The Black Sea – New Battleground between Putin’s Russia and NATO

The reality is that Moscow rejects the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance into the Black Sea through Romania and Bulgaria and vehemently opposes the prospect of further NATO expansion into Ukraine. This is why Ukraine has been punished territorially and is currently being kept under Moscow’s permanent threat. Simply put, Putin’s Russia cannot accept the idea of losing the Soviet empire and is trying hard to regain its former superpower status.


By Nicholas Dima l November 19, 2014


Vice-Admiral Alexander Vitko and President Vladimir Putin oversee the Russian Black Sea Fleet

The Black Sea is located at a geo-strategic intersection between Europe and the oil-rich Middle East and between NATO and the Russian Federation. The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine add new significance to this disputed body of water. The issue of the Black Sea and the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict were discussed amply by the NATO leaders at their recent meetings.

The Black Sea has been important to Europe since ancient times and it has also served as a commercial hub between the old continent and Asia. Yet, throughout history it was a disputed body of water controlled by the Greeks and Romans in antiquity, by the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires during the Middle Ages, by tsarist Russia later, and by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The sea itself covers 168,500 square miles and it is larger than the better known Baltic or Red Seas. In a way, the Black Sea is an extension of the Mediterranean Sea with which it is connected through the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles both controlled by Turkey. Of the two, the Bosporus raises special concerns because it is very narrow and navigation is dangerous, but easy to monitor.

The fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union led to new dynamics in the area and to hopes of liberalization and cooperation. In 1992 at Turkey’s initiative, the riparian countries gathered in Istanbul to set up the Black Sea Economic Cooperation bloc (BSEC). The signatories aimed at transforming the sea into a region of peace and stability. However, a question remained, which I rhetorically raised in a 2003 article published by The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies: “Would Russia, the main successor state of the former Soviet Union, accept a loss of status and cooperate as an equal partner with the other countries that border the Black Sea?” Indeed, Moscow reluctantly joined the BSEC but for ulterior motives. In fact, Russia’s intent was to regain control over the former Soviet republics and to continue to dominate the sea. For Russia, the Black Sea is of utmost importance. It provides ice-free harbors almost year round and it is Russia’s sole link with the Mediterranean and the Middle East. While paying lip service to the idea of cooperation, Russia fomented several revolts and wars around the Black Sea until it saw an opportunity to challenge Ukraine and occupy Crimea.

After annexing Crimea, Moscow announced a modernization program of the Sevastopol Naval Base, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered, and at the same time, it decided to build a new naval base at Novorossiysk, which is on the Russian mainland close to Crimea. Allegedly to counter America’s and NATO’s presence in the region, Moscow also decided to increase its Black Sea Navy by 80 new surface ships and six submarines. These decisions made the president of Romania, Traian Basescu, a staunch American ally, declare that Moscow wants to transform the Black Sea into a Russian lake.  NATO took notice.

Some Western analysts claim that naval forces are no longer vital in today’s age of globalization and inter-continental nuclear missiles. Yet, according to Romania Libera of October 10, 2014, at the beginning of the month Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the port of Novorossiysk, where he was met by Vice-Admiral Alexander Vitko, the commander of the Black Sea Fleet. The admiral reported that by 2020 it will have a total of 206 ships, including six new submarines of the Kilo class. He did not mention, however, the modern French Mistral warships for which Paris has contracted with Moscow but whose delivery has been put on hold. According to the admiral, the expansion of the Russian Black Sea Naval Fleet is necessary to counter America’s and NATO’s threat.

The reality is that Moscow rejects the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance into the Black Sea through Romania and Bulgaria and vehemently opposes the prospect of further NATO expansion into Ukraine. This is why Ukraine has been punished territorially and is currently being kept under Moscow’s permanent threat. Simply put, Putin’s Russia cannot accept the idea of losing the Soviet empire and is trying hard to regain its former superpower status.

In the meantime, some American warships have entered the Black Sea and have paid visits to their new NATO allies. Romania in particular welcomes the American visits and insists that a permanent NATO presence be established in the Black Sea. While Ukraine is mortified by the Russian actions on its territory, Romania is afraid that Russia may take Odessa and eventually threaten the Romanian lands. The problem with the presence of military vessels in the Black Sea is the 1936 Montreux International Convention. This agreement places strict limits on the entry of foreign warships. Accordingly, no warships that come through the Bosporus Strait should be bigger than 15,000 tons; no more than nine such ships should enter at the same time; and, these ships should not stay in the Black Sea more than 21 days. The alternative proposed by NATO at its recent Newport (Wales) summit was to rotate such ships in order to maintain a permanent presence.

There is, however, a more daring and revolutionary solution proposed by Turkey, the country that controls the Bosporus.  Four years ago, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed to build a canal around Istanbul from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, thereby bypassing the Bosporus and circumventing the provisions of the Montreux Convention. If realized, the canal would solve not only political disputes, but also important economic and ecological problems.

Furthermore, the Russian Defense Ministry recently announced that the military bases in Crimea will be completely modernized over the next several years. A new airbase located near Simferopol will house modern planes such as Su-25 and 27, MiG-29, Il-38N and will receive attack helicopters and long-range bombers of the TU-22 type. At the same time, the Sevastopol submarine base will be rebuilt and the peninsula will be provided with anti-aircraft missiles and 300 new pieces of artillery. Moscow’s plan also calls for bringing to Crimea a number of ground units specializing in chemical, biological and radiological warfare. Such a military build-up practically ends the era of cooperation and poses huge problems not only for Ukraine, but for the entire NATO organization. The Russian geopolitical agenda is on a collision course with the Western economic-political goals.

Meanwhile, the Black Sea retains its strategic and military importance. It is close to Syria, where Russia continues to enjoy the Cold War-era warm water access to the Mediterranean for its naval supply and maintenance facilities at Tartus, an area close to the troubled Middle East and to the Caspian Basin, whose oil must flow through the Black and Mediterranean seas to reach European markets.


Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.