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 not confined to the Black Sea. Moscow has already begun to test its footing in the Mediterranean by sending warships and auxiliary cargo ships from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean in order to conduct high-end maritime exercises and to support its 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.

For decades, both areas had typically been under the purview of the Turkish military. Turkey still retains a monopoly over passage between the Black Sea and Mediterranean, both geographically and legally under the auspices of the 1936 Montreux Convention. So far, Ankara has done little to block the transit of Russian warships in the area, likely to forestall any direct conflict during a period of sustained tensions after the Turkish downing of a Russian military jet in November 2015. If Russia becomes the new permanent leading power in the Black Sea as it sustains its presence in Syria, the chances of another confrontation with Turkey increase significantly. This, however unlikely, could drag NATO into a conflict with Russia, as the alliance protects all members with its Article 5 clause (an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all). 

People gather to watch celebrations for Navy Day, with a Russian warship and a submarine seen in the background, in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, July 26, 2015.
People gather to watch celebrations for Navy Day, with a Russian warship and a submarine seen in the background, in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, July 26, 2015.
Yuri Maltsev / Reuters


In all this, NATO has been on the defensive in the Black Sea and could likely soon be the same in the Mediterranean. Militarily, NATO is stretched thin by its involvement in conflicts in eastern Europe, Syria, and Afghanistan. This has meant that Russia’s growing influence in the Black Sea has been willfully ignored, so long as the region does not fall victim to open conflict. For example, only a dozen of NATO’s and allied countries’ national military exercises planned in 2016 will focus in a significant way on the region. But such conflict is coming, and NATO members in the region are all too aware of the consequences of Russian aggression. Thankfully, NATO can still employ a series of cost-efficient and realistic measures to ramp up its presence in the Black Sea, thereby bolstering its deterrence capabilities and keeping Russia at bay. 

NATO could model a Black Sea air program on its successful Baltic Air Policing mission, which provides around-the-clock monitoring of the skies over Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia as a countermeasure against Russian flight in the region. The Baltic Air Policing mission calls on NATO members to patrol the skies on a rotating schedule, ensuring that no single state bears the sole responsibility of protecting the area. A similar Black Sea air mission could protect Bulgarian, Romanian, and Turkish airspace. Although NATO members in the Black Sea have their own air forces, a collective air mission could reassure nervous allies, shore up the aging national air forces in the region, provide intelligence on Russia’s military activities in the region, and, finally, help deter further Russian military activity in the Black Sea. 

NATO should also consider establishing a permanent maritime presence in the Black Sea. The patrols that NATO and the United States deployed in the Black Sea after Russia’s annexation of Crimea were cobbled together and conveyed very little strategic intent. NATO could model a permanent program off of its current Operation Active Endeavor, which patrols the Mediterranean Sea. These forces should include the United States’ Aegis ballistic missile defense ships, which would send a strong message of deterrence against Moscow’s missile program in Crimea. The maritime presence would also help reinforce NATO’s current existing missile defense architecture—the European Phased Adaptive Approach—which already includes missile interceptors in Romania.

In the past, Turkey has been hesitant to approve a stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea, as doing so would diminish Turkey’s own hold on regional naval power. But Russia’s activities in the region demand a new response, and scuffles between Russian and Turkish jets have changed Ankara’s position on NATO activity in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, as manifested by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s side-by-side joint press conference after the downing of the Russian bomber. The risk of war with Russia in Syria has become real, and NATO should be prepared to come to Turkey’s aid if it happens. 

For their part, eastern European leaders have requested that the alliance boost its presence along its borders. NATO has flexed its might in the Baltic, but its response in the Black Sea has been muted. The discrepancy has vexed regional allies, as the Black Sea region has so far been the only area under actual threat from existing Russian aggression. Bolstering NATO’s presence and deterrence capabilities along the Black Sea may be politically difficult, given the organization’s overstretched and underfunded militaries. But making difficult investments will be less costly than leaving the Black Sea exposed to further Russian aggression.

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  • ROBBIE GRAMER is Assistant Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
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