In the spring of 2021, Russia conducted a sizeable military buildup along its border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. Most of these deployments were spontaneous and unrelated to any scheduled training exercises. Russia’s activity has not been limited to the land. There has also been a Russian buildup at sea. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has essentially turned the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake—and hopes to do the same to the Black Sea. This is a direct threat to U.S. and NATO security interests. Many of the recent initiatives regarding the Black Sea at the NATO level have not met expectations. The U.S. needs to be a leader inside NATO to help Ukraine enhance security in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
This spring, Russia has been conducting a sizeable military buildup along its border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. Most of these deployments seem spontaneous and unrelated to any scheduled training exercises. Russia’s activity has not been limited to the land. There has also been a Russian buildup at sea. Recently, four Russian warships from the Baltic fleet have moved to the Black Sea. In addition, 15 vessels from the Caspian flotilla have just arrived in the Sea of Azov. This means a total of at least 50 Russian warships are now operating in the waters around Ukraine.1
“Moscow Moving 15 Warships from Caspian Sea to Waters off Ukraine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 18, No. 59 (April 13, 2021), https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-moving-15-warships-from-caspian-sea-to-waters-off-ukraine/ (accessed April 16, 2021).
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has essentially turned the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake, with one exception: Ukraine’s port at Mariupol. If this port were neutralized, Russia would then move on in the hope of a similar outcome in the Black Sea. This is a direct threat to U.S. and NATO security interests.
Many of the recent NATO-level initiatives regarding the Black Sea have not met expectations. The economic, security, and political importance of the Black Sea and the broader region is only now becoming more important. Often overlooked in the debate about the Black Sea is the situation in the Sea of Azov. This small, shallow body of water, connected to the Black Sea by a narrow strait, has been important for centuries.
The U.S. needs to be a leader inside NATO to help Ukraine enhance security in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The U.S. can do this by: (1) increasing its naval presence in the Black Sea; (2) pushing for a bigger NATO maritime presence in the Black Sea; (3) conducting a Limits of the Sea Review on the Sea of Azov; (4) consider conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) through the Kerch Strait; (5) work closely with Black Sea NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey to improve regional security; and (6) improving Ukraine’s and Georgia’s maritime and naval capabilities.
Any comprehensive Black Sea strategy must include all domains, including land, air, and maritime. However, this Backgrounder is focused specifically and narrowly on the maritime domain. Many important oil and gas pipelines, as well as fiber optic cables, crisscross the sea. Throughout the history of the region, the Black Sea has proven to be geopolitically and economically important.
Even for a country located thousands of miles away, like the United States, the Black Sea is important.
For the U.S., the Black Sea’s strategic importance is primarily derived from two issues. The first is America’s treaty obligations under NATO. Three of six Black Sea countries (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey) are in NATO and fall under the alliance’s security guarantee. Another two countries (Georgia and Ukraine) participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Second, one of America’s biggest geopolitical competitors and adversaries, Russia, is very active in the region, constantly undermining the interests of the U.S. and its allies.
It is also worth noting that Black Sea countries have demonstrated a greater political will to deploy troops in support of NATO operations than countries in other regions. For example, over the past few years, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine collectively contributed one-third of all the European forces serving in NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
In the Black Sea, the main U.S. goals are:
For Russia, domination of the Black Sea region has always been considered a matter of national survival. Russian Black Sea ports, being Russia’s only warm water ports, have always served the economic interests of Russia. For example, on the eve of World War I, 50 percent of all Russian exports and 90 percent of Russian agriculture exports, passed through the Bosphorus Strait out of the Black Sea.3
Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans (New York: Basic Books, 2015), p. 234. Today, an oil tanker passes through the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea every 15 minutes carrying Russian oil or Kazakh oil. (The latter, of course, transits Russia so that Moscow can collect transit fees.)4
Shamseer Mambra, 6 Bosphorus Strait Facts You Must Know, Marine Insight, updated on August 6, 2020, https://www.marineinsight.com/know-more/6-bosphorus-strait-facts-you-must-know (accessed April 14, 2020).
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an unprecedented act of foreign-state aggression in the 21st century. It was the first time since 1945 that borders in Europe had been changed using military force. The annexation has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and has helped Moscow with its long-term goal of turning the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake. Additionally, Russia has claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean Peninsula that previously belonged to Ukraine.
Russia has taken steps to strengthen its grip on Crimea through a major effort at increasing capabilities, especially anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. As the 2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength notes:
Russia has deployed 28,000 troops to Crimea and has embarked on a major program to build housing, restore airfields, and install new radars there. Deployment of the Monolit-B radar system, for instance, which has a passive range of 450 kilometers, “provides the Russian military with an excellent real-time picture of the positions of foreign surface vessels operating in the Black Sea.” In addition, “Russian equipment there includes 40 main battle tanks, 680 armored personnel carriers and 174 artillery systems of various kinds” along with 113 combat aircraft. In March 2019, Russia announced the deployment of nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers to Gvardeyskoye air base in occupied Crimea.5
“Russia,” in Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation Press, 2021), https://www.heritage.org/2021-index-us-military-strength/assessing-threats-us-vital-interests/russia (accessed April 19, 2021).
Michael Petersen, “The Naval Power Shift in the Black Sea,” War on the Rocks, January 9, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/the-naval-power-shift-in-the-black-sea/ (accessed April 5, 2021). Furthermore, “local capabilities have been strengthened by the Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) short-to-medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapons system, which particularly complements the S-400.”7
Sergey Sukhankin, “Russia Pours More Military Hardware into ‘Fortress Crimea,’” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 14, No. 147 (November 14, 2017), https://jamestown.org/program/russia-pours-military-hardware-fortress-crimea/ (accessed April 5, 2021). Russia also deploys the Bastion P coastal defenses armed with the P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, which “has a range of up to 185 miles and travels at nearly mach 2.5, making it extraordinarily difficult to defeat with kinetic means.”8
Petersen, “The Naval Power Shift in the Black Sea.”
The importance of the Black Sea for Russia goes beyond the region. Russia also uses Crimea as a springboard for military operations farther abroad, such as in Syria, Libya, and the Arabian Sea. This growing naval presence is being further underwritten by the late 2020 access deal to Port Sudan for up to four warships, effective through 2045, and includes allowance for nuclear-powered ship visits.9
Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Has Signed an Agreement to Establish a Navy Base on the Red Sea for at Least 25 Years,” Associated Press, December 9, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-agreement-for-navy-base-in-sudan-for-25-years-2020-12 (accessed April 14, 2021). For example, Russia has used its Black Sea presence in occupied Crimea to launch and support naval operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Matthew Chance, “On Board the Warship Moskva: The Naval Power Behind Russia’s Air War in Syria,” CNN, December 17, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/middleeast/syria-russian-warship-moskva/index.html (accessed April 14, 2021). Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and wheat have been shipped from Crimea to Syria to help the Assad regime’s food shortage problems.11
Jonathan Saul and Polina Devitt, “Syria’s Assad Gets Food Lifeline from Crimea,” Reuters, June 21, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-crimea-insight/syrias-assad-gets-food-lifeline-from-crimea-idUSKBN1JH1F7 (accessed April 14, 2021). Hundreds of trips have been made between Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol and the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, to transport military hardware and resupplies.12
Gulliver Cragg and Elena Volochine, “The Crimean Port of Sevastopol, a Strategic Link Between Russia and Syria,” France 24, March 20, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190320-focus-crimea-sevastopol-port-naval-base-russia-navy-syria-war-operations-trade-tartus (accessed April 14, 2021).
It is worth pointing out that Crimea is not the only Russian occupation along the shores of the Black Sea. Since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Moscow has maintained a large military presence in the Georgian region of Abkhazia—estimated to be around 4,000 troops13
Giorgi Menabde, “Russia Declares New Initiatives to Modernize Army of Breakaway Abkhazia,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 16, No. 131 (September 25, 2019), https://jamestown.org/program/russia-declares-new-initiatives-to-modernize-army-of-breakaway-abkhazia/ (accessed April 19, 2021).—which has hundreds of miles of coastline on the Black Sea.
Russia’s A2/AD capability is not the only thing that makes operating in the Black Sea a challenge. Additional diplomatic and political factors complicate the matter.
Passage Restrictions. The 1936 Montreux Convention makes maintaining a robust NATO maritime presence difficult. The convention gave Turkey control over the Turkish Straits and placed limitations on the number, transit time, and tonnage of naval ships from non–Black Sea countries that may use the strait and operate in the Black Sea.
Non–Black Sea state individual warships in the Straits must weigh less than 15,000 tons. No more than nine non–Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days.14
“Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits,” July 20, 1936, http://sam.baskent.edu.tr/belge/Montreux_ENG.pdf (accessed April 5, 2021). However, it is worth pointing out that the tonnage restrictions do not apply to “naval auxiliary vessels specifically designed for the carriage of fuel, liquid or non-liquid.”15
Ibid., Art. 9.
Damon Grosvenor, “Second U.S. Destroyer Enters Black Sea, Operates Alongside NATO AIRCOM,” U.S Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet, January 28, 2021, https://www.c6f.navy.mil/Press-Room/News/News-Display/Article/2485628/second-us-destroyer-enters-black-sea-operates-alongside-nato-aircom/ (accessed April 19, 2021). The USNS Laramie did not count towards the tonnage allowed by the Montreux Convention. Incidentally, this was “the largest U.S. Navy presence in the Black Sea in three years.”17
“U.S. Navy Sends Third Ship into Black Sea, Largest Presence in Three Years,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 29, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-navy-sends-third-ship-into-black-sea-largest-presence-in-three-years/31075511.html (accessed April 5, 2021). This places limitations on non–Black Sea NATO member operations in the Black Sea region.
Political Challenges. There are also challenges on the political front.Due to internal disagreements among Black Sea NATO members, the Alliance has been unable to meet its expectations in the region. For example, the creation of a permanent NATO maritime force in the Black Sea has been discussed, but not realized.
Of the three Black Sea NATO members, Romania is perhaps the most enthusiastic about increasing NATO’s presence in the Black Sea. On the other hand, Turkey, which has the most capable navy among the Alliance’s Black Sea members, sees the region as more of a national issue and not a NATO one. Therefore Turkey, as the controller and guarantor of the Turkish Straits under the 1936 Montreux Convention, is always cautious, hesitant, and, at times, even suspicious of NATO initiatives for the Black Sea. Finally, Bulgaria is best described as the reluctant partner in the Black Sea. This is mainly due to domestic political differences about the role NATO should play in the Black Sea.
This lack of common understanding by NATO’s Black Sea members makes it more difficult for the Alliance to develop a comprehensive strategy.
Soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S., along with several other NATO members, stepped up its presence in the Black Sea. But since then, this presence has been drastically reduced. Although NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged an increase in NATO ships to the Black Sea in February 2017, progress has not been made as quickly as expected.
The restrictions that limit the size, number, and length of stay for non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea is one of the biggest factors to the reduced presence of NATO in the sea.
An Increased NATO Presence. Obviously, the most immediate solution to this problem is for NATO members to increase their presence by committing to rotational Black Sea patrols: The only thing preventing NATO from doing so is political will. A longer-term solution would be for NATO and its non–Black Sea member states to invest in and help develop the maritime capabilities of the Alliance’s Black Sea littoral states, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, along with NATO partners Georgia and Ukraine.
However, there are two creative ways to increase the Alliance’s presence in the Black Sea that should be considered:
One might reasonably ask about the feasibility of placing a very expensive warship into a narrow canal or river. There are three reasons why this is not an issue.
The Sea of Azov is a small body of water surrounded by Russia and Ukraine and connected to the Black Sea by the Kerch Strait. In the broader discussion about security in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov is often an afterthought. However, the security of both seas is intertwined, and the U.S. and NATO cannot operate in one without considering the implications and security situation in the other.
The Sea of Azov is relatively shallow and has proven to be strategically important for centuries. In recent years it has been the location of Ukrainian–Russian tensions. In November 2018, a Russian tanker blocked three Ukrainian navy ships’ passage through international waters near the Kerch Strait, and Russian warships opened fire on them, injuring six sailors. Russian forces boarded the three naval ships, seizing the ships and 24 Ukrainian sailors. It was not until September 2019 that the sailors were finally returned to Ukraine along with the ships. But only after Russia stripped the insides of the ships to make them inoperable.
Today, the Sea of Azov is important for three geopolitical reasons.
1. Ukraine’s Economic and Military Well-being. Along the coastline lies Mariupol, Ukraine’s 10th-largest city and one of the country’s leading trade ports. Mariupol is also near the frontlines of the fighting in the Donbas. Under the 2003 Treaty Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait,21
“Treaty Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait,” December 24, 2003, https://www.informea.org/en/treaties/agreement-between-russian-federation-and-ukraine-cooperation-use-sea-azov-and-strait-kerch (accessed April 19, 2021). both the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait are shared territorial waters between Russia and Ukraine. However, Russia illegally delays Ukrainian commercial ships from passing through the Kerch Strait.22
Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, “Crimean Experts Warn Russia Has Appetite for Black Sea, More Ukrainian Land,” Euractiv, February 26, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/crimean-experts-warn-russia-has-appetite-for-black-sea-more-ukrainian-land/ (accessed April 14, 2021). Considering the importance of the strait for Ukraine’s sea-based exports, the economic impact of Russia’s actions is expected to be severe.
2. Russia’s Continued Occupation of Crimea. With Ukraine still controlling access to the Isthmus of Perekop, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait play a role in connecting mainland Russia with Crimea and allow the resupply of Russian troops based there. This is nothing new for Russia. In fact, throughout the military history of the region, the Sea of Azov has played an important role for resupplying troops on Crimea. In a U.K. House of Lords debate during the Crimean War in 1855, one speaker noted “that considerable quantities, both of grain and iron, had left the Russian ports in the Sea of Azoff (sic) since the commencement of the present war, and that, in fact, the provisioning of the Russian army in the Crimea had been principally conducted from the ports of that sea, and by means of vessels navigating it.”23
“Blockade of the Sea of Azoff—Question,” U.K. Parliament, March 1, 1855, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1855/mar/01/blockade-of-the-sea-of-azoff-question (accessed April 5, 2021).
Neil MacFarquhar, “Putin Opens Bridge to Crimea, Cementing Russia’s Hold on Neighbor,” New York Times, May 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/world/europe/putin-russia-crimea-bridge.html (accessed April 14, 2021). The effect on Ukraine’s regional economic interests can be seen in the fact that 30 percent of the cargo ships that served Mariupol could not clear the span.25
“Shipping Volumes at Mariupol Port Fall 10 Percent Against 2017: Media,” UNIAN Information Agency, January 9, 2019, https://www.unian.info/economics/10402497-shipping-volumes-at-mariupol-port-fall-10-against-2017-media.html (accessed April 14, 2021). In December 2019, Russia completed a new rail bridge over the Kerch Strait that the EU condemned as “yet another step toward a forced integration of the illegally annexed peninsula.”26
Ann M. Simmons, “New Rail Bridge to Crimea Strengthens Russia’s Hand Against Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, updated December 26, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-rail-bridge-to-crimea-strengthens-russias-hand-against-ukraine-11577379297 (accessed April 14, 2021).
3. Russia’s Eurasian Identity. Russia’s desire to maximize influence in Eurasia can also help explain, at least in part, its determination to occupy Crimea, dominate the Black Sea, and fully control the Sea of Azov. One of the two canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the outside world is the Volga–Don Canal, which links the Caspian Sea with the Sea of Azov. Russia has used the Volga–Don Canal27
Interestingly, the U.S. has also used the Volga-Don Canal in the past. Between 2000 and 2003, the U.S. Coast Guard gave three cutters to Azerbaijan. These ships traveled from the West Coast of the U.S. to Azerbaijan via the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and the Volga-Don canal to the Caspian Sea. Obviously, a similar feat would be made impossible today due to the current geopolitical situation. to move warships between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov.28
Paul Goble, “Volga-Don Canal, Last Great Stalin Project, Desperately Needs Updating or Replacement,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 17, No. 116 (August 6, 2020), https://jamestown.org/program/volga-don-canal-last-great-stalin-project-desperately-needs-updating-or-replacement/ (accessed April 14, 2021)
“Moscow Moving 15 Warships from Caspian Sea to Waters off Ukraine.” The ability to move warships from the Caspian region, which includes Central Asia, to the Black Sea (and vice versa) allows Russia to project power in an important area of the world, while giving Russian policymakers flexibility and options when a crisis arises in the region. There is also a proposal to create a Eurasia Canal, which would transform the Kuma–Manych Canal (currently only an irrigation canal) into a shipping canal that would link the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. If realized, this would be the shortest route from the Caspian Sea to the outside world.
A Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) is a legal mechanism used to document the U.S. non-recognition of specific excessive maritime claims. The U.S. has carried out FONOPs since 1979, using military forces, notably the Navy, in consultation with Department of State and U.S. diplomats in the target country. To document its legal non-recognition of specific claims, the Department of Defense publishes the claims it has contested using FONOPs in an annual report to Congress.30
U.S. Department of Defense, “DoD Annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) Reports,” https://policy.defense.gov/ousdp-offices/fon/ (accessed April 5, 2021).
Some called for a U.S.-led FONOP to happen soon after the 2018 Kerch Strait incident, but due to the then-geopolitical circumstances, it was neither realistic nor advisable for the U.S. to send warships into the Sea of Azov. Almost three years after the incident, a FONOP done under the right circumstances would be right and proper.
Legal Obstacles. However, there are legal obstacles currently in place that would make this easier said than done. For example, according to a 2003 Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, both the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait are shared territorial waters between Russia and Ukraine. Section 3 of the treaty states that both parties have to consent to any foreign warship or other state ship entering the Sea of Azov. Obviously, Russia would not agree to a U.S. or NATO warship doing so. Even with Russia’s aggression and an illegal occupation of Crimea, Ukraine still remains a party to the 2003 agreement for reasons that seem based on the pretext it might bolster arbitration with Russia; a position that seemingly is a legal fiction given recent hard power realities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Also, the Department of State has never issued a Limits of the Seas report on this strait. The Department of State’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs’ Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs conducts legal reviews of coastal states’ maritime claims to assess consistency with international law. The last report done on a great power competitor was in December 2014 (regarding China’s Nine Dash Line in the South China Sea)—and no report has ever been done on the Kerch Strait, let alone Black Sea excessive claims. In this case, it is important that the U.S. submits a report on the Kerch Strait to clarify U.S. legal understandings of this waterway and form a basis for any follow-on actions.
Consequently, before the U.S. or its allies can conduct a FONOP through the Kerch Strait and into the Sea of Azov two things must first be done. First, Ukraine needs to announce that it no longer considers itself bound by, or a party to, the 2003 Treaty on the Legal Status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Second, the U.S. State Department needs to issue a Limits of the Seas report on the Kerch Strait. At this point, if U.S. policymakers want to seriously consider a FONOP, there are at least four possible options to consider:
The economic, security, and political importance of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov is only becoming more important. With Russia increasing its military capability in the region, now is not the time for the U.S. or NATO to grow complacent. The U.S. and NATO must increase their presence in both seas. This can be done by:
The economic, security, and political importance of the Black Sea and the broader region is becoming more important. Security in the Sea of Azov is closely connected to security in the Black Sea. The security of the Black Sea is important not only for NATO’s southern flank, but also to keeping the door open for future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. With Russia using the Black Sea as a springboard for operations in places like Syria and Libya, and with continued Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, the U.S. and the Alliance cannot ignore the region.
Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Brent Sadler is Senior Fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology in the Center for National Defense, of the Davis Institute.