The Increased Strategic Importance of the Black Sea in the Wake of the Ukrainian Crisis.2.

The Increased Strategic Importance of the Black Sea in the Wake of the Ukrainian Crisis.2.


Rotte del gas e del petrolio

Rotte del gas e del petrolio

Segue l’analisi sulla Russia, Ucraina e Crimea 

Il Direttore scientifico: Maria Gabriella Pasqualini

The legal status of Ukraine and the strategic importance of preserving its access to the Black Sea

The legal and political status of Ukraine (neutral State, Buffer Zone State, antagonist of Russia) therefore seriously influences the possibility of a military clash between NATO and Russia. The military strengthening of Crimea appears only a variant or a useful military tool for Russia in case such an event should take place. Crimea is then a most powerful military tool in the hands of the Kremlin, but its military importance and level of danger will ultimately depend on the overall political relations established between the West and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other.

Despite the observations listed above, Crimea will also strongly influence political relations between Russia and NATO. Whether a war takes place or not depends on general relations between Russia and the West, but Crimea, which is hyper-armed, represents by its mere presence as a latent threat, an irritant factor that could facilitate a potential conflict. What one side perceives as a deterrent, as a factor assuring more security, is perceived as a threat by the other. This is a dilemma, a situation offering no alternatives in the field of military and security relations. A country can present its military deployment as defensive or deterrent, but others may perceive it as offensive, as in the case of Ukraine, but also of Georgia. Crimea, therefore, considerably alters the local military balance of power, at least in the Black Sea – because of the limitations imposed by the Montreux Convention of 1936 – in favor of Russia and therefore also alters in Russia’s favor the military and political options available to the Kremlin, especially regarding nations like Georgia.

The latter’s access to the sea is very limited and it possesses a very substantial energy transit hub from the Caspian Sea and riparian states like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. It is plain to see that both Ukraine, and even more so Georgia, may incur in serious risks of naval or air embargos by strengthened Russian air and naval forces from the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The aero-naval power projection of Sevastopol is further boosted by the Russian alliance with the new de facto independent state of Abkhazia, which extends on the northern coast of Georgia, hence its strategic value for the Russian navy. It is therefore easy to understand how, under any pretext, Russian or Abkhazian forces could enforce a naval embargo on Georgia, preventing energy trade to Europe from the Caspian Sea basin. This would imply that the riparian states of the Caspian Sea would be obliged to reroute their energy production to the BTC (Baku–Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline through Russia or choose an alternative route (for instance through Turkey) to avoid Russian territory.

2.The role of Turkey in the event of tensions or conflict with Russia 

Turkey has been a NATO state from the very onset of the Cold War (1952) with the role of containing the Soviet Union in the Black Sea area. It is, however, also an Islamic country that has veered from a tight alliance with the United States and the EU towards a more conservative and authoritarian-minded Islamist worldview and self-centered policies in its area of influence through culturally binding elements.[i]

This shift is also due to the EU’s mismanagement of relations with the country, including not granting it access to the EU as full member on the grounds of some members’ resistances because of ethnic-religious and geopolitical considerations or simply the non-accomplishment of certain rules stemming from the EU’s acquis communautaire, such as the increasing lack of political freedom in the country and the ensuing political repression against journalists and ethnic minorities. Another is the political differences between Turkey and the USA on the policies to adopt in the Middle East. One of these is the disruptive potential of the formation of a Kurdish State in the region, particularly in northern Iraq and in Syria. For this reason, Turkey, which has sizeable Kurdish minority within its borders, is not enthusiastic about an outright victory of the Kurds against ISIS or about the war in Syria being won by the Alawite dictator Bashar el Assad, ally of Iran and Turkey’s political foe. Turkey’s area of influence traditionally encompasses the Southern Caucasus, parts of the Middle East and the Turkish speaking regions of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin, such as Azerbaijan (a very close ally of Turkey in the Caspian region, due to ethnic kinship, the energy trade and shared geopolitical interests in the Southern Caucasus region).

Therefore, for political and cultural reasons, Turkey is progressively cutting itself off from the West[ii] despite still being a staunch member of NATO. This raises considerable political and military issues on the background of the on-going Syrian conflict and the continuously escalating Russian-Turkish rivalry. On the grounds of its strong economic growth and strategic position between Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Caspian and Central Asian regions, Turkey sees itself both as the economic powerhouse of the region, as its energy hub, which further increases its already substantial geopolitical importance. Turkey’s relations with Russia, after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi 24, are deteriorating more and more, to the point of a total breakdown and military confrontation. This situation implies the potential threat of closure by Turkey of the Turkish Straits to the Russian commercial and military fleets, something that would seriously harm Russia’s commercial traffic and exports and its capability to project its naval and aerial power in the Middle East, specifically in Syria, and in the Mediterranean Sea.

In this context, the Black Sea could become the likely scenario of a harsh political, and maybe even military, confrontation between Russia and Turkey over the freedom of transit through the Turkish Straits by Russian commercial and military ships[iii]. It is therefore in the interest of stability and peace in the Black Sea for Turkey not to close the Straits to Russia, something that the Montreux Convention only contemplates in the case of Turkey being a belligerent nation in a conflict. Such an act would almost surely imply military action by Russia, triggering off a potential military conflict in the Black Sea. An act, however, considered most unlikely by several sources, particularly Russian, which consider that such a course of action by Turkey would be unfounded and reckless. The reason given is that it would cause a military conflict, because such an initiative would be in breach of the Montreux convention. Turkey, however, can easily resort to (and often does resort to) long inspections of the Russian commercial and military fleet in the Turkish straits to damage Russia’s interests. This type of action is perfectly in line with the Montreux Convention[iv].

But how would NATO behave in case Turkey really did shut off the Straits? Would it side unconditionally with Turkey even in case of a potential military crisis with Russia that seems more and more likely[v] or would it try to exert pressure on Turkey to seek appeasement and an all-encompassing political solution with Russia despite the many divisive issues between the two countries? The answer, for the moment, seems to be unconditional support to Turkey, but also an invitation to it by its Western partners to try to seek a reasonable compromise on the issue, which largely depends on an agreement between Turkey and Russia on the future status and territorial configuration of the Syrian state, over which the two countries have diametrically opposed objectives. Therefore, the main and most irreconcilable stumble block to the reestablishment of good relations between Russia and Turkey seems to be the war in Syria and over Syria[vi].

Indeed, from Turkey’s point of view, the military victory of Assad, propped up by Russian military intervention, risks leading to a potential creation of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s eastern borders, something Ankara deems a potentially deadly threat to its territorial integrity, because of the presence of around twelve millions Kurds in southern eastern Turkey itself who would consider the creation of a Kurdish state, or at least of an autonomous territory within Syria on the model of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, an inspiration to establish their own state on Turkish territory.

Turkey is in the position to hurt Russia’s soft spots in the Caucasus or in Central Asia, where its influence is great. Consider gas rich Turkmenistan or even Azerbaijan, which is a Turkic speaking country and a strong regional exporter from the Caspian Basin or Caucasus region with very good relations with Turkey and with just about adequate relations with Russia, or even Daghestan, a politically very sensitive Russian Republic situated in the North Caucasus – therefore an “ideal” ally for Ukraine. NATO, of course, would be an essential tool to provide Ukraine with the instruments to re-establish Ukrainian naval power in the Black Sea. As Turkey has become a relatively unreliable and politically unaccountable partner for NATO, due to the afore-mentioned different political views and interests, the strengthening of Ukraine’s fleet and sea dominance is in NATO’s political and military interest in terms of its power projection from the Black Sea to the Middle East. The foreseeable future military alliance with Turkey, although relatively limited in its scope and reach, may prove essential for Ukraine. Ukraine’s fleet is generally assessed as qualitatively poor[vii] by NATO standards, but with internal reform also prompted by effective cooperation with NATO,[viii] a more effective tax collection system and with help from Turkey and NATO,[ix] it could resume its rule on its territorial waters and beyond. Beyond this, Ukraine will profit from becoming Turkey’s preferential commercial partner over Russia, wiping out the latter’s exports in such an important growing market.

This increase of military pressure and a growing lack of available resources for Russia in military terms could lead to the already mentioned lowering of the nuclear threshold by Russia. This could soon turn the Black Sea into a powder keg, a condition that could be avoided through a difficult but sensible long-lasting political compromise with Russia over influence projection and influence sharing in the Eurasian region, which would require a great deal of political will and accommodation on behalf of both sides. In fact, if a viable compromise were not to be achieved, in the most extreme of cases – given Russia’s military inferiority against an overwhelming coalition of NATO combined vessels, of which the Russian military is fully aware of,[x] but tries to balance with several missile complexes and aviation resources capable of covering the entire Black Sea surface – Russia could be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons. But, the Convention of Montreux being currently in full force, such an event has low probability of taking place.

NATO-Turkey relations will also depend on the relations NATO wants with Moscow. Whether, in other words, NATO intends to try to heal the wound in relations between Moscow and Ankara, which seems less and less likely, given the state of rising military tensions between the two countries – the actual cause of which is heavy Russian military intervention in Syria, which seriously disrupts Turkish plans on the future geopolitical settlement of the Middle East. Or whether it prefers to use this context to further exacerbate relations with Moscow in a sort of political-military escalation capable of curtailing Russian geopolitical ambitions on the Eurasian continent, first and foremost the creation of an Eurasian Union under Russian leadership or dominance. It is estimated that at least 40% of Russian trade occurs through the Black Sea (figure slightly on the increase), despite the territorial conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has not sensibly affected Russian trade. The Black Sea represents therefore the lifeline of Russian trade, especially the energy trade from the Caspian Sea, as internal stability is tightly correlated to a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. In this case, NATO should decide how to react to the imploding crisis. This also means that the Black Sea has turned into the most sensitive crisis hot spot in Europe, both on the northern shore, Ukraine’s, and on the southern, Turkey’s[xi].

Several sources bring evidence to the fact that Russia has a certain military advantage in the Black sea, as Crimea makes it possible for its fleet, naval aviation and missiles to control it entirely, Turkish Straits included. US ships, on the other hand, are not allowed to remain in the Black Sea for more than three weeks and their tonnage cannot exceed 45,000. The NATO naval bases in Romania and Bulgaria cannot solve this issue and the supply base in Batumi (Georgia) can only host a limited number of vessels. Therefore, the US and the extra riparian states in general have a problem with military logistics in the Black Sea. Turkey would then play a decisive role in case of a military conflict in the Black Sea, both as the second NATO military power in the area after the US and as a substantial ruler of the Turkish Straits according to the Montreux Convention. A solution for the US would be to put pressure on Turkey to review the Convention,[xii] something that Turkey would probably try to resist, as it is would not be to its advantage to lose the status of dominant power in the Turkish Straits. If the US succeeded, this would substantially shake the balance of power in the Black Sea and the surrounding region and would be followed in extreme cases by Russian countermeasures, such as the seizure of the Turkish Straits by Russian military forces – at least according to what available Russian open sources state[xiii].

Russia in now confronting a belt of antagonist States that goes from the Black Sea (Ukraine and Turkey) to the Baltic Sea, encompassing Poland and the Baltic states, none of which are in good terms with Russia, the so called “Intermarium”[xiv]. Because of this, Russia will have to decide how to act in such a sensitive situation that is rapidly turning from bad to worse and evolving into a severe conflict situation encompassing large areas of Eurasia. The state of political tension between Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and NATO could also lead to a disruption, or at least to a slowdown, of commercial and energy traffic through the Black Sea, a factor that would considerably affect the Eurasian continental economy and endanger the chances of an economic recovery at the continental level, causing higher inflation and unemployment. Being the Black Sea also the recipient, the transport route of energy and commercial goods from the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, it is easy to understand what kind of problem the disruption of commercial flows could represent for the Eurasian continent and the world economy in general. The entrance of Turkey in an anti-Russian coalition has strengthened the coalition in the Black Sea, although Russia has also strengthened its military power thanks to the military acquisition of Crimea, which has given it the opportunity of hosting military ships, missiles and aviation in the area.

In turn, Russia will try to avoid involvement in a conflict on two fronts, perhaps resorting once again, as so often in its history, to its policy of divide and rule, as the liberal oriented publication suggests. Russia’s confrontation course could, despite President’s Putin confrontational attitude, in fact also damage Russia’s long-term interests. History teaches that even militarily powerful states can be defeated by coalitions, either economically or militarily and that military power is only one component of a nation’s strength.

[i] The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calls this policy Stratejik derinlik, effectively described in his book Türkiye’nin uluslararası konumu (“Strategic Deepness. The international stand of Turkey”).


[iii]  “Only in case of war can Turkey close the Turkish Straits”

[iv] “Can Turkey close up Russia in the Black Sea?”

[v] “After the incident of the SY 34 Turkish Armed Forces are brought to combat readiness level”


[vii] “Ukraine can lose its status of sea power without the building of new ships”



[x] “Moscow prepares an answer to NATO in the Black Sea”.



[xiii] “The United States have decided to dictate rules in the Black Sea.”

[xiv] “Grand geopolitical prognoses from Stratfor” – Riproduzione riservata


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