The Inhospitable Sea: Toward a New U.S. Strategy for the Black Sea Region

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The Black Sea region (BSR) has become a central fault line in the strategic competition between Russia and the West. It is also the crossroads for a security space that encompasses the South Caucasus, eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and the Western Balkans and an important transit node between Europe and Asia. While some of the littoral states have secured NATO and European Union membership, all are to varying degrees caught in the middle of the unfolding strategic competition between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic West. Even before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the growth of Russian military power and political influence in and around the Black Sea posed a significant threat to regional security, including that of NATO allies and partners. Having failed in its initial goal of overrunning Ukraine entirely or ousting its government, Russia’s aims during the present war have included attempting to consolidate control over Ukraine’s Donbas region, seizing control of Ukraine’s coastal regions, demoralizing the rest of Ukraine, and achieving wider political and military dominance over the BSR.

The war in Ukraine is forcing the United States and NATO to devote more attention to the region, one which NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg recognized has “vital strategic importance” to the alliance. Yet the United States cannot assume a robust NATO or EU strategy, nor can it rely on the littoral states (or other Western NATO allies) to restore the balance of power and open lines of communication in the BSR. With China seen as the United States’ pacing challenge in the Indo-Pacific, an updated U.S. Black Sea strategy will be resource constrained, and its objectives will likely be defined by regional allies and partners’ perspectives. Based on field work throughout the Black Sea region, the authors conclude that an effective U.S. strategy should 

  • further strengthen the U.S. presence across the region through force deployments, weapons sales, investments, and diplomatic engagements;
  • bolster NATO’s eastern front while enhancing flexible and “minilateral” cooperation among allies and partners, including with Ukraine;
  • seek a new equilibrium with the region’s most potent ally, Turkey, while reassuring other regional states worried about Turkish ambitions;
  • prioritize democratic resilience among vulnerable frontline states inside and outside of NATO; and
  • support and secure projects to enhance regional connectivity that bypass Russia.

This report is made possible by support from the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University.

Lisa Aronsson

Research Fellow, National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies
Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program