Pavel Rebrov / Reuters Russian warships are seen during a rehearsal for the Navy Day parade in Sevastopol, Crimea, July 24, 2015.

Changing Tides

Russia's Growing Stronghold in the Black Sea

Just two years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea, NATO saw its tenuous, 25-year-long attempt to forge a partnership with the Eastern power dissolve overnight. Since then, to respond to Europe’s dangerous new security climate, NATO has looked to the Baltic states, where Russia has upped the game through air incursions and troop mobilizations. By focusing the bulk of its efforts in northeastern Europe, however, NATO runs the risk of losing sight of the Black Sea—an area that has also seen Russian aggression and is primed for further destabilization in the years to come.

Transatlantic policymakers often overlook the Black Sea’s importance. But the Black Sea has long been a critical intersection for energy and commerce between Europe, Central Asia, Turkey, and Russia.

In particular, the Black Sea region has been attractive to Moscow as offering several warm-water ports. Before the conflict in Ukraine erupted, Russia leased the Crimean port of Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government. In those days, Sevastopol housed Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—an aging, Soviet-era fleet with more symbolic value than strategic. Yet Sevastopol is the only naval base in the Black Sea capable of outfitting and dispatching new vessels and military hardware at a strategically significant level. As long as Russia controls it, Russia will be the only regional power to exercise control over the body of water. 

After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Moscow wasted no time in stocking the peninsula with heavy military equipment, including fighters, bombers, and advanced air defense systems. The buildup prevents NATO and its allies from operating in the area and prohibits intelligence gathering by air. NATO’s top military commander, General Philip Breedlove, has repeatedly voiced concerns over this threat, known as “anti-access, area denial” (A2/AD). Russia has also begun to invest heavily in modernizing its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, with the intention of turning it into a modern fighting force capable of projecting power throughout the Black Sea and Mediterranean. 

Russia’s ambitions are military intervention in Syria. Under the guise of fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Russia has been able to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of cease-fire talks that recently ended. Russia has proven its reach in the Mediterranean by firing ballistic missiles into Syria from submarines in the Mediterranean and from the Caspian Sea and dispatching bombers that fly into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Russia’s intervention in Syria has helped secure its presence in Syria’s warm-water port of Tartus and, in doing so, enabled it to begin establishing an A2/AD zone in the Mediterranean, with crucial support from the Black Sea.

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