Three Conflict Scenarios for the Black Sea in 2020
What happens in the Black Sea does not stay in the Black Sea. The region’s status as a crossroad linking Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is its most important advantage—and its greatest risk. It is the region with the highest density of protracted conflicts. Civil wars causing major migration flows are occurring at its doorstep. Disruptive security challenges in the Black Sea ripple immediately into Europe’s core, Russia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Security and stability in the Black Sea are crucial for the Balkans, Russia, the Levant, and Central Asia.
As we look towards 2020, the Black Sea region faces a wide array of security challenges and conflicts. One year ago, the Kerch Strait between the Black and Azov Seas witnessed a military clash between Ukraine and Russia. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started the Donbas war, it attempted to go as far as the major port city of Odessa. A new separatist movement in Odessa could spark at any time. The Russian annexation of Crimea enabled Moscow to lay claim on a newly discovered energy-rich zone. Ukraine, NATO member Romania, and Russia now share this region, and Romania is starting to exploit resources with the help of Western partners, creating new potential for conflict. A few hundred miles to the south, the Syrian war has been grinding on with the military involvement of Russia and Turkey. Ankara’s conflictual positioning towards NATO and the EU increases the risk of a new large-scale migration crisis.
Scenario One: Western Black Sea Offshore Gas Fields
The annexation of Crimea brought Russia an exclusive economic zone rich in offshore gas. According to a report by the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy, Ukraine lost 80% of its oil and gas deposits due to the annexation. This caused the withdrawal of Western energy companies from the now-disputed Crimean Exclusive Economic Zone. It also means that Romania, a NATO member state currently exploiting its Economic Exclusive Zone, is now de facto bordering Russia at sea. Romania is almost energy independent, but so far has failed to become a regional energy hub for its resource-poor neighbors Moldova and Ukraine.
Consider a scenario in which an accident occurs when a Russian military vessel rams an offshore gas well operated by a Western company in Romania’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The four staff members present on the well for a routine inspection at the time of the accident are injured, and two do not survive by the time help arrives. One of the victims is an American citizen.
The White House reacts harshly to the incident, blaming Russia and calling the incident an “aggression.” Forty-eight hours after the accident, a leaked American intelligence report sheds doubt that the incident was actually an accident. Moscow reacts by sending several military vessels to the site of the incident. In response, Romania issues warnings for Russian troops not to approach the Romanian Black Sea shore. Additionally, the Romanian Ministry of Defense publishes a list of Romanian air space violations by Russia. When Russian and American war vessels face each other in such proximity and the world is watching, Russian military capabilities retreat. The EU proposes an energy security strategy. The world’s attention moves on to the next crisis.
What would result from such an incident? The incremental retreat of Western companies from offshore explorations, following new risk analyses. A new narrative highlighting the insecure and environmentally unfriendly nature of offshore exploration given the novelty and undeveloped stage of technology would emerge, scaring energy companies away from offshore exploration in such contested areas. In the Black Sea, Russian companies would try to fill the vacuum, creating an energy monopoly, making energy independence of the smaller Black Sea countries impossible. So long as energy production does not proceed, the energy autonomy of Black Sea countries becomes impossible, adding to their vulnerability to Russian pressure.
Scenario Two: Refugee Flows from Syria Restart
A new round of EU-Turkey negotiations regarding refugees from Syria fail under Turkish pressure and in the absence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes good on his repeated threats to “open the gates” to a massive influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees start moving West towards Europe and enter Bulgaria on their way through the Balkans into Western Europe. Women, children, and elderly refugees are met by armed groups in Bulgaria, who confront them and refuse to grant passage. Violent clashes erupt, transforming Bulgaria’s southern border into a war-torn area.
Russia has been financially and logistically supporting armed groups in Bulgaria with a xenophobic overtly anti-Muslim agenda. Young men from across the region have joined the cause of defending “fortress Europe” from an “Islamic conquest.” Socialist nostalgia, antisemitic conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, and anti-liberal policies have coalesced into the “voluntary border patrols” ideology. These volunteers have received extensive paramilitary training in camps and are ready to prevent refugees from Turkey entering Europe via Bulgaria.
Violence escalates leading to mass arrests, and some unarmed Syrian refugees get harassed and killed. International media outlets adopt a cautiously pro-refugee policy, but RT covers the story daily at prime time with such headlines as “Orthodox Christian civilization under pressure by Muslim migration and potential terrorists” and “Citizens defending their values.” Previously limited financial and logistical support from Russia for Bulgaria-based armed groups multiplies within days, and bands of bikers from the Black Sea and Caucasus region join the “Christian values defense.”
Nationalist anti-Muslim groups rally strong public support in Bulgaria and beyond with young men from Romania, Serbia, and Greece joining the cause. The European Union exerts pressure on Bulgarian authorities to protect refugees, but the national law enforcement authorities are overwhelmed. The message from the United States is mixed and unclear. Major fights erupt along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
After weeks of violence and unrest and international narrative wars, the European Union manages to reach a new understanding with Turkey by which Ankara solidifies control of the migration flow to the European Union. From a humanitarian point of view, the West fails on two levels: protecting refugees and losing a value conflict against the Kremlin narrative of nationalist ideology, highlighting further weaknesses as well as rifts in Western solidarity. The Black Sea deepens into strategic volatility to the extent that NATO and the European Union member states cannot ensure governmental control of their own territories.
Scenario Three: Further Russian Aggression in Ukraine
Odessa is Ukraine’s third largest city and one of the most important tourism and transport hubs in the Black Sea. Over the last three decades, Russia has maintained 2,500 troops nearby in the frozen conflict zone of Moldova’s Transnistria region. During the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the armed conflicts in the Donbas region, the Kremlin repeatedly attempted to spark conflict in Odessa by accusing the Ukrainian government of failing to protect citizens by encouraging unrest and violent clashes leading to 46 deaths and attempting to organize a referendum for the independence of Odessa. Odessa remained a part of Ukraine as Russia couldn’t rally local support. Following the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine closed the Transnistrian border, and Russian troops occupying Moldovan territory have had to rotate through Chisinau.
Imagine a scenario in which 50 citizens of Odessa start demonstrating in the city center against the Ukrainian government’s minority rights laws. After a few hours, they are joined by hundreds of other people, many Russian citizens, and make headlines on RT and Russia’s most watched TV channels, as well as on some European news outlets. Separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk react with statements of solidarity and support. In Odessa, men in unmarked uniforms appear promising to “impose order.” Meanwhile, Russian media insists that Ukrainian authorities have failed to ensure order and allege that Ukraine is a “failed state.”
Two days after the first protesters arrive in Odessa, the number of soldiers in unmarked uniforms multiplies. The demonstration has now occurred for over 48 hours with hundreds of participants. Images of citizens protesting for “democratic minority rights” in biting cold with locals distributing tea are featured on Russian TV with the title “Odessa heroes.” Although the men in unmarked uniforms have barricaded all main roads out of Odessa and refuse to grant access to Ukrainian law enforcement, this is only marginally covered on international media outlets. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls in his National Security Council, declares a State of Emergency, mobilizes the armed forces, and appeals to the West for help. Meanwhile, warships from the Russian Black Sea fleet appear on Odessa’s shores. What would happen if gunfire is exchanged at such road barricades?
Would the international community condemn this as a Russian invasion, or ask to see incontrovertible evidence first? If the European Union’s High Representative assumes European leadership on the conflict, then he could well propose negotiations that cause a stalemate and reduce Ukraine’s control in Odessa. Would the United States intervene?
These three conflict scenarios are plausible risks for the Black Sea in 2020. Looking at “the wider Black Sea area” over a medium-term perspective, a more complex array of challenges is visible. In the Western Balkans, proposed land swaps and France’s veto against the European Union expansion add tension to a vulnerable region at the heart of Europe. To the south, Turkey’s divergence from other NATO members and the development of Russia’s offensive military capability development and projection into the Mediterranean add fuel to the fire. Along Turkey’s southern border, Iraq and Syria will be consumed by humanitarian tragedies. Finally, looking east, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding Beijing’s influence in the Black Sea and into Europe more broadly. Increased security and stability in the Black Sea will be essential.
To prevent further conflict, American and European policymakers should prioritize the Black Sea as a security region. At a minimum, sanctions against Russia should be maintained. The West should support Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as their Western path. To prevent China’s buying up of the region, Western powers should consider offering infrastructure investment opportunities as alternatives to a poor and underdeveloped region while ensuring visibility with regard to regional public opinion. Lastly, in the NATO framework, pressure should be exerted to prevent Turkey from acting against collective interests.
© 2020 Foreign Policy Research Institute