The Black Sea is a key node in Eurasian strategic competition. This has been true since the 16th century. The Black Sea is part of a broader interconnected maritime space that includes the Levantine Basin, Red Sea, and Western Indian Ocean. This maritime space is a global strategic nexus point, the beating heart of Eurasian trade.
Russia’s grand strategy clearly centers on control of the Black Sea. This was true even before the Ukraine War escalated on 24 February 2022. Imperial, Soviet, and now modern Russia have all sought to dominate the Black Sea, because control of the Black Sea is a prerequisite for any broader aggression against Europe.
Although Russia is the foremost hostile power in the Black Sea, China and Iran have designs on the Black Sea as well. Chinese interests are primarily economic, but depending upon the arrangement that ultimately ends the Ukraine War, Beijing could become a relevant regional player. Iran, by contrast, views the Black Sea as a passage into Europe, particularly critical given the Middle East’s volatility.
The Black Sea is crucial for any long-term conventional defense of Europe. Hostile control of the Black Sea threatens NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria, creates the potential for a much longer Russia-NATO line, and enables far greater political fissures within the Atlantic Alliance.
NATO’s Black Sea position also provides the US an opportunity to shore up its broader Eurasian strategic position. The Black Sea is a uniquely placed Eurasian lake. If the US and its allies can gain a dominant Black Sea position, the US gains near-direct access to the Eurasian heartland, an unprecedented state of affairs for a maritime power. This access, meanwhile, provides a legitimate bulwark for those states on the heartland’s edge whose existence has been defined by heartland threats. For the mutual security of the US as NATO’s political-military benefactor and those states on NATO’s front-line, a Western Black Sea strategy, and improved Western Black Sea position, is sorely needed.
The Montreux Convention modifies the legal aspects of force structure in the Black Sea. Turkey’s role is central, but creative deployment patterns, and a force structure that adapts to the Black Sea’s physical realities, can reduce Montreux’s impact upon military deployments.
Historical and contemporary evidence demonstrates the way in which a dispersed, mobile, aggressive force can be leveraged on land and at sea in the Black Sea area. This force should leverage long-range strike capabilities, employ dispersed platforms, capitalize on the unique subsurface dynamics within the Black Sea, and have an aggressive operational disposition.
The US should make a Black Sea strategy a priority. The Black Sea strategy should include a formal recognition of the Black Sea’s role in Eurasian competition, an understanding of the strategic dynamics at play around the Black Sea, and the articulation of a leading American role within the Black Sea.
A defense industrial framework for the Black Sea region that includes Eastern Europe more broadly should undergird American strategy in the long run. A defense industrial system that includes Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic at minimum would expand collective defense capabilities and allow the US to shift some of the materiel burden for conventional defense to Eastern Europe.
The central strategic issue for the US will be the management of the contradiction between Old and New Europe, which will also be relevant in the Black Sea. The Western European powers will remain invaluable members of the Atlantic Alliance and EU. But they will never truly embrace a forward-leaning Black Sea or Eastern European approach because of their differing historical conceptions of Eurasia and domestic political modifiers that undermine their willingness to partner with the US. The US, therefore, must prioritize Eastern Europe through the Black Sea for long-term regional strategic stability.