Lord Mark LANCASTER (United Kingdom)

07 October 2023

The Black Sea region (BSR) is a strategic fault line between the NATO Alliance and Russia. Except for Türkiye, the region came into the post-Cold War era profoundly unsettled about the strategic direction of its littoral states. The region’s east-west split resulted in a series of conflicts, culminating in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Russia’s war in Ukraine developed quickly into the most violent and consequential conflict since the Second World War.

Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion, however, was the second time in eight years Russia had used military force to seize Ukrainian sovereign territory unlawfully. Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula permitted Russia’s Black Sea fleet a virtual stranglehold across the entire Black Sea. Still, despite this growing challenge on its southeast flank, NATO’s post-2014 eastern flank defence and deterrence posture adaptations largely focused on reinforcing perceived vulnerabilities in the Baltic Sea region. The reasons for this imbalance lay in a lack of Allied consensus, particularly among NATO’s Black Sea Allies, on what is the best posture for NATO in the Black Sea region, particularly on the of the Black Sea. Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine shocked Allies sufficiently to reconsider their position in the BSR, resulting in several new initiatives to reassure regional Allies and strengthen the Alliance’s regional defence and deterrence posture – the most visible being the multinational battalions stood up in Bulgaria and Romania.

Allies recognised the strategic importance of the Black Sea region at their summit in Vilnius in July. They pledged long-term support for Ukraine, outlining a roadmap to its future accession to the Alliance. They also pledged to continue to underwrite the reforms and adaptations of vulnerable partners the Republic of Moldova and Georgia via their tailored support packages to foster resilience and strength as they continue along their path to Euro-Atlantic integration.

As this report makes clear, however, more needs to be done to shore up Allied defence and security across the BSR, particularly in the wake of Russia’s decision to escalate the war at sea and on Ukraine’s port facilities after its withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. It encourages Allies to surge the types of capabilities to Ukrainian forces to block Russia’s ability to secure more robust bastion defences in the Black Sea, which would permit it to continue to hold Ukrainian critical infrastructure at risk, hamper Ukrainian consolidation of its recaptured territory and threaten the southern regions with a renewed invasion down the line with a reconstituted force. 

The report also advocates for: a focused strategy for the BSR, supported by the robust regional defence plan Allies agreed upon in Vilnius; increased forward-positioned assets, including modern integrated air and missile defence systems; increased forward force presence in the air, at sea and on land; and significantly more support to the region’s vulnerable partners.

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