Navigating Security Challenges in the Black Sea Region

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on January 11, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Max Bergmann: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming, and thank you for joining us here at CSIS for what I think is going to be a really fascinating conversation on the security risks in the Black Sea Region.

My name is Max Bergmann. I am the director of the Europe, Russia, Eurasia Program in the Stuart Center here at CSIS.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now approaching its third year. We’re about to have the second anniversary next month, and its consequences are being felt all over the world – especially in Europe, but especially in the Black Sea Region.

The European continent’s security architecture is being challenged in ways that haven’t been seen since the Second World War. And some of the most profound and far-reaching effects of the war can be seen in the Black Sea Region, and are impacting not just Ukraine, but all the countries in that region.

The Black Sea, once relatively stable, has become a key strategic theater in the war, and a zone of conflict. There have been now numerous conflicts – not just the one that we have right now, but over the last few decades in the region itself. That has sparked a lot of interest here in Washington of perhaps we need a more coherent U.S. national strategy toward the region. Congress was prompted to mandate the administration produce a strategy, which it did earlier this year, and so there’s a lot of issues at play: How does the U.S. engage the region? What is the state of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea itself? And how does NATO itself approach the conflict in the Black Sea itself?

So lots to discuss over the next hour, and I’m delighted to be joined by an excellent group here. We have Dr. Jeff Mankoff and Dr. Lisa Aronsson. They are our kind of go-to elite hitters when it comes to this issue of the Black Sea. They produced a really phenomenal report earlier this year which I – or earlier last year that’s now nearly a year old – highlighting the fragile security situation in the region.

But we’re also greatly honored to have Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs here with us – Liz Allen. Thank you so much for being here.

And let me give a brief introduction to all three panelists. Elizabeth Allen has served as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since she was sworn in on June 15, 2023. Since then nothing has really happened in the world, so it has been a very calm job. She also served as Assistant Secretary of Global Public Affairs from September 2021 to April 2022.

With Dr. Jeff Mankoff, who is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, as well as a Senior Associate with our program, the CSIS Russia-Eurasia Program.

And finally, we have Dr. Lisa Aronsson, who is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, also at NDU, and I should say that both Jeff and Lisa are here in their personal capacity and do not reflect the views of NDU, DOD, the U.S. government, or any other government agency that I failed to mention.

But with that, let me turn the floor over to Liz. Thank you.

Elizabeth M. Allen:

 Thank you.

Mr. Bergmann: Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Under Secretary Allen: Good morning everybody. Thank you for joining us on this Thursday to talk about the Black Sea. And thank you, Max. Thank you CSIS for having me. It’s a real honor.

I’ll just say a few things at the top, and then we’re really looking forward to having a rich, open discussion here, but wanted to say Happy New Year and thank you for joining us.

I’ll start by saying that reflecting on the mythic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to find the golden fleece – which some people do more than others of us – we are reminded of the sophisticated maritime kingdoms that once thrived along the Euxine or hospitable sea. These realms, known to ancient historians, thrived thanks to the trade and travel facilitated by the Black Sea. From the Hittites to the Venetians, this waterway has been a vital link connecting ocean-going societies since the Bronze Age.

Today, the Black Sea is bordered by Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine, all connected by the sea to the larger world. And today, as Maxwell mentioned, the region faces new and emerging challenges due to Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine and Georgia, threatening these vital connections.

I traveled to Bulgaria, and specifically to Varna, the Black Sea port city in Bulgaria, in late October and early November. In some ways, that feels like two-and-a-half years ago, not two-and-a-half months ago.

But I’m really pleased to be here to reflect particularly on that visit what I learned and what we brought to the table. I’ll just say that during that visit to Varna, Varna being this key port city in the Black Sea, the gravity of the challenges I mentioned – security, economic, energy, democratic, societal really – could not be more apparent, and it really mattered to show up.

While there I engaged with Bulgaria’s naval leaders, Ukrainian refugees, and local Varna residents, including some very well-connected reporters that I’m excited to talk about later. And through doing so, you really do grasp the acute tension that exists in everyday life, given what’s happening in the Black Sea Region. You feel tangibly the Black Sea’s crucial role in regional and global security and well-being, and that global peace is something I’m really looking forward to us unpacking – the interconnected nature of what’s going on in the region having impacts across the world.

I’ll say that when I was there I visited Bulgaria’s naval headquarters, as I mentioned, and met with Bulgaria’s naval leadership. And I was shown maps of the time about where drones had affected ships and ports, and where Bulgarian forces, in collaboration with NATO allies Romania and Turkey, had neutralized Russian mines. And I’m very pleased that at that time two-and-a-half months ago, we were talking quite aspirationally and conceptually about a partnership between Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey on minesweeping in the Black Sea. And just over the last 24 hours, that agreement has been signed in Istanbul, progress that we’re very glad to see.

On my trip, also – I just have to note – that my conversations with Ukrainian families, including teenagers and children who are courageously rebuilding their lives in Bulgaria, further highlighted the very human impact of this conflict, which I hope we get to talk about alongside the security conflict.

And so let me just say this very clear today, this morning to open the discussion: the United States has long recognized the geostrategic significance of the Black Sea region bordering these three NATO allies, and serving as a key corridor for essential goods, including Ukrainian grain, as we all know, and vital for global food security. The region is rich in untapped energy resources and is essential to the global stability, particularly in the energy sectors.

And we are doubling down on our focus. Our vision for the Black Sea Region aligns with the aspirations of most nations there: a region that is secure, prosperous, interconnected, free from threats to territorial integrity, and devoid of economic coercion. Simple, right? And we are committed to working closely with our allies to achieve this vision.

As Max mentioned, last summer the United States released the first of its kind U.S. Black Sea Strategy, and so I’ll just talk very quickly about that. The U.S. Black Sea Strategy is predicated on five pillar areas: security, economic, energy, democratic resilience, and diplomatic engagement. We are actively advancing these objectives, enhancing NATO force interoperability, supporting transparent strategic infrastructure investments, diversifying energy supplies with clean energy solutions, and more.

I just want to take a minute to focus on the democratic resilience pillar because it is where me and my team – the Public Diplomacy Team at the State Department, five thousand strong across the world – are most keenly focused. Fostering democratic resilience, as we say, requires a very dedicated and multi-faceted approach because the threats here are not limited to conventional warfare, right? They include sophisticated disinformation campaigns in particular, which is where we are spending a lot of our time and energy. These disinformation campaigns, led by Russia, alongside nations like the PRC and Iran, threaten to undermine any pillar of progress because indeed it takes the free flow of truthful information and a healthier information space on any issue to allow us to make progress. It is not just that Russia is looking to influence opinions on issues; they are corroding the very fabric of our interconnectedness and the trust in freedom that fosters regional prosperity. Again, this is where the focus of our team lies.

So we are working to foster a more free, open, truthful information space, something that I won’t take too much time up here to talk about but that I hope we have a chance to talk about when we are sitting down. I would note that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center – or GEC, which some of you might be familiar with – falls in our Public Diplomacy family. They were established by Congress in 2017, and they have produced over 750 reports on disinformation and countering foreign malign influence, particularly from Russia and China. And they have a report that very specifically exposes Russian disinformation narratives around the Black Sea Grain Initiative and Russia’s forcible transfer and deportation of Ukraine’s children.

But we know that exposure of disinformation alone is not enough, of course. We are collaborating with partners to support information integrity and independent media to protect journalists in civil society, to build resilience against information manipulation through things like media literacy education, and there is much more to say, but I’ll be quick up here.

I do just have to note that while we are confronted with these acute crisis threats, particularly disinformation in the information space, part of building democratic resilience is also continuing to invest in long-term relationship building, both in each country and among the region. And so a lot of the work of our public diplomacy programs, exchange programs, study abroad programs, English-language classes, using things like culture, food, art and music to bring people together who may not otherwise have a reason to talk about some of the tougher issues that we eventually hope they do – those programs are really key. We feel very strongly about the importance of building these long-term relationships. I’m fond of saying that the future isn’t going just to be shaped by government-to-government relationships, but indeed by people-to-people relationships.

And as it turns out, the U.S. government is quite good at identifying the leaders of tomorrow early in their careers. I’ll give you a quick elevator stat. Over 650 leaders at this head-of-state level have gone through a U.S. government exchange program or public diplomacy program. That’s an astounding number. And so when we think about what we need to do to keep the Black Sea Region – and indeed any region, but particularly the Black Sea Region today – resilient to further Russian aggression, and more resilient as we build a future upon these five pillars, it really matters that we’re engaging with folks early and often, and equipping them with the tools and experiences that they need to lead in their societies. So we’re focused a lot on that long-term work as well.

Let me be done – let me close by acknowledging that the Black Sea has historically been a connector of people, cultures and societies. And so our goal through the U.S. Black Sea Strategy and our enduring partnerships in the region with our NATO allies and other partners is to ensure that this connection remains unimpeded and that the waters remain a conduit of peace and cooperation.

And with that, I look forward to our discussion. Thank you. (Applause.)

Mr. Bergmann: Yes, yeah. Well, thank you so much for that.

I think, you know – it reminded me of back when I was in the State Department in 2011 when the U.S. announced its Pivot to Asia, and part of the key Pivot to Asia was simply U.S. diplomats going to Asia more because, you know, it’s far away, it’s hard to get to. And I think your visit in some ways is sort of walking the walk of the prioritization given to the Black Sea Region. And as an undersecretary with a global portfolio, has the Black Sea become more of a focus of your work in your office, or was this just sort of a one-time sort of visit?

Under Secretary Allen: (Laughs.) The answer is two things can be true. And thank you for the question.

I will say – one thing I would say to all of you as someone who, again, who was able to be in Varna just in the last few months, is this concept of showing up in person really can’t be understated in its importance – or, excuse me – overstated in its importance.

We all know why U.S. diplomats and U.S. officials go visit places, right? We’re working on negotiations, we’re trying to push or pull people away from different solutions. But what was true, particularly in Varna and in Bulgaria – where I was the most senior U.S. government official to visit in this administration, which surprised me, but I was very happy to go – was the importance of them feeling heard. And it was really interesting to hear this very senior admiral in the Bulgarian navy who had spent his entire career working on defense and security on behalf of Bulgarians, very proudly say, we’ve not had a U.S. visitor show up here in the port city of Varna for as long as he could remember.

So I actually think part of what we are really trying to prioritize amongst this State Department leadership team is the importance of showing up and being able to walk the walk on our allies, feeling like we care, feeling like we respect our partnership with them, we place importance on our partnership with them in such high regard that it is worth the visit.

And I fear that I’m going to break some news here, but we are looking to have Secretary Blinken visit Bulgaria in short order as well for various similar reasons. Bulgaria has been a really important ally. You know, often Romania and others have gotten more visitors, and so it really mattered to show up.

And so I’m sorry – that’s a bit of a tangent, but I just want to sort of say to everybody that we really believe, particularly in this administration, about, you know, allies and partners aren’t taken for granted, and certainly building those relationships, rebuilding them, reshaping them, and evolving them really is based on a lot of these person-to-person relationships.

To the spirit of your question, Max, the Black Sea Region has always been a priority area for public diplomacy, and for those of us in the State Department who have functional portfolios; indeed, global portfolios, what I would say feels different now – and this is derivative of a broader approach to U.S. foreign policy – is the way in which we are thinking about things more regionally, or in a way that we are kind of reshaping partnerships and coalitions that are fit for purpose.

Secretary Blinken has a phrase – variable geometry of diplomacy – and what he means by that is traditional multi-lateral partnerships or traditional alliances are of course always going to be important. But to meet the needs of today, whether it’s something as acute and unjust as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or whether it’s a more global problem that knows no borders like public health and pandemics, it’s going to take us thinking more creatively about our partners and alliance – our partnerships and alliances than ever before. And so I think what you see, particularly in the Black Sea Region, is not just cooperation with our three NATO allies, but other partners in the region as well.

Mr. Bergmann: You were there, I think, at a pivotal time that Ukraine – one of the silver linings, I think, for Ukraine over the last –

Under Secretary Allen: Yeah.

Mr. Bergmann: – year, especially with this counteroffensive not having the success that it hoped for, but Ukraine achieved great success in the Black Sea through its strikes on Crimea, pushing back the Russian fleet, and opening up a grain corridor – or a shipping corridor where it could get – or begin to get grain to market again.

I’m curious. How did – on your visit, how was the security situation perceived in Bulgaria and in the region? There’s Russian mines that are floating around, there’s Russian drone strikes that are becoming increasingly close to NATO territory, particularly in Romania where Russia is trying to strike Ukrainian ports on the Danube.

Is there a sense of panic, concern? How would you sort of rate the mood of the region when it comes to the security environment?

Under Secretary Allen: Really good question, and here I would actually point out quite a difference between how it felt in the capital city of Sofia in Bulgaria versus Varna, right, and amongst Bulgaria’s leadership – just by way of example – there is of course agreement on the threat and the security environment as a policy matter, as a, you know, budget matter. But it really feels different – you know, to your question of how it feels – it feels of course different to people who are living in a port city. It’s much more immediate. It’s a much more immediate threat to them. And so I think part of what was so important and part of what’s important as people from both the public and private sector consider visits and consider understanding sentiment on the ground, it’s really making sure that you are talking to people outside of just government officials and also outside of capitals because while there is of course conceptual agreement on the existential nature of the security threat, which is how it feels to them, there is also a difference in terms of the day-to-day realities. And so governments have to be responsive to that.

What I would say is there was a great deal of optimism and appreciation for how much partnership exists between our three NATO allies and the United States on Black Sea security. And there was also a very clear-eyed view on what is a short-term achievable goal in terms of making security gains and what it a more long-term proposition.

I think the minesweeping agreement that we saw signed just in the last day is a really good example of something that, again, conceptually, those three countries knew they wanted to do. And when I was there, again, just two-and-a-half months ago, there was a bit of skepticism about if they could, quote, “make it real.”

And so this concept that, on a very quick turn relative to precedent, we are working with our partners, amongst them and with them, to try to really turn what we know is an imperative conceptually into a practical initiative. There is a great deal of appreciation and motivation around that. And yet there is a lot of understanding that it’s going to take years and years, and budgets, to do the kind of defense hardware modernization that’s also required in the region. That’s something that the Bulgarians felt acutely.

Mr. Bergmann: Before turning to Lisa and Jeff, let me also ask you about the issue of disinformation –

Under Secretary Allen: Yeah.

Mr. Bergmann: – which I know in Bulgaria is a particular concern, but it is a concern throughout the region, whether in Georgia or other places about information related to the war. I know Bulgaria has frequently had close ties with Moscow, even after the end of the Cold War. And I think there is a sense that we were – that the West, that Ukraine was struggling when it came to the information space.

How do you – how did you sort of assess that? Is that something you heard? And what steps is the U.S. looking to take to help Bulgaria and others sort of combat Russian disinformation in the region?

Under Secretary Allen: I’m going to resist the temptation to go on for too long about this – (laughter) – but let me just say a few things. I’m so glad you brought this up – thank you – because, as I mentioned, the concept of disinformation and information integrity underpins every issue in every geography amongst every audience across the world. And I would say, as a broad national security matter, people are waking up to the fact that disinformation is not a communications issue, it is not an intelligence issue; it is all of that and a fundamental national security issue, right? And so with that in mind, disinformation was on the bilateral agenda of every country I visited this fall, and I did 10 countries in eight weeks. In some form or fashion, we talked about how to counter disinformation, how to create healthier information spaces in every country, and Bulgaria chief among them, frankly. As you mentioned, Bulgaria has long been at the tip of the spear or Russia’s disinformation efforts.

What we found – what we have found since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which I think felt so egregious to most Bulgarians, really woke a lot of people up to Russia’s intentions and Russia’s manipulation. And so there is a lot of appetite for the, OK, what can we do about it.

And what I would offer when we think about countering disinformation, it has really moved far beyond just a matter of calling out lies with truths, or correcting falsehoods with facts. It’s really trying to get ahead of making audiences smarter on their own information consumerism, and making media spaces and information spaces healthier to begin with because we are not going to stop the outflow of disinformation from Russia and China. We can make some strategic gains, we can disincentivize them from doing this, we can put them on their back foot, and that’s a whole other panel discussion. But what we really need to be doing is making the space in which that disinformation comes healthier so that it’s less likely to take hold.

So what does that look like? When I was in Bulgaria, when I was in Sofia, I was there in part to help announce a $900,000 grant that the U.S. government and the Poynter Institute are giving to local Bulgarian media and civil society organizations to actually have a media literacy curriculum implemented amongst audiences to understand that they are being acted upon by the Russians.

And so there’s a lot of work; not just to analyze and call out what the Russians are doing. There is also a lot of work to actually make audiences and information spaces healthier.

The last thing I’ll say – and the Global Engagement Center that I mentioned is at the center of this work. We’re very proud to be really forward leaning.

We have to put actual policy solutions around this problem. Again, I think for a long time it was a communications department of certain governments working on this, maybe it was an intelligence component. It’s really all of those things, but what we’ve – what we’re trying to lead the way on as the U.S. government – and this is just within the last six months – is having an actual framework, a bilateral framework by which the United States and other allies and partners can agree to work together on countering disinformation through solutions like better analytical capabilities, like media literacy programs, like enabling independent media. And we signed one of the very first MOUs on that framework with Bulgaria in September.

And so when Bulgaria was in the United States for the U.S.-Bulgaria Strategic Dialogue, which hadn’t happened for quite a while, we signed that MOU to cap off a really productive day, and it’s part of why I did a follow-up visit just six weeks later to talk about implementation of that MOU. We’ve signed one of those with Moldova, with North Macedonia, more recently with Japan and South Korea. But Bulgaria was really at the leading edge of this, as was Moldova, because it’s so felt in the region.

Mr. Bergmann: Great. Well, Jeff, Lisa, maybe I’ll turn to you to talk about the security situation. Maybe, Jeff, I’ll start with you to talk about how you sort of see things playing out with Russia and Ukraine, and then, Lisa, maybe on NATO’s sort of increased presence in the region.

But Jeff, there has been a lot of activity in the Black Sea over the last few months, and I should say their report, “The Inhospitable Sea,” is worth checking out from February 2022. I think it previewed much of what was in the – or much of what we think is in the administration’s Black Sea Strategy. But, Jeff, how – what’s the current dynamic right now in the Black Sea militarily?

Jeffrey Mankoff: OK, thanks for the question, and Undersecretary Allen, thanks so much for joining us today.

So, Max, I think you hinted at this in one of your earlier questions, which is that while there has been a lot of focus in the analytic community and in the media on the progress – or rather, lack of progress – of the Ukrainian counteroffensive on land, there has actually been a pretty successful targeting of Russian assets in the Black Sea. So the naval dimension of the conflict has been going more positively for Ukraine relative to the land campaign. Strikes on Crimea have intensified, the number and tonnage of Russian ships that have been damaged or sunk is quite impressive, particularly given that Ukraine doesn’t have much of a navy of its own. Most of this has been done through anti-ship missiles, coastal defense, and other relative low-cost capabilities.

That said, Russia still has the ability to disrupt freedom of navigation across much of the Black Sea. It does still have a significant naval presence, even if more and more of those assets are being moved into the eastern part of the Black Sea.

Russia announced about a month ago that they are looking at building up another naval base in Ochamchire, in occupied Abkhazia, part of Georgia, and probably we would see some of the things that are being moved out of the range of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, you know, being moved either to Ochamchire or to the main Russian naval base on the Black Sea in Novorossiysk, so those forces are still there. I think they still have the capability to disrupt freedom of navigation in a way that makes the risk for private shippers and insurance companies such that they are going to be wary about taking the risk of moving significant amounts of cargo in those areas of the Black Sea that are subject to disruption.

We’ve also seen – you mentioned the mines. There has been a real sort of Russian shift, as they have seen their surface platforms be less and less able operate in the vicinity of Crimea and the western part of the Black Sea, a real turn to using mines as a way of disrupting connectivity and freedom of navigation there. Mines – again, very cheap, very easy to disperse including, you know, through aircraft, which is something that we’ve increasingly seen them do. And so even though Ukraine has had these tactical and operational successes, I think the ability of the Russians to continue disrupting shipping across the Black Sea remains very robust.

Ukraine has succeeded in opening the so-called “humanitarian corridor.” After Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative last summer, Ukraine went ahead and set up its own so-called “humanitarian corridor” from Odesa and some of the other ports in the northwestern part of the Black Sea, and that is continuing to function, and Ukraine is exporting grain and other commodities across that corridor. We see Russia trying to disrupt it, including through the missile attacks that you mentioned, targeting some of the ports along the Danube. So it’s a very fluid environment in the Black Sea, but one where Ukraine has made some significant gains.

That said, I think the developments on land matter in this context, too, because with the failure of the counteroffensive and the increasing questioning at the political level of Western states’ commitments to continuing to support, fund, and supply Ukrainian military operations going forward, Russia is increasingly trying to consolidate its control over the occupied and partially occupied areas of southwestern Ukraine, much of which comes up to the Black Sea littoral. So in the early stages of the Russian military operation, the focus was on many of the port cities in the northeastern part of the Black Sea – you know, places like Mykolaiv; Kherson, which the Ukrainians have now taken back; some others – and those areas are coming increasingly under consolidated Russian rule. The longer that they remain under Russian occupation, I think, the more difficult it’s going to be to ultimately eject Russia from those areas. And possession of them, again, enhances Russia’s capability to disrupt freedom of navigation across the Black Sea.

I think the focus for Ukraine going forward is very much on Crimea. They have stated as much; that sort of the military key to victory they see as driving the Russians out of Crimea or making Crimea untenable as a base for the Russian military, so we’re seeing increasing strikes there, particularly on naval facilities and ships, but targeting critical infrastructure in general and I think trying to make it less and less tenable for Russia to maintain its hold on Crimea.

Given the centrality that President Putin has placed on Crimea – remember the speech that he gave when Russia first seized Crimea in 2014 about its sort of historical – world historical importance to Russia’s resurrection, I think it would – it’s a very high bar to get the Russian government to actually pull back from Crimea. But I think this is where a lot of the focal point for the fighting is going to be, certainly over the next, you know, several months as Ukraine contemplates whether to carry out another counteroffensive next year or even thereafter.

Mr. Bergmann: It strikes me that the Black Sea and the commercial shipping that Ukraine has now enabled could be one of the major global flashpoints in the sense that we’re seeing in the Red Sea, for instance, how easy it is to actually – “easy” in quotation marks – for a couple strikes on commercial shipping vessels to bring commercial shipping to halt. And Russia has the means and motive –

Dr. Mankoff: Yes.

Mr. Bergmann: – to strike commercial vessels. So it seems like they’re trying to do it – disrupt the shipping corridor through mines in a more indirect fashion. But is there potential for Russia to strike commercial vessels, and if so, are they currently being deterred from doing that? And what would potentially be the response?

Dr. Mankoff: Yeah. I think Russia certainly does have that capability and, you know, I think when they were trying to disrupt the grain corridor, they were doing that. More recently we’ve seen commercial vessels strike mines which, even if they’re not being directly targeted, the presence of those mines is a significant risk. So I do think that that possibility is very much there.

I think that, you know, the Ukrainians are making a big push to try and secure that humanitarian corridor so that the private sector – so that the shipping companies have the confidence they’ll be able to move supplies through this route.

At the same time, you know, the Black Sea as a whole is much bigger than the area that’s covered by this humanitarian corridor, and I think there, you know, Russia does still have that capability. Whether they are choosing to use it right now or not I think is in part a political calculation. You know, they don’t need to expand the war, they don’t need to pick fights with, you know, other countries – you know, Turkey, for one, but also countries that would be, you know, engaged in that kind of shipping. But I think if the war – if Russia’s strategic position in the war deteriorates, that is certainly something that we could see. And I think as long as that risk is there – like we’re seeing in the Red Sea – it’s going to be a source of uncertainty and it’s something that’s going to deter the private sector from engaging in shipping as much as we would like to see them do that.

Mr. Bergmann: Great.

Lisa Aronsson: Can I jump in and just –

Mr. Bergmann: Please do.

Dr. Aronsson: – add to that – that, you know, I think so long as they are able to achieve some of their objectives through what we might call naval hybrid warfare or, you know, by – as we’ve heard yesterday and from Romanian and Bulgarian colleagues – they call it the closing off of large swathes of the Black Sea for snap exercises and these sorts of things, and through the mines, of course. There are other ways through which they are able to demonstrate coercion there.

We haven’t mentioned – we haven’t talked a lot about Romania, but I think on the grain issue I just think it’s important also to mention the enormous investments that Romania has made. And I also wanted to mention the importance of getting outside the capitals. Last time I was in Romania I had – I was able to visit Constanța and the port infrastructure there – the oil terminal infrastructure there, and see sort of firsthand how Romanian investments in Danube Delta infrastructure and in Constanța have been able – I think now Romania is responsible for helping get at least 65 percent of Ukrainian grain export out through the Black Sea, so just to mention that.

A couple – you asked me to talk a little bit about NATO. I think there is – generally since the Vilnius Summit there has been some good news, but there is still a lot to be done ahead of the Washington Summit.

And I’ll close, if it’s OK, Undersecretary Allen, with a question for you on that. The alliance has, in general since February 2022, seen the value of intelligence sharing. There has been this enormous political unity which we’re trying to maintain. European defense spending is up significantly. I think two-thirds of the allies will reach the two percent floor now by the time of the Washington Summit. We’ve seen agreements on common funding; raised budgets for the military, the civilian, and the infrastructure budgets; significant changes in allied arms export policies – I’m thinking in particular about Germany here – that have had quite a significant impact; and the accelerated delivery of NATO’s new plans. I think the emphasis looking ahead to the Washington Summit will be on demonstrating that these are executable.

So there’s a good news story on the defense spending and on the plans, and still a lot to be done on enlarging NATO to include Sweden, and advancing Ukraine’s relationship with the alliance.

As Jeff and I were preparing for this discussion, one of the things that we thought about was the relationship between the Black Sea strategy and the strategy for helping Ukraine to win this war. When we wrote our report, we initially wanted to visit Ukraine. We started this study before February 24, 2022, so we weren’t able to do that. But we – my understanding is that this strategy really needs to be connected to a strategy for them to win.

So the first point I wanted to make was to just agree on the importance of turning up. And one of – our first recommendation, I think, was more U.S. diplomatic engagements, but more U.S. presence more generally, so that would include more force deployments to the region, more weapon sales to the region, more support with the allied – recapitalizing allied donated equipment and munitions; more investments in the region, which ties to your energy security pillar; and of course more diplomatic engagements at more senior levels. So it was great to hear that.

I also just wanted to comment on your thought – your comment on thinking more regionally. And for us, we struggled initially to see the Black Sea as a region because of this comment you made about variable geometry – the allies, the partners, and the very different sort of cultures and approaches to the Black Sea Region. And one thing Jeff and I have been talking about recently is thinking about the Black Sea Region connection with the Western Balkans, and Russia’s attempt to expand its influence in Bulgaria, and in Serbia, and in Hungary, and Slovakia, and in Austria, creating a kind of – as one of my Bulgarian friends called it, axis of separation through there. So I’d be interested in your comments on that.

And then, last comment I want to make, it is indeed great news to hear about the signing today of the Turkish-Russian-Bulgarian cooperation on minesweeping.

Dr. Mankoff: Romanian.

Dr. Aronsson: Romanian. What did I say? Russian?

Dr. Mankoff: Russian. (Laughter.)

Dr. Aronsson: Romanian-Turkish-Bulgarian agreement there.

What are the other short-term objectives you might be looking for in implementing this strategy ahead of the Washington Summit this summer? So that would be a question I’d have for you.

Dr. Mankoff: If I could just jump in really quickly – the point that Lisa made about this, you know, axis of separation, or the Russian attempts to expand influence in this belt of countries sort of to the west of the Black Sea I think is a really, really important point. And I would add that I think we’re seeing something similar on the eastern side of the Black Sea in places like Georgia, Azerbaijan. I mean – and we can also talk about Turkey, which I think is a very complicated case in a number of ways.

So, you know, thinking about this in a larger regional framework, you know, I think it’s important that we focus on ensuring democratic resilience, and stability, and security within the Black Sea proper, but at the same time make sure that there is a similar amount of focus, and effort, and investment in these places on both sides of the Black Sea because I think – you know, I don’t like the metaphor necessarily, but I think if you think about it like a game of Go, you know, where you are focused on establishing your strong point sort of in the center, and if your rival is then building up around you in a way that kind of isolates you, then I think you may end up sort of winning the battle but losing the war.

Mr. Bergmann: Undersecretary Allen, Lisa’s question on Washington Summit and also commenting on their comments as well.

Under Secretary Allen: Sure. And thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here on the stage together. You both know more about the Black Sea than I can ever hope to even fractionally understand. So thank you, and thank you for your work and your report that has indeed quite informed our strategy.

A couple comments – I just want to go back and really double-down on our ally, Romania, which we are deeply grateful, but they are in the middle of particularly opening up the humanitarian zone and making that viable, with Bulgaria, but then also, you know, working with Moldova on the openness of the Danube River option, which we’ve seen quite a bit of grain travel through the Danube route, and we’re really optimistic, and we see signs that in ’24 we’ll be able to do even more, and so there is a lot of attention being paid to that.

I think on the regional point, you know, look, the NATO of it all loomed large on my own visit, as it does when we travel, and even just the very fact that, for example, Italy as a NATO ally was helping stand up and sponsor the battle groups new to the region in response to Russia’s aggression.

The idea of regional thinking is in some ways based in geography but also in terms of shared values and proximity of partners with shared values, and that was definitely something that was felt very much along my visit, I would say, and I imagine you find the same.

Look, on the Washington Summit – not just because it’s my portfolio but because it’s something that there is a lot of discussion about – in this moment, frankly, particularly as the United States sees what’s going to happen with our supplemental budget request, which is a little bit of an elephant in all of the discussions about how we’re going to be able to continue to support Ukraine. We’ve been unequivocal on behalf of this administration in our support for Ukraine and setting that up – setting them up, not just – again – for success on the battlefield, but also when they are ready, at the negotiating table, and that remains the case.

And so one of the things I would point out – and in part response to your comments – is we are thinking a lot here in the U.S. and with our partners and allies about how narratives, and strategic communication, and countering disinformation relates to creating the policy space to get the things done we need to get done.

And we’re seeing this coming out of the Middle East right now, too. Never before in history has the fragmentation and the complexity of our information space either constrained or opened the policy environments in which these discussions have to happen. And so actually one of the things we’re talking quite a bit with our NATO allies about leading up to the Washington Summit is how can we do a better coordinated job of talking to each important audience about the imperative; not just of defeating Russia and shutting down their aggression in Ukraine, but also the importance, frankly, of the NATO alliance, right? And then not just the NATO alliance, but partners of the NATO alliance, as we see in the Black Sea Region.

And we’ve done a lot of thinking about the importance of helping audiences understand how we’re all connected, and that’s something that we’ll be increasingly doing in the lead-up to the Washington Summit; not just in the NATO context, but really in the context of almost every issue happening in the world.

I think we talked a little bit before – or teased out the idea of the interconnectedness and the global nature of what’s going on in the Black Sea. The most obvious example is the effects on the continent of Africa in terms of their food security, right – something that we’ve really worked to try to mitigate the effects of what has been a global food security crisis, a global food and grain shortage. We can do that through all of the economic and security solutions like the humanitarian corridor that exists in the Black Sea. But we can also do that by fundamentally rethinking food security policy and what does it mean to help regions across the world, especially in Africa, be more self-reliant and more self-sustaining? That is all very connected to the Black Sea strategy. It is a matter of helping people understand what the implications, stakes, and effects are of what’s going on in one region on them.

And so, again, to come back to the communications imperative, we have to think about how to talk to Europeans about the U.S. steadfast commitment to Ukraine. We have to think about how to talk to African audiences about how they reap the effects, good and bad, of what happens in the Black Sea and what happens ultimately in Ukraine, and how they are being acted upon by Russian disinformation. And we have to be thinking about how to talk to Americans about why what’s happening over there, as we all know from our friends and family discussions, matters to them. And not just that, but the fact that our European allies are doing so much more than the average people in the American public think they are.

So that’s a bit of a rabbit hole answer, but just to say there’s a lot of sort of bigger level picture thinking happening on communications and interconnectedness, where we often find ourselves citing the Black Sea developments and the Black Sea strategy as either a microcosm of, or sort of a jumping off point for, these bigger discussions.

Mr. Bergmann: Let me ask you that, you know, part of the strategy is also on the economic investment side, on the need for energy security. That one of the things, I think, that has been revealed because of the war in Ukraine is the need to upgrade infrastructure. Romania, investing a lot in its ports but also in the connectivity, whether between Greece and Bulgaria and Romania, up to Ukraine. You know, China has played a growing role in the region in terms of infrastructure investment. Do you see, you know, over the next 10 years a real increase in U.S. and EU investment in just infrastructure in the region? Is that a part of the strategy?

Under Secretary Allen: So, yes, it’s part of the strategy. It cannot be the only part of the strategy. It is not the only part of the strategy. And I think we are very clear-eyed about the challenges of the U.S. or the U.S. and our European allies matching the ability for China to come in and offer investment and infrastructure options to countries. I think what a lot of our focus on is creating a better offer. And what does that mean? It doesn’t just mean having an answer to the infrastructure and development questions. It means talking about these issues through the lens of values and results, right?

Some of you will be familiar with the sort of say-do gap that we sometimes talk about with the PRC’s commercial and investment diplomacy. It’s really important that we try to make sure that our own partners and allies are clear-eyed about the intents of the PRC in terms of their infrastructure offerings, and also that we really think about the – sometimes the gap between rhetoric and results. That’s something that we feel ourselves in the United States, as needing to demonstrate our values not just talk about our values. And so infrastructure is certainly something that we have worked on, are working on, want to make sure that we are really emphasizing the value of transparency in infrastructure investments, and to show a better way in terms of what that might look like.

What I would also say to everybody is when we think about the U.S. better offer, it really goes so far beyond just infrastructure investment, by necessity. And frankly, by what we’re good at and what we have on the shelf to offer. I would humbly offer that the United States’ English classes, and English language training, and English language exchange programs is one of the most transformative things we do across the world. And it’s often taken for granted. English language education across the entire world, not just in the Global South but in areas like the Black Sea, is often the first step to giving people a path to their own economic prosperity, to being able to have, you know, a viewpoint on and participation in discussions about their own futures.

And it’s really a matter of helping capacity build as well. I mean, our security cooperation, our economic cooperation in many places across the world, is helped not just by education but helped by language. And so, you know, we know how to do a lot of these things in the public diplomacy toolkit, in particular. And so there’s a lot of work being done, particularly at the State Department right now, on making sure that we are sort of cohesively thinking about going to partners and allies and saying: Here’s how we can partner with you to solve your own challenges, to answer the appetites you are telling us you have for partnership.

I’ll just close with sort of one example on this point. Which is, it was very striking to sit down with this Bulgarian naval leadership team when we got briefed in Varna. And they are working very closely with DOD on upgrading their own, you know, ships, their radar capacity, all of the technical and physical infrastructure that comes with naval hardware. But they also asked us in the room for more DOD and State Department resources on being better strategic communicators.

And we, indeed, are going to be able to do that. We’re going to work with the Defense Department to offer the Bulgarian Navy and the Bulgarian government fellowships and partnerships, particularly on increasing strategic communications because of this broader point that I’m trying to make about the tech connection between being able to tell our story and have narratives favorable to our policy agenda.

Mr. Bergmann: Jeff, I want to turn to you about Turkey. The deal that’s just been announced with Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, where they would collectively work together to try to remove mines from the Black Sea, I think is a really important step. However, it also goes sort of hand-in-hand with Turkey prohibiting the transfer of U.K. ships to Ukraine. That would be minesweepers that would enable Ukraine to also do this themselves. Now, Turkey really cherishes, I think, the Montreux Convention. I was wondering if you could maybe talk about what do you think is going on right now with Turkey’s thought process here? And maybe you could outline what is the Montreux Convention and what sort of constraints that’s right now putting on NATO involvement in the Black Sea.

Dr. Mankoff: OK, sure. So the Montreux Convention dates back to 1936. And it governs egress and ingress to the Black Sea through the Turkish straits, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. And it allows Turkey, as the custodian of the straits, to regulate the passage of warships through the straits in wartime. And Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention early in the war in Ukraine and has been using it to prevent the warships of non-littoral states from passing through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, into or out of the Black Sea.

Now, this has both positive and negative consequences, from our perspective. It means that Russia’s been unable to reinforce its Black Sea Fleet with ships being sent from the Eastern Mediterranean, where many of them are engaged off of Syria. But it also means that having a multinational NATO presence in the Black Sea itself is complicated, because only the state – the ships of the littoral states, which is to say Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, among the allies, have that ability to go through the straits. And Turkey has leaned on the Montreux Convention to prevent the passage of these minesweepers that were being offered by the U.K. to Ukraine to engage in this mine-clearing operation, because Turkey argued that this would violate at least the spirit of the Montreux Convention, if not the letter, and then that there would be sort of second-order effects, demands from the Russians to do different things.

I think there’s a bigger strategic context here too, which is that despite everything else Turkey has a very complex, interconnected relationship with Russia that it’s not willing to sacrifice. Even though it supports Ukraine, it has very publicly stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Turkey’s actually been one of the more outspoken countries about the need for Ukraine to eventually have NATO membership. Talking to – so I did the Turkey piece of this report. And sort of talking to Turkish officials in the government and the military in the analytic community, one of the things that became clear is that Turkey doesn’t want to see Russia comprehensively defeated in this conflict.

It sees Russia as an important partner, not only in the Black Sea but at the global level as well. And as Turkey’s strategic culture has evolved and, under the AK Parti and President Erdoğan, placed more emphasis on positioning Turkey as a strategically autonomous, major regional power with global aspirations, maintaining that partnership with Russia is really, really important. And so I think Turkey is trying to position itself as a go-between, as a mediator in this conflict. It’s played an important role in setting up the initial grain deal, in securing prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, and elsewhere as well. And I don’t think it wants to give that up.

And that also includes its view of the Black Sea. I think at the end of the day, Turkey believes that the best way to ensure security in the Black Sea is through a kind of condominium approach among the littoral states, which includes Russia. And it doesn’t want to see a large multinational NATO presence there that could endanger that. One of the things that the Montreux Convention does, that doesn’t get talked about here as much as it does in Turkey, is that it provides a basis in international law for Turkey’s control of the straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

And if you think back to, you know, the historical past, the long, you know history of Russo-Ottoman, Russo-Turkish rivalry, Russia has sought to control or seize the straits on a number of occasions, you know, going back to Catherine the Great up through Joseph Stalin. So Turkey is very alive to the threat that a revisionist Russia could have to its own control of this vital waterway. And so maintaining this kind of condominium approach, maintaining this kind of partnership with Russia inside the Black Sea, is a way to guard against, you know, any threat that Russia could pose to Turkish control of the straits, and to Turkey’s sort of larger strategy of positioning itself as an autonomous regional power.

Mr. Bergmann: Okay, so this then creates real constraints on NATO’s presence in the region, NATO’s ability to have multinational ships protecting, you know, Romanian and Bulgarian littorals. So how is NATO kind of reacting to this this kind of naval constraint?

Dr. Aronsson: Right. I think one of the lessons I took away – I worked on the Romania and Bulgaria sections of this report – is the importance of getting Romania and Bulgaria to work more closely together. And I think – well, to – first to comment on Jeff’s point, for the moment I think we’ll be looking to see what happens for the – in the minesweeping cooperation between the three allies. It will be interesting to sort of watch how Turkey engages in this, to see what its level of ambition is there and how it works with the other two countries on this.

I think the alliance is also looking for other ways, in the short term, to get more allied presence into the – into the Black Sea, via surveillance and patrol aircraft, for example, UAVs, and possibly through putting liaison officers on ships in the Black Sea. But in my view, the only real gamechanger would really be more of a NATO presence in the Black Sea to effectively restore freedom of navigation. So the question is, what are the shorter-term building blocks that we can use to get there?

I did want to come back to what – thinking through what the U.S. can do to help Romania and Bulgaria to cooperate more closely. Both have significantly expanding defense budgets. Both are in need of more air defense, more coastal defense. Both are recapitalizing their capabilities. And both are significant supporters for Ukraine. I guess – you know, I heard from a Bulgarian colleague just the other day, they still haven’t quite found the formula to move to more joint procurement, for example. And particularly in the navy and coastal defense. I’d be curious to know what kinds of U.S. investments or what kinds of U.S. actions might help facilitate Romania and Bulgaria bilateral cooperation, both within the NATO context.

Mr. Bergmann: I think that’s a great point, and one that I know at the EU level there’s lots of proposals being thrown out to try to increase joint procurements between member states. I want to maybe, with the limited time we have left, turn to Georgia for a second. We’ve been focused a lot on the western side of the Black Sea, but on the eastern side of the Black Sea Georgia seems to be a country that it – on the one hand, there’s been real outpouring of public support for a European future, for Georgia for its Western future. When the government was trying to push a foreign agents law we saw mass protests in the streets.

But we’ve also seen U.S. ambassadors being harassed. And Georgia sort of taking more of a turn toward Moscow than towards the West. I’m curious, Undersecretary Allen, you know, if you have any – what’s your perspective right now on the situation in Georgia? And how from – how does the U.S. thinking about – and pushing back perhaps on the Russian tilt? I should – you know, I forgot to say, everyone silence their cellphones. But when it’s your voice coming back – (laughter) –

Under Secretary Allen: That’s OK. That’s OK. Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about Georgia. I will quote a colleague of mine who is not a U.S. government official, but who is one of our close implementing partners and our grantees for programs in Georgia, who came back from a recent visit and said: The feeling really is that Georgia is on the brink. Which is exactly why the U.S. is doubling down on our commitment to make sure that we can increase their own resilience in their own capacity. And I will just tell you, from where we sit, some of our most robust media literacy programs and counter disinformation efforts that I mentioned are happening in Georgia.

I think when we see the tilt that you mentioned happening, we have to ask ourselves why that is. And a lot of it comes down to sentiment and sympathies that happen through mass communications. And it brings us back to the point about Russian disinformation being a tool of foreign malign influence and being a tool of geostrategic importance. And so, particularly in Georgia, our Europe Bureau at the State Department, our public diplomacy practitioners are taking a particularly hard look at what else we can do to increase their own independent media capacity. Same is true for Hungary, for all kinds of reasons, where we’re seeing a lot of backsliding, repression, and foreign malign influence there. That is the time to double down on educating citizens, on increasing support for independent media, on calling out Russia’s lies, on exposing their truths and their intentions. And so we’re doing quite a bit of that in Georgia.

Mr. Bergmann: OK. Maybe final comments for you two on your perspective on Georgia’s role in the Black Sea. Jeff, you mentioned Abkhazia earlier, where Russia is expanding its naval presence on what is internationally considered Georgian territory. What is – how do you see the dynamic playing out for Georgia?

Dr. Mankoff: Yeah. So I’m also quite worried about Georgia. I mean, I was there in 2022. And I think the situation has only deteriorated since then. I think some of it is a disinformation problem, but it goes beyond that. You know, as in places like Hungary, you have key enablers of the government and elements of the government itself that are actively seeking collaboration with Russia. And I think there’s – it’s being sold to a public that does remain very strongly pro-European and pro-Western on the basis of avoiding spillover from the conflict in Ukraine. But I think that at the end of the day it’s not as much about that as it is about state capture, as it is about the role of murky financial ties between the oligarch who was the main sponsor and funder of the ruling party and Russia. Just within the last couple of weeks, he announced his return to politics.

So I think that there is a sense in which Georgia has been, you know, engaged in this ongoing political struggle between pro-Western and pro-Russian elements for a long time. And with the crackdowns on the opposition, the jailing of former Prime Minister Saakashvili, and now the sort of return of Bidzina Ivanishvili to the political scene, there is much more sort of concern that Georgia is being pulled sort of back into this Russian sphere of influence, at a time where we’re seeing similar dynamics play out in other countries. Many of the ones that that Lisa mentioned. You know, we haven’t talked about the elections in Slovakia and what the impact of those is going to be. But that is why I think that, as much as we’re focused on the Black Sea and getting the successes that are talked about in the – in the department’s Black Sea strategy, there’s this wider region around it in which I think the balance is much more in depth.

Dr. Aronsson: Yeah. And I can say, I think, even though the circumstances on the other coast of the Black Sea with Romania and Bulgaria are very different – given that they’re both within the alliance and inside the European Union – there are also parallels in that the disinformation challenges are related to broader issues around weak institutions, political instability, lack of trust in public institutions.

And then, as Jeff said, sort of state capture. Russian influence in Bulgaria, in particular in the prosecutorial services and the state security services, and other ways in which they – Russia is able to leverage corruption and dependencies. These are all related to the disinformation challenges. And I think it means that we all just need to take the time to really get to understand the sort of domestic political circumstances, the history, and culture for all of these countries. And link it, as Jeff mentioned, to the broader region as well.

Mr. Bergmann: Great. Well, I want to thank you all. This has been a conversation not so much directly focused on Ukraine, but really the war in Ukraine is deeply impacting the region. And you mentioned that kind of elephant in the room is what happens with our support to Ukraine, and Ukraine funding, because that’s vital to Ukraine’s war efforts. So, unfortunately, I think going ahead this is going to be an incredibly dynamic region over the next year, where the war in Ukraine and how it unfolds will have major impacts. But with that we’re unfortunately out of time. I want you to all join me in thanking our guests today. And, Undersecretary Allen, thank you for being here. (Applause.)

Under Secretary Allen: Thank you.

Dr. Aronsson: Yes, thank you.