The Ukraine War approaches its nine-month mark with no end in sight, no easy path to extrication or war termination, and no clear and clean victory without risk. In this context, it is crucial to recall the war’s strategic importance and recognize that the Black Sea is the prize Russia seeks. Western policymakers must view the Black Sea as both this conflict’s center of gravity and the focal point of Russian competition with the West. In turn, Western strategy can better prepare NATO for Black Sea confrontations both by bolstering Ukrainian naval capabilities and, of equal importance, expanding the capabilities of NATO’s Black Sea states. The longer the Ukraine War continues, the more likely Romania and Bulgaria will become the lynchpin of NATO policy.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson signals a new phase of its onslaught against Ukraine. There is little incentive for a legitimate peace at this point for either side. Russia would use any ceasefire to rearm its military, build in workarounds to the Western-applied sanctions regime, and undermine Western European enthusiasm for renewed support in Ukraine. This is not a peace, but a brief armistice, the conditions of which would clearly favor Russia. Ukraine understands this. It also has the battlefield momentum to press its gains. Having scored two major victories in three months and having compelled Russia to withdraw from right-bank Kherson Oblast without an urban assault, Ukraine has no reason to seek even a short-term ceasefire that Russia could use to its advantage.
Most critically, there is no sign that Russia has abandoned its long-term objectives. At minimum, it seeks to hold Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, thereby affording it a stranglehold over Ukrainian trade based on its current borders – a dividing line along the Dnieper would place Odesa, Kherson, and Mykolaiv at continuous risk of Russian pressure. This is one factor explaining right-bank Kherson’s long-term relevance: without a bridgehead over the Dnieper, it is difficult to envision a renewed Russian assault across it unless Russia can refit its armed forces during a ceasefire. At best, however, Russia hopes it can achieve a ceasefire, strike some sort of compromise that legitimates its gains in Ukraine’s south, and then hold Ukraine back from NATO or EU affiliation for long enough to enable another offensive.
Holding Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline is crucial for Russian objectives in three respects. First, with a consolidated Black Sea position, Ukraine cannot function as an independent state – Ukrainian grain must pass through Russian ports at any significant volume, thereby ensuring that the Kremlin has a stranglehold on global food supplies. Second, with Ukraine’s coastline under its control, Russia can project power around NATO’s southern and southeastern flanks, pressuring Romania and Bulgaria and sustaining any deployments to the Mediterranean, which before Turkey’s invocation of Montreux Convention had become routine. This enabled all manner of strategic activity in the Levantine Basin and farther west, including Russia’s Syria and Libya interventions. Third, and perhaps most critically, a stronger Russian Black Sea position would allow it to dominate Turkey’s strategic orientation. Turkey hedged during the Ukraine War’s opening days but has now tilted softly towards the West. If Russia can rescue its war, however, Turkey is sure to shift tack once again, surrounded as it would be on three sides by Russian power.
Read the rest at RealClear Defense.
Seth Cropsey is president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.