Welcome to the Black Sea Era of War

It has been the world’s bloodiest body of water since the Cold War—and not just because of Ukraine.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Russia's navy ships take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on September 9, 2016.
Russia's navy ships take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on September 9, 2016.
Russia's navy ships take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on September 9, 2016. VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

The sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva on April 14 made history as the largest military ship destroyed in conflict since World War II. Ukraine’s claim to have sunk the ship with two of its Neptune missiles was seen as a particular shock and has led to reevaluations of its coastal defense capabilities and, in particular, its ability to secure its southwestern shores. The significance of the fact that the historic sinking took place on the waves of Black Sea, however, has elicited less notice.

The Black Sea is rarely considered among the world’s most important strategic spaces, even among bodies of water. The South China Sea, Persian Gulf, and eastern Mediterranean all have received far more attention and consideration in recent years. For example, in 2019 Congress passed legislation reshaping U.S. policy on the eastern Mediterranean. In 2020, the U.S. State Department formally published a new position on the South China Sea, declaring it would “reject any push to impose ‘might makes right.’” Of course, the Persian Gulf has been a focal point of U.S. policy since before the Soviet Union’s collapse; the wars in Iraq, the U.S. role in Saudi-Iranian machinations, and the key oil and gas transshipments have kept it a priority ever since.

The Black Sea, by contrast, is still seen as largely a secondary concern. This is despite the fact that an astounding 10 wars have taken place on or near the Black Sea littoral since the end of the Cold War, more than any other maritime space in the world: the Transnistria conflict in Moldova, the Georgian-Abkhaz war, the Georgian civil war, the Russian-Georgian war, the first and second Chechen wars, the 2014 and 2022 Russian-Ukrainian wars, and the first and second Armenian-Azerbaijani wars over Nagorno-Karabakh. And, in truth, this should not come as such a surprise: The Black Sea is, after all, where many of the world’s largest powers come together—Russia, the European Union, Turkey, and NATO, bringing with it the United States, though none has the ability to dominate.

The sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva on April 14 made history as the largest military ship destroyed in conflict since World War II. Ukraine’s claim to have sunk the ship with two of its Neptune missiles was seen as a particular shock and has led to reevaluations of its coastal defense capabilities and, in particular, its ability to secure its southwestern shores. The significance of the fact that the historic sinking took place on the waves of Black Sea, however, has elicited less notice.

The Black Sea is rarely considered among the world’s most important strategic spaces, even among bodies of water. The South China Sea, Persian Gulf, and eastern Mediterranean all have received far more attention and consideration in recent years. For example, in 2019 Congress passed legislation reshaping U.S. policy on the eastern Mediterranean. In 2020, the U.S. State Department formally published a new position on the South China Sea, declaring it would “reject any push to impose ‘might makes right.’” Of course, the Persian Gulf has been a focal point of U.S. policy since before the Soviet Union’s collapse; the wars in Iraq, the U.S. role in Saudi-Iranian machinations, and the key oil and gas transshipments have kept it a priority ever since.

The Black Sea, by contrast, is still seen as largely a secondary concern. This is despite the fact that an astounding 10 wars have taken place on or near the Black Sea littoral since the end of the Cold War, more than any other maritime space in the world: the Transnistria conflict in Moldova, the Georgian-Abkhaz war, the Georgian civil war, the Russian-Georgian war, the first and second Chechen wars, the 2014 and 2022 Russian-Ukrainian wars, and the first and second Armenian-Azerbaijani wars over Nagorno-Karabakh. And, in truth, this should not come as such a surprise: The Black Sea is, after all, where many of the world’s largest powers come together—Russia, the European Union, Turkey, and NATO, bringing with it the United States, though none has the ability to dominate.

The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war and the active legacy of the other Black Sea regional conflicts are not the only reason for U.S. and Western concern. Other security crises have recast the area in recent years, while some enduring issues remain unresolved—all of which have the potential to spark further conflict.

One example is Turkey’s long-standing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths over the last seven years—in line with the number of people killed between 2015 and 2017 in the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Additionally, the border between Turkey and the EU has served as a key flash point in Europe’s recent migrant crises and continues to loom large, despite the bloc’s more receptive nature to Ukrainian refugees.

Yet to better prepare for the potential escalation of these security issues along the Black Sea, it is important to understand the makeup of powers in the region, their respective interests, and why they have proved so incapable at managing to keep it peaceful thus far.

Perhaps one of the most important strategic shifts was Bulgaria’s and Romania’s NATO accession in 2004 and the EU three years later. While Turkey and Greece had been long-standing members of NATO, their tensions often left cooperation in the region limited. Sofia’s and Bucharest’s membership gave NATO warships more reliable access to harbors within the sea—ones independent of the on-again, off-again Turkish-NATO relationship—though Washington’s military influence in the Black Sea remains less than in the Persian Gulf or even the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy is far more active. Nonetheless, 18 years later, Russia continues to call for the withdrawal of Western forces from the two countries, though such pleas are not taken seriously by NATO leadership.

Yet Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as its 2008 invasion of Georgia, were at least partially motivated by a belief that it needed to reestablish its security by pushing the West out of the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin infamously made this clear in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech, in which he also bemoaned Russia’s decisions to draw down Soviet-legacy bases in Moldova and Georgia in previous years.

The following year, Moscow sought to reestablish itself as a major security player on the Black Sea with its invasion of Georgia. While Russia’s invasion was ostensibly over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the Kremlin also used the war (in which the Moskva saw action) to destroy Tbilisi’s small coast guard fleet, shell its key port of Poti, and formalize control over Abkhazia, a breakaway region on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. This was the culmination of a reversal of Russia’s position in the 1990s, when it sanctioned and helped Tbilisi pressure Abkhazia in a bid to retain influence there. The decision to back Abkhazia in 2008 was motivated by Moscow’s loss of relative power in the region rather than any altruism or newfound conviction in the aspired sovereignty of ethnic Abkhaz.

Much like the Georgian-Abkhaz war, the other conflicts in the Black Sea region experienced between 1991 and 2008—Georgia’s civil war, the Transnistria conflict, the Chechen wars, and the first Nagorno-Karabakh war—were in part due to the loss of a regional hegemon, with Russia unable to stop them from breaking out. This began to shift with Putin’s assumption of power and decision to renew the war on Chechnya. Yet as Russia has violently tried to reestablish its position, other powers have also sought to expand into the vacuum, none more so than Turkey.

Ankara’s role in the region is undoubtedly important to Black Sea security, but particular focus deserves to be paid to the fact that its relationship with NATO is often tense—whether over the invasion of Iraq, the position of the Kurds, Syria, Cyprus, and a host of other matters. It is a NATO member but pursues its own agenda, particularly around the Black Sea, far more independently than any other ally.

Until Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Ankara had been moving closer to Moscow—most infamously by purchasing its S-400 anti-missile system and incurring U.S. sanctions in response, though also significantly in terms of natural gas sales, with the TurkStream pipeline’s launch in 2020. But Ankara and Moscow remained, broadly speaking, on opposite sides of the Libyan, Syrian, and—most significantly for the Black Sea region—Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts. The conflict in Ukraine has proved that Turkey does not firmly see a place for itself in Moscow’s camp but rather will alternatively compete or cooperate where it sees the potential to boost its relative power.

Ankara’s delicate balance over Ukraine is not the first time in recent years that the Turkish government has attempted to use the sea as a passage to great-power status. The expansion of its role in transporting Russian gas is another such tactic, as too are its threats to redraw the legal framework that governs access to the Black Sea, the Montreux Convention. Its actions regarding Ukraine are also reminiscent of another recent effort that successfully enhanced its strategic position around the Black Sea; its Bayraktar drones have played a key role not only in supporting Ukraine’s defense but also in enabling Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Perhaps its most significant action, however, has come in the aftermath of Putin’s attack on Ukraine: On Feb. 28, Ankara closed the passages between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to all warships. Moscow is unable to send another cruiser to replace the sunken Moskva. Hereafter, Ankara’s ongoing ability to control access to the Black Sea is likely to prove more significant than at any point since the Cold War.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly remains out of favor in Washington and retains his own skepticism about the U.S.-Turkish alliance after the 2016 coup attempt. Yet Ankara’s role in the Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts highlights just how important it is to regional security, even if Washington still considers it just a regional power. The cost of treating Russia as such has already had dire consequences, and amid Erdogan’s eccentric economic mismanagement, the United States cannot afford to do the same with regards to Turkey.

Until the Russian invasion, Washington’s perception of shifting power politics was focused on China as a rising power, hence the introduction of terms such as “Thucydides Trap” and “pivot to Asia” in the public discourse. It is therefore important to note that Beijing has arrived as an emergent power in the region as well, with the Black Sea sitting firmly within its Belt and Road strategy of expanding infrastructure investment and developing trade networks—particularly in Georgia, Bulgaria, and Turkey, though it has encountered perhaps surprising difficulties in Romania and Ukraine.

Regardless of whether one is a China hawk or a relative dove, this should be seen as a reason for concern. The reason that the Black Sea has been overlooked as a strategic space and the reason that it has experienced so much conflict is one and the same: Its shores mark the largest geographic concentration of shifting major powers. Multipolarity means it is not seen in the same black-and-white manner that the competition for influence in the South China Sea is. But its lessons are already proving significant. Beijing’s hesitancy in supporting Moscow overtly in its wanton invasion of Ukraine gives some reassurance that it is not looking to overthrow the U.S.-led world order at any opportunity. But in the Black Sea, multipolarity is established.

That the Black Sea marks such a confluence of powers is arguably its key destabilizing factor. With Erdogan believing his country is on the rise and demanding to be recognized for this, and Putin attempting to restore Russian dominance over Ukraine and challenge U.S. hegemony both in the region and outside it, it appears that shifting powers will continue to come together and clash in and around its coast. China’s role raises further questions too, particularly in light of the newfound appreciation for the Black Sea as a trade route given Russia’s and Ukraine’s importance to international agriculture markets.

Though typically not associated with the discussion of trade wars as other maritime routes such as the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal often are, even in sheer tonnage alone it is clearly under-considered. Russia’s much-hyped Northern Sea Route reported a record 34.9 million metric tons of cargo in 2021—whereas 898 million gross tons passed through the Black Sea’s Dardanelles gateway in 2021, some 70 percent of Suez’s 1.27 billion metric tons.

Potential trade wars, Turkish influence-peddling, further Kremlin revanchism, and migration are just some of the threats the Black Sea region faces. The unstable balance of power around it risks turning these into further major conflicts. Framing the Black Sea as its own security space highlights the dangers of multipolarity.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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