On June 14, NATO will be holding a summit in Brussels, and at the top of the agenda will be the rising Russian presence in the Mediterranean. As a precursor to the summit, the NATO Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise kicked off early this month off the Coast of Portugal. The live maritime exercise includes participation from 11 allied nations from North America and Europe, and it will be led by U.S. Second Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, who also heads NATO’s Joint Force Command Norfolk.
“This is a much more subtle fight – literally from seabed to outer space across all domains – when compared to World War Two’s transportation of goods and manpower from North America to Europe,” Lewis said in describing the exercise.
According to Lewis, there is an urgent need for a coherent approach to transatlantic security that links the two continents and stretches to the Arctic. This need is occasioned by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its increasing aggressiveness since 2014. But why is Russia a concern for NATO’s generals as far as its sea power in the Mediterranean region is concerned? To answer this question, we need to contextualize a century-old confrontation between Europe’s major powers and Russia and why Black Sea is one of Russia’s most important geopolitical strongholds.
This was the subject of a recent article by Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia program. Stronski argues that Russia will leverage its Black Sea presence to project its power and influence in the Mediterranean, protect its economic and trade links with key European markets, and make southern Europe more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
Further, the only access that Russia has to the Mediterranean is the Black Sea, forming an important route for its military operations beyond the neighborhood as well as the means to export its hydrocarbons. However, the Mediterranean is currently dominated by NATO, requiring Russia to be more strategic in its bilateral outreach to key states within this region.
Specifically, in recent years there has been renewed commitment by Russia to collaborate with states such as Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Libya ostensibly to make political, economic and military inroads in the Mediterranean.
However, Turkey and Ukraine – both with connections to NATO – present a real challenge to Russia’s ambitions. To a great extent, Turkey controls Black Sea’s access from the Mediterranean via two important choke points; Bosporus and Dardanelles. On the other hand, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Black Sea has become a maritime trouble spot between Russia and Ukraine. In 2018, Russia seized three Ukrainian military vessels as they were trying to access the Black Sea via Kerch Strait. This kind of pressure is seen by some analysts as a concerted effort by Russia to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. So far, Crimea’s annexation has allowed Russia to obtain dominance in the northern Black Sea.
In his article, Stronski further states that Moscow self-justifies Crimea’s annexation as necessary to prevent the strategic balance from shifting decisively in NATO’s favor should Ukraine decide to join the Western Alliance.
Besides its military strategy, Russia has an economic drive to seek dominance in the Black Sea. By leveraging the southern port city of Novorossiysk, Russia hopes to cement its regional influence the land-locked Central Asia, which is dependent on the port for oil exports. The Black Sea is also an important transport artery for the Russian natural gas market, most importantly the TurkStream pipeline, which strengthens Russia’s foothold in European energy markets especially in Southern Europe.
In view of the growing power competition in the Black Sea, a recent strategy paper by Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) treats the Black Sea region as the center of four great forces: democracy on its western edge, Russian military aggression to the north, Chinese financial aggression to its east and instability in the Middle East to its south. It’s literally a philosophical frontier between democracy and autocracy.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.