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Past Putin
Standing NATO Maritime Group Two and Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Group Two vessels conduct a PASSEX (Exercise with Vessels on passage) with Ukrainian Navy Flagship, the frigate UNFS Hetman Sahaydacniy (U130) and 6 artillery boats.

Past Putin

The United States and its allies need a regional strategy that includes a Black Sea fleet.

Iulia-Sabina Joja, Batu Kutelia

On Tuesday, October 25, in Berlin, the German G7 Presidency and the EU Commission hosted an experts’ conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine. It will be a “Herculean task,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted in advance of the conference. But there’s also another challenge that lies ahead.

The Black Sea region, with Ukraine at its heart, is now becoming a focal point of European security. NATO’s new Strategic Concept of 2022 clearly states the strategic importance of the region. Now the United States and its allies need a strategy.

A bill introduced this summer by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Mitt Romney was a step in the right direction. It acknowledges that U.S. interests are at stake in the Black Sea region and starts a critical conversation. The geographic area comprises Romania, Georgia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, and Turkey and represents a major faultline of strategic competition. China keeps reaching into the region. A badly wounded Russia is certain to remain on the scene. Here’s how a serious strategy can start.

First, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the need for strong defense. The era of feeble gray zone thinking is over. We’ve seen how ambiguity invites aggression. The United States must invest in enhanced regional deterrence, bilaterally and through NATO. One goal must be for NATO to establish Anti-Access/Area Denial against Russia in the Black Sea. It’s no longer tolerable for Western countries to cede this vital body of water to a Russian sphere of influence.

Until now, the U.S. focus in the region has been on Romania, which hosts three U.S. bases: Mihail Kogalniceanu, Deveselu, and Turzii Plain. These bases provide regional deterrence with land, air, and intelligence dimensions. The United States should consider a fourth base with a maritime component in the Danube Delta, which would enable maritime traffic for other Western powers and for Romania, Ukraine, and other Black Sea nations. Such a base would require an investment by the United States—and contributions from its allies—in a small, flexible Black Sea fleet with air defense and surveillance components.

This would circumvent the archaic Montreux Convention, which was signed in 1936 by ten countries, not including the United States, and which today permits Turkey to limit or block the access of U.S. and UK warships to the Black Sea. If the Montreaux Convention cannot be set aside or amended, a NATO Black Sea fleet can operate under the Romanian flag. Romania is already making significant investments in its navy, including acquiring submarines, frigates, and corvettes. Medium- and long-term benefits of an intensive NATO maritime presence and cooperation in the Black Sea would include new forms of burden-sharing, enhancing European commitments under U.S. leadership for defense of the continent.

A NATO Black Sea fleet would enhance regional cooperation. Bulgaria has already established a naval coordination center in Varna, the country’s largest city on the Black Sea coast. It has also proposed transferring NATO’s maritime coordination center to Varna from the United Kingdom. The UK and France, with their maritime power, are the most likely candidates to contribute to NATO Black Sea maritime deterrence.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden to renounce their long-standing neutrality and apply for NATO membership. Georgia and Ukraine must join NATO, too. Even in this time of war, bold steps like granting NATO’s Membership Action Plan toward NATO integration would represent a major and essential strategic shift. It was Western hesitation—notably by Paris and Berlin at the 2008 Bucharest summit—that led to Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia in the first place.

Both Ukraine and Georgia will need to develop key military capabilities, such as long-range artillery, coastal defense, and air defense and air power comprising modern fighter aircraft. NATO funding and U.S. expansion of the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 to Black Sea non-NATO countries can help bridge these gaps and enable efficient self-defense by partner countries.

Second, the Three Seas Initiative has created a unique framework for strategic investment in Eastern Europe focused on critical infrastructure. Russia is one problem. The region has also long served as an arena of strategic competition for China, with its major acquisitions and bids on ports (in Greece and Georgia) and on nuclear power plants (in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania). The region’s importance for Chinese transport routes to Western markets is significant. The Black Sea region is China’s only land route to Europe that avoids Russian territory. Ukraine too, is of particular strategic interest to China: China bought its first aircraft carrier from Ukraine, as well as 10% of its agriculture surface, and was bidding on a major Ukrainian defense company, Motor Sich, before the 2022 Russian invasion. The United States must integrate Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia into the Three Seas Initiative.

A regional economic strategy must include an increased U.S. economic footprint in the region, focused on critical infrastructure, which obstructs Chinese and Russian influence. The United States is already playing an increased role in strategic infrastructure development, with contracts for nuclear power plants in Romania and Poland, licenses for U.S. companies in offshore gas exploitations in Romania, and the LNG port in Alexandroupolos, Greece. A major U.S. economic foothold in Georgia—via key strategic energy, transport, logistical and digital infrastructure—can provide further access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Boosting the scale and scope of these investments can be a solid start to providing vital infrastructural alternatives to Russian and Chinese gambits.

U.S. strategic investments in the Black Sea region should be synchronized and calibrated at the regional level and should include active encouragement of, and cooperation with, the European Union. Through the Eastern Partnership, the European Union has already made investments in institution-building in Black Sea partner countries Ukraine, Moldova, and the Caucasus countries, but it can do more. The EU has the capacity to establish an investment fund for infrastructure development in the region with a particular focus on reconstruction in Ukraine. The United States can provide strategic incentives and be an important partner to the European Union in its commitment to developing the Black Sea region and countering Russian and Chinese influence.

Finally, Russia has chosen the Black Sea as the major region for reversing the post-Cold War wave of freedom and democratization. The primary goal of Russian malign influence is to prevent Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova from advancing with their democratic transformation and economic modernization.

There’s infiltration and subversion in the economy. Russian-inspired transnational oligarchic ties in the transportation, energy, and infrastructure sectors are ubiquitous. The Biden administration’s national security strategy should pay careful attention to democratic development and the fight against kleptocracy in a Black Sea regional strategy. But democratic development across the region has been uneven and lacking in progress for years for other reasons as well, of course. Countries in the region must do their share. Unless they are able to muster the political will to show meaningful progress in the fight for the rule of law and against rampant corruption, no regional security or sustainable strategy will be possible. This, combined with boosted external support to democratic forces and processes as well as sophisticated and precisely targeted coercive leverages like sanctions, would create political and economic analogy of Anti-Access/Area Denial against Russian malign influence.

Win the war, invest in peace, build Europe whole and free. It’s a Herculean task but it’s not too late.

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, DC, and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

Batu Kutelia is a former Georgian ambassador to the United States and deputy secretary of Georgia's National Security Council. He is now the vice president of the Atlantic Council of Georgia and the Next Generation Leader fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Image: NATO photo by Fran WO C. Valverde. Wikimedia Commons