Roots of antagonism in the Black Sea region

Boris Toucas, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has recently published a two-part series of essays on the geostrategic importance of the Black Sea region and the potential for NATO-Russia confrontation in the area. (You can read the essays here and here.) The following is a review of the first essay in the series.

Mr Toucas begins the first of his two essays, The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History, with the emergent rivalry between the Tsarist Russian and Ottoman empires that resulted from Russian expansion to the south, into what is today Ukraine and toward the northern slopes of the Great Caucasus Mountain Range. Following the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-1774, the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca granted Moscow direct access to the Black Sea via the ports of Azov and Kerch.

A further result of this war saw that the Khanate of Crimea gain nominal independence from the Ottoman Empire (guaranteed by Russia). Increasing Russian influence and the inflow of settlers however soon led to conflict, and in 1783 Moscow annexed Crimea. The port city of Sevastopol was established in the same year.

Russo-Turkish War

Allegory of Catherine’s Victory over the Turks (1772), Stefano Torelli, Tretyakov Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Black Sea remained a theater of conflict between the Russians and Ottomans. Moscow’s strategic interest was to gain control over the Bosphorus and Turkish Straits but it repeatedly failed in this endeavor, including during the Crimean War (1853-1856). In this conflict, Great Britain and France sided with the Ottoman Empire against Russia precisely because they feared Russian hegemony in the Black Sea region.

Turkish control over the Straits was firmly established by the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates vessel traffic into the Black Sea up till today. Non-littoral states may deploy warships there up to a limit of 15,000 tons individually and 45,000 tons collectively at any one time, and each vessel is permitted to remain in the area for a maximum of 21 days.

In the essay’s second part, Mr Toucas explains how continued rivalry – now between the Soviet Union and the Turkish republic established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – contributed to the development of the Truman Doctrine. After World War II, Moscow increasingly pressured Ankara to renegotiate the Montreux Convention in a way that would give the USSR shared control over the Turkish Straits. U.S. President Harry Truman then pledged that the United States would contain Soviet influence in Turkey and Greece, and the U.S. Congress appropriated financial aid to support both countries’ economies and militaries.

What became known as the Truman Doctrine was more generally interpreted as American support for nations anywhere that were threatened by Soviet communism. It also led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which both Turkey and Greece became members in 1952. Throughout the Cold War, the Black Sea would remain an area of fragile equilibrium – one of the “naval front lines” of the bipolar world.

While superpower confrontation ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, access to the Black Sea was a key factor in the emerging antagonism between the Russian Federation and newly independent Ukraine in the 1990s. Crimea was the main bone of contention, as it had been centuries earlier between Tsarist Russia and the Ottomans.

In 1954, the Soviet Union had celebrated the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Russia. As it were, 300 years earlier the Cossack hetmanate under Bohdan Khmelnitsky had sought a political and military alliance with the Russian Tsar after suffering a crushing defeat in a battle against the King of Poland. Soviet authorities conveniently ignored the further denouement of this episode, which saw a devastating 30-years war between Russia, Poland, the Tatars, and the Cossacks and ultimately ended with Russia and Poland splitting modern-day Ukraine between themselves.

Crimea Transfer

Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR “About the transfer of the Crimean Oblast from the RSFSR to the USSR”. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of this unhappy outcome, and also of the fact that in 1944, Crimean Tatars had under Stalin’s orders been deported en masse from their homeland, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to mark the occasion by transferring Crimea – which, until then, had been an autonomous entity under the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR) – as a “gift” to the Ukrainian SSR. The implications of this step for the Russian military, which had continued to base its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, became apparent only after the Soviet Union fell apart: Crimea was now an integral part of an independent Ukrainian state.

In 1997, Moscow and Kiev concluded the Ukraine-Russia Friendship Treaty, stipulating that Russia would lease the Sevastopol naval base from Ukraine for 20 years (a provision extended in 2010 until 2042) against the cancellation of Ukrainian debt and concessions in energy prices. The treaty also split the assets of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet between the two countries, with Russia retaining approximately 80 percent and the remainder going to Ukraine.

In its final segment of his essay, Mr Toucas addresses the re-emergence of Russia as an influential player and naval power in the Black Sea. It interprets Russia’s renewed assertion of dominance and military presence through the mirroring lens of increasing Western interest and influence in the area since the early 2000s.  With Romania’s accession to NATO in 2007, three out of six Black Sea littoral states are now members of the alliance. A further two, Georgia and Ukraine, put Western-leaning governments in power after the Rose and Orange Revolution in 2003 and 2004, who promptly committed their countries to a path of NATO integration as well.

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Georgian-Russian war, August 2008. Image: DivineDanteRay via Wikimedia Commons

The Russian at first tried to use political and economic measures to keep Tbilisi and Kiev in check, using natural gas prices and its importance as an export market for agricultural and food products as levers. However, in August 2008 Russia stepped in militarily when Georgia attempted to regain control over its break-away region of South Ossetia. The Russian military response led to a swift Georgian defeat. Subsequently, Moscow recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Black Sea littoral Abkhazia, another entity that had slipped out from under Tbilisi’s control in the early 1990s. Both regions have since become even more dependent politically, economically, and financially on Russian patronage since 2008. Russian military forces are stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in response to the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukoych had decided against further economic integration with the European Union, instead opting to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). Demonstrators camped out in central Kiev for months as part of the “Euromaidan” protest and endured intermittent brutality by Ukrainian security forces. In the end, violence escalated and the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted  to remove the President.

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Protestors march in Moscow after the annexation of Crimea under the slogan “Occupation of Crimea is the shame of Russia.” Image: Bogomolov.PL via Wikimedia Commons

Within days after Yanukovych fell, unmarked Russian military forces – supported by a so-called “people’s militia” – appeared and took control of localities in Crimea, including Sevastopol and the administrative center of Simferopol. Following a controversial referendum, whose official results showed strong majority support for joining Russia, Crimean authorities first declared the peninsula independent of Ukraine and then signed a Treaty of Accession with the Russian Federation.

As Mr Toucas describes, Moscow quickly proceeded to place S-300 (NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble) and upgraded S400 (SA-21 Growler) anti-aircraft missile defense as well as Bastion-P mobile anti-ship coastal defense (SS-C-5 Stooge) in Crimea. These weapons systems — coupled with the deployment of S-300 at Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia — allows Russia to create a so-called anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” over the Black Sea. While A2/AD is principally defensive in nature, it also serves to intimidate other Black Sea littoral and neighboring states.

Furthermore, Russia has demonstrated that it is ready to use its military assets in the Black Sea region for offensive purposes. During its military intervention in Syria, Moscow has been using elements of its Black Sea fleet, for instance to launch cruise missiles from surface vessels and submarines at targets in the country.

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Russian navy vessels deployed in the eastern Mediterranean to provide air defense over Syria. Image: Russian Ministry of Defense/ mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

Mr Toucas concludes the first part of his essay series by pointing to the continuity of the geopolitical importance of the Black Sea in Russia’s strategic calculus since the XIX century:

Crimea is the military source, Turkey is the pivot, and the Turkish Straits are the strategic throughput; and the end goal is access to and military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as a counterbalance to U.S. and NATO expansion eastward and its presence in the Aegean and Central Mediterranean.

This apt quote caps off the magnificent service Mr Toucas has done in providing a condensed and concise explication of why a region that has often been deemed of secondary importance really does matter geostrategically. The Black Sea, of course, has been a crucial area, if not of domination, but of trade and colonization for centuries and even millennia prior to Tsarist Russia’s push to the south.

Interestingly, over the course of history, the Black Sea has more often been a space of contact than of division: be it the first colonies established by the Mycenaean city of Miletus in the 6th century BCE in Theodosia (modern-day Feodossija) and Panticapeum (Kerch), the significance of maritime trade supplying classical Athens with grain from the Crimea, or the trade that brought the Varangians of the Kievan Rus’ to Constantinople.

Thracian coins

Thracian coins from the city of Panticapeum, 4th-3rd ct BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Domination became a primary concern with the conquest of Byzantium by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. By the end of the 15th century, the Ottomans controlled access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, as well as the major river mouths opening into the sea. Throughout the next hundred years, the Ottoman fleet was rivaled only by the Venetians in sophistication: besides its main base at the Imperial Arsenal at Pera, the Ottomans had subsidiary fleets stationed at Kavala, Lesbos, Rhodes, Alexandria, and Suez as well as river squadrons on the Danube and Sava rivers.

The Russia empire first came into maritime conflict with the Ottomans in 1696. Tsar Peter I was defeated in his campaign to invade the port of Azov on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea because his army could not prevent the replenishment of the port’s Ottoman fort. Subsequently, Peter I pursued the establishment of a Russian navy by drawing on the experience of other maritime powers of the time.

In 1770, the Russians inflicted the greatest naval defeat on the Ottomans since the 16th century. At the Battle of Chesma the Ottomans lost 12 of 16 ships of the line as well as all the frigates, galleys, and support ships involved. The collapse of the fleet arguably encouraged rebellion among Christian minorities in the Balkans against Turkish suzerainty. These uprisings ultimately contributed to the defeat of the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 and the signing of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which opens Mr Toucas’ essay.

Stamp Oryol

Soviet stamp commemorating the frigate Oryol, the first Russian-built Warship (1668). Image: USSR Post via Wikimedia Commons

The strategic rivalry and repeated clashes between the Russians and Ottomans have to be seen in the light of events of the time. Ottoman power was declining simultaneously with its grip on its European territories in the Balkans. The Hapsburg empire tried to exploit Ottoman weakness to enlarge its own zone of influence. While Hapsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia had repeatedly allied against the Ottomans in the 18th century, the so-called “Eastern question” — what to do about the rebellious Christian subjects of the receding Ottoman empire — brought them into conflict.

As Austria sought to expand to the south and east, Russia did the same toward the south and west, which brought the two monarchies into direct contact and inevitably led to tensions. Tsarist Russia also encroached on other parts of the disintegrating Ottoman empire in the south-east. Having access to the western Black Sea littoral and, through the Bosphorus, to the Mediterranean was one of its vital strategic interest, compounded by the fact that the Russian navy traditionally faced a scarcity of warm-water ports. Hence why its repeated, if unsuccessful, designs to gain control over the Turkish Straits.

Today, Russia sees itself confronted by blocks and alliances that have extended, or seek to extend, their influence into its direct neighborhood: as mentioned above, three of six Black Sea littoral states are NATO members, and the EU has recently signed wide-ranging association and trade agreements with both Ukraine and Georgia. Lacking the military assets to hold NATO in check as well as the economic weight to compete with the single European market, Russia is reacting by furthering its interests through a strategy of indirect confrontation.

It has established its own project for economic integration (EurAsEc) and military cooperation (the Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO) in the post-Soviet space. By invading Georgia in 2008, fomenting conflict in eastern Ukraine, and placing its armed forces in Abkhazia and Crimea, it has shortchanged any plans of these two countries to integrate into NATO or the EU in the foreseeable future. Finally, by involving itself in the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar Al-Assad, it has retained and upgraded its naval facility at Tartus and also gained an airbase — under a 49-year lease agreement — at Khmeimim. Its presence in the eastern Mediterranean is further bolstered by an arrangement to dock Russian warships in Cyprus and, potentially, by an agreement (currently under negotiation) on  establishing military bases in Egypt.

As Russia is thus increasingly bumping up against the interests of Western powers in eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Levant, at issue is whether indirect confrontation could turn into direct conflict in the Black Sea region. Mr Toucas examines this question in the second part of his essay series, which we will review shortly. Watch this space!

Featured image: Map of the Crimean War, 1853-1856. Yuri Koryakov via Wikimedia Commons

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