On July 25, President Vladimir Putin gave a rousing speech in St. Petersburg to mark the 325th anniversary of the founding of Russia’s navy. Speaking in front of a statue of the fleet’s founder (and Putin’s favorite tsar), Peter the Great, he declared, “Today, the Russian Navy has everything it needs to secure the defense of our native country and our national interests. We are capable of detecting any submarine, surface or airborne adversary and dealing them an imminent strike if necessary.”
Putin’s speech was accompanied by an impressive parade of naval hardware—evidence of his assertions and of Russia’s military modernization over the last two decades. The country’s resurgence as a naval power has made the biggest waves in the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to create a new nautical sphere of influence. Moscow’s moves there, including upgrading its Black Sea fleet and laying claim to the territorial waters around Crimea, threaten to upend the balance of power in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean Sea and to endanger freedom of navigation—not just in those waters but in waters around the world.
For centuries, Russia has viewed the Black Sea as central to its security. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783, and her consort, Prince Grigory Potemkin, created the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol that same year. In the nineteenth century, Russia vied with Europe’s major powers and with the Ottoman Empire for influence in and around the Black Sea. But it was not until the Cold War that the Soviet Union became the dominant power in the region, balanced only by NATO member Turkey. The Soviets also used the Black Sea to project power in the eastern Mediterranean.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Russia experienced an abrupt reversal of fortunes in the Black Sea: Georgia and Ukraine became independent countries and sought integration with the West, and Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO in 2004. As a result, Russia lost access to parts of the Black Sea’s coastline that it had previously controlled directly or indirectly. Russia and Ukraine agreed to divide between them the Black Sea fleet, which remained headquartered in Sevastopol. In 2010, Kyiv renewed Moscow’s lease on the fleet until 2042, but after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014 and a new pro-Western government took over, Putin feared it might renege on that agreement.
Thus began Russia’s aggressive return to the Black Sea region. In March 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea and took over most of the Ukrainian ships in Sevastopol, forcing the Ukrainian navy to move its headquarters to Odessa. Putin justified these moves by claiming that “NATO ships would have ended up in the city of Russian navy glory, Sevastopol” had Russia not preemptively seized Crimea. Since then, Russia has tripled its de facto coastline on the Black Sea and bolstered its missile forces in the region, strengthening its position there through a combination of military, diplomatic, economic, energy, and information tactics.
Russia has reasserted its dominance in the Black Sea in part through a significant naval buildup. Putin has been working to resurrect Russian maritime power since he entered the Kremlin two decades ago, reversing a period of precipitous naval decline and creating a more agile, modern, and multipurpose navy. Since the 2014 annexation, however, Russia has gone further, positioning new platforms, troops, and weaponry in the Black Sea that in turn have helped it increase its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, a crucial theater of Moscow’s operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has also modernized its naval base at Tartus, Syria, as part of its broader bid to return to the Middle East.
At the same time, Moscow has claimed the territorial waters around Crimea as Russian waters and sought to control them. On June 23, for instance, the British destroyer HMS Defender briefly entered the 12-mile territorial zone around Crimea, as was its right under the “innocent passage” provision of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United Kingdom had planned the exercise—and taken journalists onboard the ship—to challenge Russia’s claim to the waters surrounding Crimea and to assert freedom of navigation. Russia responded angrily, however, firing warning shots at the British destroyer and later denouncing what Putin called a British-American provocation. It was a preview of the kind of naval standoff that is likely to become more common as Russia aims to force the world to accept its annexation of Crimea and both Russia and China seek to erode long-standing maritime norms.
Moscow’s assertive behavior has unnerved the Black Sea’s other littoral states, including Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has already invaded both countries in a bid to prevent them from joining NATO, and it continues to occupy parts of their territory. As a result, both have adversarial relations with Moscow, and both are working with NATO to strengthen their maritime defenses. Putin’s insistence that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that Ukrainian cooperation with NATO represents a national security threat to Russia has further exacerbated tensions, stoking fears of an expanded Russian incursion into Ukraine.
Romania, a staunch NATO ally, is also wary of Russia’s military capabilities and suspicious of its intentions. NATO member Bulgaria has closer, more complicated relations with Moscow, but it remains committed to Western integration. Both Romania and Bulgaria favor a larger U.S. and NATO presence in the region.
But the Black Sea state whose stance toward Russia will most affect Putin’s bid for naval dominance in the region is Turkey. Russia and Turkey have a long history of conflict, much of which has played out on the Black Sea. But since the failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, the two countries have grown closer, largely because Putin has supported Erdogan’s narrative around the coup attempt and refrained from criticizing the Turkish president for cracking down on his opponents. In a sign of the new comity, Turkey purchased advanced S-400 air defense systems from Moscow, angering NATO and prompting the United States to remove Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program.
Moscow’s moves in the Black Sea are a threat to free navigation in waters around the world.
Turkish-Russian relations have not been entirely cooperative, however. The two have backed rival military forces in Libya and Syria. And during the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey supported Azerbaijan while Russia mediated between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the cease-fire, Russia had to accept a Turkish peacekeeping role in its “near abroad.” Tensions have also flared over Erdogan’s strong support for Ukraine and his public position that Crimea is Ukrainian, not Russian. In July, Turkey delivered its first armed drone to Ukraine’s navy, a sign of deepening Turkish-Ukrainian military ties that are sure to irk Russia.
Ankara has considerable leverage over Moscow, because it can grant or deny NATO ships access to the Black Sea. For the last 85 years, Turkey has regulated merchant and military maritime traffic into and out of the sea according to the Montreux Convention, which ensures free passage for shipping through the Turkish straits during peacetime and has a set of provisions to regulate the passage of warships—for instance, requiring that Turkey be notified in advance. Ankara has maintained a consistent policy of impartiality in implementing the Montreux Convention, meaning that it has occasionally denied access to NATO ships.
In recent years, the United States has pushed Turkey to adopt a more liberal interpretation of the Montreux Convention so that NATO could expand its presence in the Black Sea. Turkey has so far rebuffed these requests, but it could be on the verge of upending the convention for its own reasons: Erdogan has proposed a controversial canal project that would divert maritime traffic away from the congested Bosporus strait to an artificial waterway west of Istanbul. This new canal would not fall under the terms of Montreux, meaning that NATO warships could theoretically enjoy unrestricted passage to the Black Sea. Unsurprisingly, Putin has criticized this project and pressured Erdogan to preserve the Montreux Convention.
The Biden administration must decide how to respond to the Kremlin’s growing military presence in Black Sea region and to its bid to control the waters around Crimea. The stakes are higher than just Russia and the Black Sea, moreover. The fate of Crimea’s territorial waters could have profound resonance in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims sovereignty over most of its territorial waters.
Countering Russia’s play for naval dominance in the Black Sea will need to involve Turkey, since it controls access to the Black Sea. So far, the Biden administration has adopted a cautious approach toward Ankara, agreeing to disagree on issues such as Turkey’s democratic backsliding and its record on human rights but establishing a working relationship with Erdogan’s government on a number of issues of importance to the United States, including terrorism. The impasse over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s and its subsequent exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program remains unresolved, however. Erdogan is unwilling to jeopardize his ties with Moscow, however complicated they are, even as he presents himself as a necessary partner to Washington in dealing with Russia. Still, the Biden administration will have to press Turkey to work with NATO more actively to counter Russia in the Black Sea.
In the short and medium term, the United States and NATO should also continue to provide political and military support to Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine to help them build resilience against Russia’s power play in the Black Sea. They should work with Georgia and Ukraine to modernize their militaries within the framework of enhanced cooperation with NATO and, increasingly important, to identify and counter Russian disinformation aimed at undermining the United States’ and NATO’s role in the region.
In the longer term, Washington should seek to persuade all Black Sea states to comply with existing agreements that assure freedom of navigation and the right of “innocent passage” in territorial waters. Jettisoning these agreements in Crimea would represent a threat to regional security, global trade, and the current world order.