By Andrew Rogan


In the past year, NATO strategy in the Black Sea region has evolved and become more focused. This Executive Summary seeks to analyse the Allied decision on NATO’s active engagement in enhancing Black Sea security. The Black Sea is a critical region for eastern European security. Geopolitically, the Black Sea region consists of states that provide key links between the Caspian, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean basins as well as to the Middle East and Russia.[1] Its juxtaposition to security hotspots places its defence value in high demand.

Further, the region serves as an integral crossroads for the energy and trade sectors of the global economy. Its role as a transit hub for energy resources like natural gas combined with its connection to the markets of Russian and Caucasian energy production makes it a critical piece of the wider European market.[2]

Historically, the Black Sea region is a hotbed for tensions and conflicts, ranging from Russian aggression to independence movements. This in combination with its present turmoil provides a breeding ground for security threats, particularly to NATO allies like Romania and Bulgaria, as well as its partners Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

NATO’s security strategy must direct attention to this region, as it serves as a crucial launching point for any operation in a Eurasian context, as well as its unique situation in relation to Russia. This Executive Summary will evaluate the current state of affairs, with particular attention to Russia and NATO initiatives in the Black Sea region. It will conclude with some recommendations for further policy developments.

Russia and the Black Sea

In the context of Russian relations in the Black Sea, the issue of most significance is the Ukraine crisis. An acute example of Russia’s aggression in the region, this crisis has prompted a strong response from NATO and its Allies. While it may have disrupted action on the region’s other issues, it has placed the Black Sea region on NATO’s threat map, which allows for build-up of the Eastern flank. Russia’s aggression in the region is a result of its imperial history and desire to challenge the post-Cold War status quo. Through its trend of borderisation, Russia has effectively created a litany of NATO security concerns.

The annexation of Crimea offered an opportunity for Russia to gain control in the Black Sea region. Thus far, the nation has invested heavily in modernizing its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopil, [3] enhanced air defence facilities, and developed long-range guided missile systems in Crimea, which can reach any of the Black Sea countries with ease and speed. [4]

Dr. Stephen Blank of the Atlantic Council describes Russia’s militarization as accelerating—Moscow has increased Russian land, air, sea, and electronic forces that even NATO leaders say could disrupt any NATO response in the event of a conflict. Additionally, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable weapons to the area as well as anti-access area denial capabilities in the Mediterranean and Caucasus regions.[5]

In 2016, it was announced that Russia had deployed 15 new combat ships to the Black Sea, some with modern cruise missile capability. With this deployment coupled with the introduction of Tu-22M aircraft, Russia became nuclear capable in the Black Sea. This trend will continue as Moscow increasingly prioritizes defence spending despite shrinking state funds.[6]

This military build-up poses significant threats to NATO security and operations, particularly in relation to the Middle East. Since 2012, the Russian Black Sea fleet amphibious ships serve as shipping vessels for military equipment to Syria, acting as a direct supply line to the Assad regime.

The Black Sea now hosts increasing interaction between NATO and Russia, prompting constant tension and an increased likelihood of outright conflict. In particular, Russia’s presence has warmed the frozen conflicts in the region, which NATO has worked to de-escalate. These constant tensions pose a true threat to stability.

NATO Response

General Response

NATO is developing a strategic response to solidify its presence in the Black Sea region. With contributions by Allies, NATO maritime and air presence is on an incline. NATO also is implementing its rapid reinforcement strategy to ensure their current presence can be reinforced by “NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the broader NATO Response Force, Allies’ additional high readiness forces and NATO’s heavier follow-on forces.”[7]

On October 26, 2016, NATO Allies’ Defence Ministers gathered to discuss defence policies. During this meeting, six member-states (Canada, US, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey) devoted contributions to enhancing NATO presence in the Black Sea, by air, land, and sea.[8]

On October 9, 2017, NATO agreed to strengthen its presence in the Black Sea by building a force comprised of Romanian brigades and contributions from nine other nations, complementing the US troops already placed there. The force will also strengthen air presence. The goal is to maintain a “buffer zone” between Russia and NATO.[9]

The main effort is oriented toward strengthening capabilities of nations in the region. For example, NATO has developed multinational joint training exercises, pledged more maritime activity, and promised to increase coordination efforts among states in the region. In 2017 alone, NATO allies have participated in multiple training operations.

Sea Shield 2017

In February, 16 warships, 10 warplanes, 1 submarine, and 2,800 troops from various NATO allies and partners conducted an exercise in the Black Sea. As a strike of commitment to security in the region, NATO stood to project its efforts in countering Russian aggression. [10]

Sea Breeze 2017

A US-led naval exercise took place in July, consisting of 3,000 service members from 17 NATO ally and partner nations. Larger this year than ever before, it marks the US and NATO resolve to uphold security in the region, especially in response to Russia’s increased militarization.[11]

Separate from these exercises, each state in the region established responses of their own, each of which are ongoing and offer the ability to enhance defence and develop a security strategy.


The partner state of Georgia, in response to the extreme and imminent threat of Russia, has conveyed its strategic importance in the region. At the 72nd Assembly of the UN on September 22nd, 2017, the Prime Minister of Georgia outlined the nation’s standing in global markets, with particular regard for trade. Georgia’s location places it at the crux of Eurasian trading. Its new port at Anaklia will be able to handle the largest of container ships and its partnership in a Eurasian railway system places Georgia “less than 20 days from East Asia and within five days of any point in Europe.[12]

Georgia’s emphasis on its role in the economy has provided it with ensured support. The Summit in 2016 called for Georgia, as a valuable partner, to join the dialogue for Black Sea security and take part in the multinational joint training exercises.[13]


Under the Montreux Convention of 1936, Turkey controls the Bosporus Strait, the key point of entry for the Black Sea. With Russia’s aggression on the rise, this provision is at stake. Additionally, because of the Convention, NATO’s role in the region is historically limited.[14] As a NATO ally, Turkey can count on the support of its regional allies. Recently, Turkey has cooperated with NATO exercises in the region, like Sea Shield. The cooling of Russian-Turkish tensions present an obstacle for increasing NATO presence in the region.[15] Overall, the Turkish response remains slow and wishes to uphold the status quo.

Romania and Bulgaria

In the past two years, Romania has pushed heavily for further integration of the Black Sea states opposite Russia. Romania’s desire for coordination resulted in a few proposals of joint military operations, including the permanent establishment of a Black Sea fleet, consisting of naval contributions from Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. However, NATO decision makers did not agree to this proposal, seemingly killing it altogether.[16]

This failure to cooperate poses a significant risk to security in both Romania and Bulgaria. Romania’s military capabilities remain weak, as the country has a relatively modest defence budget and has been preoccupied with out-of-area missions such as the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Romania’s attempts to modernize have been met with delays and complications. Romania’s plan of 85 acquisitions is lacking with only 15 completed and its forces are using equipment from the Warsaw pact era.[17]

Comparatively, Bulgaria’s capacities lack more so than that of Romania. Bulgaria’s defence budget falls greatly behind Romania and its forces face aging capabilities with modernization efforts in the far future. Additionally, Bulgaria’s political situation is relatively unstable when compared to Romania. Corruption within the Ministry of Defence further harms their security—in 2016, more than half of Bulgarian defence procurements were irregular and nine were fraudulent. Most recent, the Bulgarian Defence minister was charged for misuse of office.[18] These issues are debilitating to the security environment Bulgaria faces, especially in regards to the Black Sea.

In response to Russian aggression in the region, Bulgaria suggested NATO air policing missions.[19] Beyond this, Bulgaria pushes for inaction. Prime Minister Borissov emphasizes Black Sea tourism and trade, fearing the consequences on the two should defence operations interrupt their industry. Bulgaria’s fear of Russian retaliation also prohibits their willingness to increase NATO security in the region.[20]


Moldova’s role in Black Sea security is quickly becoming crucial. With an escalating conflict in the Transnistria region, aggravated by Russian influence, Moldova remains in a hanging balance. Its efforts to build defence capabilities is marred by its fledgling independence movements, unstable political system, and slow economy. As a NATO partner for peace, Moldova is a recipient of numerous capacity building and defence reform initiatives.[21]


The overall security environment in the Black Sea region remains precarious. Tensions create an increased likelihood of miscalculations and mistakes that can easily transcend into conflict. It is essential for NATO security that the Black Sea region receive special attention in case of a threat becoming a reality. This Executive Summary has demonstrated potential instances in detail.

NATO’s current response is actively engaging its key allies in the region, each with their own strategic capabilities. However, as discussed above, NATO expressed concerns in its overall capacity to handle a crisis in the region. Yet, their overall response is minimal, in part blocked by Bulgaria and Turkey and in part by NATO focus on the Baltic region.

In order to ensure that the Black Sea region contributes to the overall goal of a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace, the transatlantic community should consider three strategic end states in developing a security strategy for the Black Sea region.

  • Effective deterrence and credible collective defence
  • Stability and security in non-NATO regional partner nations, like Georgia and Moldova
  • Regional economic security, such that no state has the leverage to use energy economics to coerce other states and so defence modernization efforts are increased


[1] Shota Gvineria, “Black Sea Security in NATO Spotlight,” Rondel Foundation, Expert Opinion 72 (2016), pg. 5.

[2] Steven Horrell, “A NATO Strategy for Security in the Black Sea Region,” Atlantic Council, October 2016, pg. 2.

[3] Teona Lavrelashvili, “Black Sea in Black and White Colours,” Rondel Foundation, Expert Opinion 82 (2016), pg. 3.

[4] Vladimir Socor, “The Black Sea Region: NATO’s Exposed Sector on the Eastern Flank (Part Two),” Eurasia Daily Monitor Vol. 14: 114, June 24, 2016.

[5] Stephen Blank, “Memo to NATO: Wake Up Before Putin Turns the Black Sea into a Russian Lake,” Atlantic Council, June 28, 2016.

[6] RT, “Russia to Respond to NATO Black Sea Force by Deploying New Weapons-Report,” Atlantic Council, January 21, 2016.

[7] “Boosting NATO’s Presence in the East and Southeast,” NATO, August 2017.

[8] “Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Following the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the Level of NATO Defence Ministers, Brussels, Belgium, October 26, 2016,” NATO, October 26, 2016.

[9] Robin Emmott, “NATO Launches Black Sea Force as Latest Counter to Russia,” Reuters, October 9, 2017.

[10] Alex Gorka, “Exercise Sea-Shield 2017: NATO Provokes Russia in Black Sea Before Defense Ministers’ Meeting,” Strategic Culture Foundation, February 10, 2017.

[11] Joseph Trevithick, “US Navy Kicks Off Biggest Ever ‘Sea Breeze’ Exercise in the Black Sea,” The Drive, July 11, 2017.

[12] Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili of Georgia Speech to UN 72nd General Assembly, September 21, 2017.

[13] Shota Gvineria, “Black Sea Security in NATO Spotlight,” Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Expert Opinion 72, 2016.

[14] Janusz Bugajski and Peter Doran, “Black Sea Defended: NATO Responses to Russia’s Black Sea Offensive,” Center for European Policy Analysis, Strategic Report No. 2, July 2016.

[15] Yordon Bozhilov, “The Brief Life of the Idea for the Creation of NATO Black Sea Fleet,” New Europe, January 8, 2017.

[16] Bugajski and Doran, 2016.

[17] U.S.-Romania Initiative: Defense and Security Working Group, “High Tide: Romanian Security in Europe’s Front Line,” Center for European Policy Analysis, January 2016.

[18] Kaitlin Lavinder, “NATO Zeroes in on Black Sea Security,” The Cipher Brief, March 8, 2017.

[19] Horell, 2016.

[20] Margarita Assenova, “Bulgaria’s Black Sea Dilemma,” Center for European Policy Analysis, July 20, 2016.

[21] “Relations with the Republic of Moldova,” NATO, 2017.