Russia’s Black Sea position has Eurasian strategic significance because the Ukraine War is a Eurasian War, not a European one. As the balance shifts against Russia, escalation becomes more probable, and as the Indo-Pacific balance of forces shifts, U.S. policymakers must consider the facts. Ejecting Russia from Crimea should be an American policy goal: all other territorial objectives are relative to the battlefield situation and the imperative of political prudence.
The Ukraine War looks to be a European war. It is in fact a conflict for strategic control of what will now be termed the “Eurasian Nexus.” This term is far more strategically relevant than typical discussions of the global economic center of gravity, which should be located somewhere in Central Asia at this point. Rather, it points to the confluence of trade routes and lines of communication that link Eurasia’s two halves. Hence the Eurasian relevance of Russia’s position in the Black Sea.
The Kremlin has been a reactive power over the past two decades. It sparked escalating tensions in 2008, but only grabbed what it could during the Georgia War, terminating the conflict after under two weeks. It pushed too hard in 2013, sparking Euromaidan by demanding Ukrainian President Yanukovych completely cut ties with the EU and embrace the EEU. He again grabbed what he could in 2014 but was unable to do more than snatch Crimea and part of the Donbas. Today, Putin remains locked in his ruinous war of conquest for the same reactive reasons: an improving Ukrainian military, combined with a variety of post-imperial analytical delusions, motivated the invasion.
However, the Kremlin’s reactive strategy has an active hallmark: Russia looks for seams and leverage points to exploit. In this respect, the Black Sea is crucial. The greatest seam in NATO’s defenses are along its southeastern flank. NATO is a heavy organization overwhelmingly oriented towards Baltic and landward European defense—paradoxically—despite the Western coalition’s maritime strategic fundamentals, NATO’s navies are not strategically coordinated or focused on combat. In turn, the Russian position in the Black Sea enables power-projection in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, both allowing it to pressure NATO and giving it greater Eurasian leverage at the Eurasian Nexus Point.
Crimea is the keystone of Russian power throughout the Eurasian Maritime Nexus. Without Crimea, Russia holds only a small portion of the Black Sea coastline. A hostile power holding Crimea can pressure Russian supply and communications lines running south through the Dardanelles and into the Levantine Basin. Turkey, moreover, has little incentive to accommodate Russian objectives: Russia can do little to pressure it without holding Crimea, which is a functional dagger pointed at Turkey’s heart.
Turkey is the geopolitical prize Putin seeks, even beyond Ukraine. Turkish hostility has barred Russia from the Black Sea for centuries. Although Russia held Crimea during the Cold War, and could develop a position in the Eastern Mediterranean, NATO-Turkish links were strong enough to prevent a strategic reorientation.
Since 2014, Russia has used its position in Crimea to pressure Turkey from all angles, taking advantage of the political fissures in the Atlantic Alliance to manipulate Turkey’s strategic orientation. Russian forces bracket Turkey from the North in Crimea and the Black Sea, the South in Syria, the northeast in Armenia, and the west in Libya. Erdogan sat on the Ukraine War’s sidelines for its first few days. Had Russia smashed through Ukraine, he likely would have broken with the West publicly, reoriented towards Moscow, and accommodated Russian interests regionally.
This reality makes the western Black Sea of utmost strategic importance to NATO. Romania and Bulgaria are positioned perfectly to pressure Russia’s Black Sea and Mediterranean positions, to erode Russian power as it is ground down in Ukraine, and to serve as a shield for NATO interests in the Levantine Basin.
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