The Black Sea, long an arena for geopolitical conflict, has recently seen a flurry of naval activity. This activity underscores the region's central military and economic role for the surrounding nations. It also highlights the Black Sea's and critical importance to Russia, which makes it likely that the body of water would be a major point of conflict in any Russian-Western flare-up.
The American destroyer USS McFaul pulled into the Georgian harbor of Batumi on Aug. 24 to begin distributing humanitarian supplies. The McFaul and the Polish frigate Gen. Kazimierz Pulaski passed through the Dardanelles late Aug. 22, one day after the Spanish frigate Adm. Don Juan de Bourbon and the German frigate FGS Luebeck exited the Bosporus into the Black Sea. The Pulaski and the other two NATO vessels are headed to the Romanian seaport of Constanta, where they will conduct a preplanned, routine visit to the Black Sea region, according to an official NATO announcement. The McFaul, by contrast, is part of a planned three-U.S. vessel humanitarian mission to Georgia that within days will include the frigate USS Taylor, which passed through the Dardanelles on Aug. 25. And finally, the Russian flagship cruiser Moskva left the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol and re-entered the Black Sea again Aug. 25 for weapons and communications systems testing, while the USS Mount Whitney and the US Coast Guard cutter Dallas reportedly were headed to the Black Sea. With all of this activity, the Black Sea, long an arena for geopolitical conflict, is getting crowded. In ancient times, the Greeks termed the body of water an "inhospitable" or "hospitable" sea depending on the level of Greek control over its shores. The last significant military campaign conducted in the Black Sea took place in 1916. One must go even further back for the last time the West and Russia squared off across the shores of the Black Sea, to the Crimean War (1854-1856), when the combined forces of France, the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire invaded Russia. Moscow's dramatic defeat forced it to undergo its greatest reform ever under Czar Alexander II. Though the Black Sea has now experienced almost a century of calm, it might be becoming inhospitable once again. Recent events in Georgia have brought into sharp focus the strategic value of the Black Sea, a vital body of water in the middle of a resource-rich area. This region is particularly strategic from the Russian perspective, meaning any fight flaring up between the West and Russia would likely see the Black Sea as a major point of conflict. A review of the strategic importance of the Black Sea for the various interested powers is therefore in order. (click image to enlarge) The Black Sea forms roughly the southern and the eastern boundaries of Europe with the Middle East and Asia respectively, and it is the major body of water between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean. It is connected to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, two straits that form a maritime bottleneck separating Europe from Asia. The Turkish coast forms the southern coastline of the Black Sea, while the northern coast of the sea is split almost equally between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian-populated, but Ukrainian-owned, Crimean Peninsula juts into the middle of the sea, affording whoever controls it crucial access to the Russian and Ukrainian plains. To the sea's east are the Georgian coast and the Caucasus, while in the west lie the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Romania and landlocked Moldova. The Black Sea is essential to any attempt at force projection in the region because the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Caucasus Mountains constrain any land-based moves against Russia from the south. The Black Sea is therefore the only path through which a potential enemy could threaten Russia's core without, of course, driving across Poland and the North European plain straight to Moscow — a path Napoleon and Hitler found was not so direct after all. Because the Black Sea is close to the Caucasus and directly below Russia's oil-producing regions of Tatarstan and Bashkorostan, it also affords any Russian enemy a direct line toward the energy lifeline of the Russian military. For Europe, the Black Sea has never been a major military route of invasion and has often in fact acted as a buffer against land-based armies. But many invaders have managed to go around the Black Sea. These included the Ottomans, who found it easier to march across the Balkans to Vienna then to take the Black Sea route to Ukraine. The Ottomans did hold the Crimean Peninsula from 1441 to 1783, but only nominally, affording the local Crimean Tatars considerable autonomy — more than was customary even for the Ottoman Empire — until the Russian Empire usurped Turkish overlordship. As a trade route, by contrast, the Black Sea is vital for the Europeans. During the Cold War, Black Sea shipping was minimal, as the lower Danube River fell into the Soviet sphere. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the cessation of hostilities in former Yugoslavia, the Danube has returned as a key transportation route, particularly for Germany. Now, Central European manufacturing exports can be floated down the river to the Black Sea, which is much cheaper than transporting them to the Baltic Sea by land. Any renewed closure of this transportation route would certainly be a big problem for Europe. For Ukraine, the Black Sea is both economically and militarily vital. Ukraine is perhaps the only former Soviet Union state with useful rivers, the Dniepr and the Dniester. Both are navigable and drain in the Black Sea, which does not freeze in the winter, unlike the seas Russia's rivers drain into. It is no wonder that the first powerful Russian/Ukrainian state, the Kievan Rus, emerged in this economically viable and fertile region in the 9th century. But the blessing of having rivers that drain into the Black Sea is also a curse for Ukraine. This is in large part because the Crimean Peninsula, populated and controlled by Russians, sits where the rivers enter the sea. The Crimea is essentially a giant, immovable military fortress at the mouth of some of the most vital transportation routes for Ukraine. Whoever controls this "fort" controls Ukraine. Russia can interdict the Ukrainian links to the Black Sea easily from its Black Sea naval headquarters in Sevastopol, and its control over the peninsula is secure because the population of Crimea is heavily ethnically Russian and pro-Russian. The Black Sea is similarly vital for Georgia, whose only access to Europe is via the sea, due to the rugged terrain of the Caucasus and through Russian hostility. For Russia, the key strategic value of the Black Sea lies in controlling the energy resources in the Caucasus and around the Caspian Sea. Russia's population in the region is concentrated on the coasts of the Black Sea, both on the Russian side of the coast and in Ukrainian-controlled Crimea. There is very little population along the shore of the Caspian Sea, which is the eastern portion of the land bridge between the two seas. Therefore, if a naval operation were to project power from the Black Sea toward the Don River corridor between Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd (better known by its former name, Stalingrad), Moscow would be cut off from the Russian Caucasus and the region's immense energy resources. French and British expeditionary forces tried to do just that during the Crimean War, first invading Crimea and taking Sevastopol and then trying to get to Rostov-on-Don through the Sea of Azov. In the nuclear age, a similar land invasion of Russia would of course be out of the question, but the trajectory of possible power projections still stands: through the Black Sea to Crimea and into the Rostov-on-Don/Volgograd Don River corridor. By attacking Moscow's control over the Don River corridor, an enemy essentially would cut off the Caucasus from the Kremlin, setting the stage for further force projection inland. For Turkey, the Black Sea is really all about the Dardanelles. Turkey's population is sparse on its Black Sea coast due to the rugged Pontic Mountains, so trade links are not as vital as those that flow into the Mediterranean. Control of maritime access to the Black Sea gives Turkey leverage over countries that need to use the Black Sea to access the rest of the world, namely the Central Europeans (although they have costlier alternate routes) and Russia. Militarily, the Black Sea was always a much simpler theater of operations for the Ottomans than the Mediterranean, because the forces arrayed against them in the Black Sea (Russians, Ukrainians, the Balkan nations) were much weaker than those in the Mediterranean (Italians, French, British, Venetians, Genoese, etc.). Ottoman control over the northern coast of the Black Sea, particularly Crimea, simply never was vital to the core of the empire as was control of the Balkans, from where the Ottomans tried to advance on Europe. The struggle for control over these straits has been the root cause of many previous military campaigns, including the Crimean and the Russo-Turkish Wars in the 19th century and the Allied Dardanelles campaign of World War I. Throughout its history, Russia has never been able to exit the Black Sea through the straits at will. In part, this is because Turkey was either strong enough to resist Russia or propped up by a Western power hoping to keep Russia out of the Mediterranean. Contemporary politico-military arrangements in Europe dictate that the Black Sea is essentially a NATO-controlled lake. The bottleneck of the Dardanelles/Bosporus is, for all intents and purposes (nuances of current international treaties such as the Montreux Convention aside), fully under the control of NATO member Turkey. Just south of the crucial straits lies the Aegean Sea — also NATO-controlled — a confining body of water that further entrenches NATO's power in the region. Even if Russia were to miraculously break through the Dardanelles, the maze that is the Aegean would prove impossible to escape. Also, the entire Mediterranean is a NATO lake, given the predominance of its navies there along with the fact that the entire sea is in range of land-based airpower. (click image to enlarge) The extent of Russian naval and military power today lies in its ability to conduct precisely the sort of power projection witnessed in Georgia. Russia can play on its side of the Black Sea, particularly in Georgia and Ukraine; the strategic Crimean Peninsula and the naval base of Sevastopol act as a cockpit from which Russia controls the northern shores of the sea. Combined with air superiority on its side, Russia can certainly dominate the Caucasus and Ukraine. Russia also dominates these regions by virtue of its land power and contiguous territory. Doctrinally, Russia rolls in on the ground, maintaining direct land links to its home territory. But this cuts both ways, and the Black Sea is the perfect platform through which to project military power into the very heart of Russia. Oceans and seas, in general, are the modern highways of war that a powerful state can use to project its power to any point on the planet. Without the Black Sea, the closest anyone could get to the Russian underbelly would entail marching through the North European Plain or the Balkans, prospects with a historically very low rate of success — and brutally high human and military costs. Alternatively, a modern navy, such as those possessed by the United States and some of its NATO allies, could easily park its fleet in the Black Sea thanks to Turkish control of the Dardanelles. This would put the fleet within easy striking distance of Moscow's energy-rich Caucasus region, all without the need to invade Russia proper as during the Crimean War. This option has only appeared with the advent of modern guided missiles and carrier-launched aircraft, which perhaps accounts for the increased importance of the Black Sea Fleet, nominally the Kremlin's least-favored fleet. At present, the West also has overall superior military power in the Black Sea. By controlling the Dardanelles, the formidable U.S. and Turkish navies control the sea's entrance as well as its waters. Turkish and U.S. air forces also have presence in the region. The U.S. air force has a hub in the southern Turkish air base at Incirlik, and airfields in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania could easily host decisive airpower from any number of NATO member countries, which could be used to establish air superiority over the entire sea and devastate the Russian naval presence. Turkey's air force is also well-drilled and well-equipped. Modern weapons systems such as submarine- and ship-launched cruise missiles and carrier-launched jets would be able to target the very heart of Russia once the supremacy of the Black Sea was assured. (It should be pointed out, however, that when it comes to U.S. ship-, submarine-, and air-launched cruise missiles, the Black Sea presents an additional vector of attack but is not decisive for attacking Russia's European core given U.S. access to the Barents, Baltic, Mediterranean and Aegean seas.) The Black Sea could become an advantage for Russia only if Moscow somehow managed to neutralize Turkey and its control of the straits. Thus far, Russia has never been able to do this, either militarily or diplomatically. Moscow's geography has always hindered its naval development, and despite trying on and off for more than a century, it has never been able to secure the Black Sea, instead living with it as a buffer, just as it uses Ukraine as a buffer. Today, more than ever, Turkey holds decisive military control over the only sea access to the Black Sea, and as such is the absolute arbiter of outside naval intervention. Turkish alliance with the West is therefore the key to NATO’s — and thus the West’s — continued denial of the Black Sea to Russia as anything more than a buffer, a reality that has not changed much throughout the centuries.