After more than a century of mostly sleepy stagnant water, the Black Sea has suddenly emerged as a major front line and potential flashpoint between Russia and the west following the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a major assault on Ukraine on Thursday that targeted facilities in cities across the country as well as ports along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Russian forces also reportedly sought to take control of Ukraine’s Serpent Island, located less than 30 miles off the coast of NATO and European Union member Romania.
Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and amassed warships and amphibious assault vehicles off Ukraine’s coast.
Gaining control of Ukraine’s entire 1,400 km Black Sea coastline would allow Russia to dominate other coastal states and give it the ability to project power to the Balkans and the Middle East, where Russian forces are positioned in the Syrian city of Tartous.
“The Black Sea is Russia’s entrance to the world, including the Mediterranean and Atlantic spheres of influence,” said Rustem Umerov, a Ukrainian deputy from Crimea. The Independent in a telephone interview. “That’s why [Putin] focuses on the Black Sea.
Yoruk Isik, an Istanbul-based risk management consultant who focuses on ship movements in the Black Sea, called the Russian assault a “wake up call” about Russian intentions for the region.
“They already control Crimea,” he said. “If they take new positions, they will really have technical means with missiles to have area denial over the entire Black Sea.”
Accessible to the rest of the world’s seas only via the Bosphorus strait to the south, the Black Sea was a crucial crossroads during the Bronze Age and under the Greek and Byzantine empires, connecting the Balkans and Anatolia to the Caucasus and the Central Asia. It’s filled with ancient shipwrecks that have thrilled archaeologists for decades.
In the Middle Ages it came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, until the Russian Empire began to exert its control in the 18th century. It became a major battleground during World War I, when Russia fought against the Ottomans for control of the sea, and in World War II, when Soviet forces fought the Axis powers. led by the Germans.
In addition to Russia, the Black Sea rim states now include three NATO members – Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania – as well as Georgia and Ukraine, two nations that have clamored to escape Russian rule. and join the Western bloc. Moldova, bordering southwestern Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia are also countries near the Black Sea that most analysts consider part of the region.
For Russia, the Black Sea provides the access to warm water ports it has coveted for centuries.
“The Black Sea is important because of the significant access it provides to Russia – in particular, access to global maritime lines of communication and the opportunities to project energy at a strategic distance and to expand its air and coastal defences,” said a 2020 report last year. published by the Rand Corporation.
For years, Russia has sought to use soft power tools such as the Orthodox Church, the media, or energy taps to manipulate the Black Sea nations. But he has also been willing to use covert paramilitaries and raw military power.
Outraged by Tbilisi’s turn to the Western alliance, Russian forces attacked Georgia in 2008, launching airstrikes on major cities, including along its Black Sea coast.
Since Mr. Putin’s military takeover and annexation of Crimea, Russia has aggressively militarized the Black Sea. He resurrected unused military bases and positioned sophisticated weaponry on the peninsula, including advanced air defense systems and older surface-to-air missile systems. It has added six Kilo-class submarines, several frigates and smaller ships to its Black Sea fleet since 2014.
“The naval acquisitions demonstrate that Russia is seeking to rebuild a long-range strike capability in the Black Sea,” the Rand report said.
Explosions heard in Kyiv as Russia advances on capital
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s all-out Russian invasion, experts noted an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare exercises likely aimed at countering any NATO attempt to thwart an attack on Ukraine.
NATO forces have also stepped up joint patrols and exercises in the Black Sea and increased coordination along what US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called “NATO’s eastern flank”. A rapid deployment force has been positioned in Romania.
“Russia’s destabilizing activities in and around the Black Sea reflect its ambitions to regain a dominant position in the region and to prevent the realization of a Europe whole, free and at peace,” Mr Austin said during the meeting. a visit to Romania last year. .
In recent years, Ukraine has also sought to strengthen its position in the Black Sea, ordering Turkish Ada-class corvettes to counter Russian warships.
But Kyiv is clearly outclassed and overtaken by Russia, which largely destroyed Ukrainian and Georgian naval forces in 2014 and 2008.
Russian and pro-Kremlin ground forces positioned in the eastern region of Ukraine could now easily seize the port of Mariupol, an important trading gateway that would give Moscow control of the country’s grain exports. The historic city of Odessa, also a major international sea and airport, was also attacked by Russia on Thursday morning.
“It’s a calculated decision,” Mr. Isik said. “They are trying to choke out whatever is left of the Ukrainian economy.”
Tighter control over the Black Sea gives Russia the ability to “project power in the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Middle East and beyond”, said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, in testimony before the US Congress. Last year.
The Kremlin’s control over key energy resources on which NATO members depend also keeps potential perils at bay. Although Turkey controls access to the crossing and a 1936 treaty can limit the movement of warships during armed conflict, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he did not want to alienate Russia or Ukraine.
Other Black Sea states have expressed deep concern over Russia’s unprecedented invasion, which included the first major airstrikes on a European capital since the 1990s. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called the attack “unacceptable”, while Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called it “completely illegal”.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tweeted “#westandwithukraine”, and called on the world “to apply all possible measures to end Russia’s flagrant violation of international order”.
Umervov, the Ukrainian lawmaker, said Black Sea nations have long memories of Russian encroachments and their wider security implications.
“At the time of the Russian Empire, the goal was to reach the Black Sea and the Baltic,” he said. “They got access, and from then on they continued to expand into Eastern and Central Europe.”