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Commentary | 4 July 2016

‘Nobody’s lake’: Securing the Black Sea

In May 2016, Turkish President Recep Erdogan described the Black Sea as ‘almost a Russian lake’ and called for NATO naval reinforcements to be sent to the area. That prompted a response by Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko who said that the Black Sea will never be a ‘NATO lake‘. Russian support for the separatists in the Donbass, the annexation of Crimea and the strengthening of Russian military capacity in the Black Sea area have changed the threat perception levels of those Allies closest to the Russian Federation. Consequently, NATO is under increased pressure to show a similar degree of solidarity and commitment to collective defence in the Black Sea region as the one provided to the Baltic States and Poland. However, before deciding on significantly strengthening their Black Sea posture, the Allies need to consider the feasibility and likely consequences of the various proposals, as well as their impact on relations with Russia.

Since the annexation of Crimea in early 2014, the security situation in the Black Sea region has been transformed, with a substantial build-up of Russian military capabilities in the area and an increased number of military encounters between Russian and NATO military assets. As a result, all sides face the serious risk of unintended escalation in light of more assertive Russian behaviour and the reassurance measures NATO implemented in response.

Over the past 24 months the Black Sea has been the focus of Russia’s military modernisation programme. As a consequence of the 2-year recalibration of forces, the Federation has added four submarines, two missile corvettes and several patrol boats to their Black Sea fleet with another two submarines and six frigates expected to join them later this year. Combined with the anti-ship/anti-air installations deployed in occupied Crimea and along Russia’s Black Sea shore, such an A2/AD constellation could pose a substantial challenge should NATO need to provide reinforcements to the Black Sea Allies.

In response, the number of NATO military exercises and drills as well as naval patrols in the Black Sea has been revised up to reflect the more aggressive Russian posture. However, additional assurance measures, to be implemented by the Alliance or individual member states, are also under consideration.

The Romanian proposal for a more ‘persistent’ collective NATO naval presence in the Black Sea was discussed by NATO’s Deputy Secretary General. This is rather unlikely as the deployment of naval ships from non-Black Sea states would be in breach of the Montreux agreement. Even though this might have been a preferred option for Romania and Turkey as implied in recent interventions by statesmen from both countries, it would also have a highly destabilising effect on the military equilibrium in the region.

Another proposal, a hybrid fleet of ships from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine and even Georgia has been outlined by the Romanian leadership as an alternative format for strengthening the collective defence in the region. However, this may not be a viable option after Bulgaria refused to take part in such military operation, citing the need to avoid a military build-up and provocations. Without the unanimous support of all NATO Black Sea states, any mission would lack the critical legitimacy of enhancing collective security in the region. Further, a permanent multi-national force of such kind, under NATO command or not, would be perceived as an escalatory move by Russia given that Turkey (the ally with the largest fleet in the region) and Ukraine are now among the top 5 countries the Russian population considers most hostile. In addition, such an initiative would bring non-NATO and NATO navies under one operational control, which would create additional technical difficulties.

Lastly, a proposal to form a multinational brigade in Romania under the command of the Multinational Division Southeast has recently emerged. It appears such an option is favoured by other countries,including Bulgaria, after the Bulgarian authorities indicated a willingness to contribute up to 400 troops on a rotational basis as part of the brigade. This comes shortly after Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed the stationing of additional equipment in Romania.

These measures, despite being designed to reassure member states in the East and demonstrate solidarity, may be controversial and counterproductive. They may signal the political commitment of the Alliance but bring more escalatory than deterrent value.

Firstly, the military power of the proposed hybrid fleet cannot prevent, but may unnecessarily provoke, more assertiveness on the Russian side. More substantive strengthening of the naval presence in the Black Sea would most probably be seen as adding to NATO’s offensive capabilities rather than signal defensive intention. Allies should be ready to accept some inferiority of their conventional forces in the region. Solidifying military preparedness by regional allies would have a far better deterrent effect against Russia than any additional deployment.

Further, the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia in such a fleet may integrate them more closely with NATO forces, but it also links their security postures vis-à-vis Russia to Allied Command Structures. Such a step, at the moment, would blur the distinction between collective defence under Article V and co-operation with partner countries. It is also unclear what the rules of engagement would be in a crisis scenario involving Ukraine or Georgia.

In addition, a regional naval force which is not under direct operational NATO command would be led by a Black Sea ally, even if on a rotational basis. Given Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia and Turkey’s fragile unfreezing of relations with Russia, their approaches may significantly differ and possibly clash. Moreover, since the activation of the Aegis missile defence system, Romania has been included in Russia’s list of ‘targets’, a fact bound to change its defence strategy vis-à-vis Russia.

In searching for an adequate response to the Russian military build-up and assertiveness taking place in the region, NATO needs to show its resolve and common position in Warsaw. Aggressive actions and unannounced exercises and drills conducted by Putin’s administration cannot be overlooked nor ignored, but met with calls and actions that are underpinned by transparency, restraint and defensive intent.

Moving forward, NATO’s leadership should place emphasis on the assurance measures already implemented, including the intensified maritime exercises in the Black Sea and ensure their continuation. It should keep encouraging greater integration between the Black Sea partners and facilitate military equipment modernisation programmes in the eastern Allies.

Further, the distinction between collective security afforded to all member states and the military support offered to partner countries such as Ukraine and Georgia should remain in place. Any joint operations close to the national waters and territory of Russia, unlike the exercises already taking place, can send mixed signals or lead to incidents.

For their part, Black Sea allies should rely on the political commitment of the rest of the Alliance without additional tailored assurance measures. The political will to act and defend the Alliance is by far more important; without it, there may not be any military assistance even in an unlikely case of aggression. Further, eastern member states should take up increasing proportions of the burden-sharing arrangement and, more importantly, be more receptive to the considerations of the Allies in the West. NATO is a collective defence organisation and as such its policies should reflect a shared position, and not be shaped by the concerns of the few.

Lastly, the Alliance should not exclude the possibility of reinforcing security in the region in case circumstances in the region change. Part of such reasoning would be the creation of a more comprehensive assessment tool to indicate thresholds and responses for different threat levels. Such a tool would comprise a list of ‘triggers’ (including hybrid attacks) and pre-prepared options for NATO action. A multi-dimensional response would then include Alliance-wide defensive measures as well as measures that individual countries can implement. This could prove a more useful method of addressing diverging threat perceptions and striking a compromise.

In Warsaw, leaders should consider actions that strengthen collective defence rather than undermine it. In practice, this places primacy on the better use of existing capabilities in Allied countries in the Black Sea area, rather than on new expanded naval initiatives. Such conclusion may not be welcomed by the regional Allies, but it would more adequately reflect the defensive nature of the Alliance.


[1] According to the Montreux Convention, passages of vessels of war are subject to some restrictions which vary depending on whether these vessels belong to Black Sea littoral states or not.

[2] See Lukasz Kulesa’s ‘Towards a New Equilibrium‘, available here:

[3] Further details are available here:


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.