Russian and Ukrainian naval forces have clashed in the Black Sea. Though the region lies on NATO’s weak southeastern flank, the alliance is unlikely to intervene in an area where Russian and Western interests collide.
The Black Sea is not exactly know for its turbulent waters, nor for being a geopolitical flash point. This, however, changed quite dramatically in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine — though the peninsula had originally been gifted to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. In the meantime, it has developed into a key area of Russian interests on the NATO’s southeasternmost flank.
Russia is now heavily militarizing Crimea and the Black Sea. Some 28,000 Russian soldiers are stationed on the peninsula. Russia has practically doubled its military budget over the past ten years. And Ukraine’s tiny naval fleet, based along the coast of the Sea of Azov, is under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thumb. Already back in 2008, the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs warned that Russia was systematically increasing its military presence in the Black Sea region.
Russia’s new submarines and frigates, equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, pose a serious threat to nearby NATO states, and especially to Bulgaria and Romania.
Black Sea: Falling under Russian dominance?
In Cold War times, Bulgaria — then a staunch ally of the Soviet Union — and Romania were members of the Warsaw Pact military alliance. Today, however, a new geopolitical situation presents itself, as both Bulgaria and Romania have switched sides and joined NATO. Their Black Sea coasts, meanwhile, are NATO’s long-ignored weak spot.
Romania has long warned not to allow Russia to militarily dominate the Black Sea. As such, Bucharest has emphatically urged the deployment of NATO forces in the region, including that of a multinational naval fleet.
Sofia, in turn, rejected calls to deploy NATO forces in the region — after all, Bulgaria still maintains close cultural ties to Russia. This makes Bulgaria NATO’s weakest link. Which is compounded by the fact that Sofia relies on Soviet-era military equipment. And Russia knows the various weaknesses of the Soviet air defense systems very well. Yet Donald’s Trump’s insistence that NATO states increase their military spending has not fallen on deaf ears. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced in summer 2018 that the country would invest some $2 billion (€2.28) to modernize its armed forces.
Turkey and Russia pursue shared economic interests with regard to the Black Sea, much to the irritation of NATO and the EU. Last week, Putin and Erdogan agreed that the Turkstream gas pipeline will become operational in late 2019; it will direct gas straight through the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine. Which means Ukraine will lose out on a sizable chunk of gas transit fees. This, too, is another indication that Russia’s economic stranglehold over Ukraine is only increasing.
However, the new pipeline could befit Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia, as gas would be channeled from Turkey onward towards central Europe as of 2020, though talks are still ongoing. But this fact, too, does not bode well for the security of NATO’s southeastern flank.