dr. Minzarari also had tenures both as a fellow and visiting scholar with the research division of the NATO Defense College in Rome. He received a PhD in political science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and an MA in international affairs from Columbia University in New York. Previously, he worked as the Secretary of State (for defense policy and international cooperation) with the Moldovan Ministry of Defense; held expert positions in OSCE field missions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan; and worked with a number of think tanks in Eastern Europe.

Posted In: Peace and Security

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