For an organization whose primary mission is collective security in the North Atlantic area, the Black Sea is a very important region for the North Atlantic Security Organization (NATO). This region forms the southeastern frontier of NATO’s area of responsibility. Thanks to Russia’s actions in the region, there are more miles of coastline under illegal military occupation along the Black Sea than in any other place in the world. 

Throughout history, the Black Sea has proven to be geopolitically and economically important. 

It is in NATO’s interest that the region remains stable. The Black Sea links Europe with the Middle East and Central Asia. Key oil and gas pipelines crisscross the sea. As fiber optic cables move data along the seabed, cargo ships transfer goods from coast to coast on the surface. 

NATO also has skin in the game in the region. Three of six Black Sea countries (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) are in NATO. Another two countries (Ukraine and Georgia) work closely with NATO, have suffered the direct impact of Russian aggression, and aspire to join the Alliance someday.

It is also worth noting that Black Sea countries have demonstrated the political will to deploy troops in support of NATO operations above those in other regions. Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia collectively contribute one-third of all the European forces serving in NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, for example.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow has tried turning the sea into a Russian lake. Russia has increased the number of troops and ships illegally located in Crimea. It has expanded its reach across the Black Sea with deployments of air defense and anti-ship missiles. In what can only be described as a desire to provoke NATO into confrontation, Russian planes and warships have come dangerously close to U.S. ships operating in the Black Sea. Russia has even captured and unlawfully detained Ukrainian sailors operating in international waters in the past. 

In terms of the focus of NATO, it is safe to say that the Black Sea has played second fiddle to the Baltic Sea in recent years. Thankfully this is slowly changing. After all, it is not about NATO having to choose between the Baltic Sea or the Black Sea. The Alliance has to do both. As a collective security alliance, NATO is obligated to defend Varna in the same way it does Vilnius. 

There are four main challenges for NATO when it comes to ensuring its interests in the Black Sea region.

The first challenge are the bureaucratic and legal limitations. The 1936 Montreux Convention makes maintaining a robust NATO maritime presence difficult. The convention gave Turkey control over the Turkish Straits. As a NATO member, Turkey controlling the straits is not, in itself, a problem. However, the convention also placed limitations on the number, transit time, and tonnage of naval ships from non–Black Sea countries that may use the strait and operate in the Black Sea. Non–Black Sea state warships in the Straits must be less than 15,000 tonnes. No more than nine non–Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no longer than 21 days. This places limitations on non–Black Sea NATO member operations in the Black Sea.

The second issue that frustrates NATO’s approach to the region is a difference in point of view by the Alliance’s Black Sea members. Romania is perhaps the most enthusiastic about increasing NATO’s presence in the Black Sea. On the other hand, Turkey, which has the most capable navy among the Alliance’s Black Sea members, sees the region as more of a national issue and not a NATO one. Therefore Turkey, as the controller and guarantor of the Turkish Straits under the 1936 Montreux convention, is always cautious, hesitant, and at times suspicious of any great NATO initiatives for the Black Sea. Finally, in Bulgaria there has been some domestic political differences about the role NATO should play in the Black Sea. During elections this matter gets a more attention, but for the most part Bulgaria is supportive of NATO’s presence in the region. This lack of common picture by NATO’s Black Sea members makes it more difficult for the Alliance to develop a comprehensive strategy. 

The third issue that NATO needs to overcome in the Black Sea region is the dominating focus on the maritime domain at the expense of beefing up the land and air component of Black Sea security. Some progress has been made in recent years. At the July 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO agreed to “develop tailored forward presence in the southeast part of the Alliance territory. Appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region.” The land component of NATO’s tailored forward presence is a multinational framework brigade based in Craiova, Romania, under the control of Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast (HQ MND–SE) in Bucharest. The 5,000-strong brigade still consists mainly of Romanian troops, but there are also Bulgarian and Polish troops and headquarters staff from a few other NATO members. 

Finally, NATO has to manage the expectations of countries like Ukraine and Georgia which hope to join the alliance someday while keeping them on a realistic path towards membership. Both of these countries continue to experience Russian occupation along their Black Sea coasts. Since 2008 Russia has occupied the Georgian region of Abkhazia, dramatically reducing the length of Black Sea coastline still under control of Tbilisi. The annexation of Crimea has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and Russia has since claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean Peninsula previously belonging to Ukraine. Both countries were promised eventual membership at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008, but since then NATO members have not been willing to admit either into the alliance due to the partial Russian occupation in the respective countries. 

NATO must find ways to overcome these four challenges. But the restrictions that limit the size, number and length of stay for non-Black Sea warships in the Black Sea is the single biggest contributing factor for the reduced presence on NATO in the sea. 

Obviously, the most immediate solution to this problem is for NATO members to increase their presence by committing to rotational Black Sea patrols. The only thing preventing NATO from doing so is political will. A longer-term solution would be for NATO and its non-Black Sea member states to invest in and help develop the maritime capabilities of the Alliance’s Black Sea littoral states like Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey and NATO partners like Georgia and Ukraine. 

However, in the meantime there are some things NATO can do to improve its position in the Black Sea. One of the most pressing issues NATO needs to do is develop a strategy for the Black Sea region. The U.S. should be a leader inside the Alliance to develop meaningful ways for working with the Black Sea littoral states to develop a strategy for regional security. 

NATO’s interest in Black Sea security is increasing, but the overall presence of non–Black Sea NATO warships is decreasing. NATO should establish a Black Sea Maritime Patrol mission modeled on the successful Baltic Air Policing mission, in order to maintain a robust NATO presence in the Black Sea. This would require non–Black Sea NATO countries to commit in advance to a regular and rotational maritime presence in the Black Sea. While NATO beefs up its maritime presence in the Black Sea, it should not neglect the land and air component of regional security. NATO should consider the feasibility of a Black Sea Air Policing Mission like the one currently in the Baltic region, for example. 

NATO should also consider opening a NATO-certified Center of Excellence on Black Sea Security in Georgia. There is no precedent for a NATO-certified Center of Excellence in a non-NATO country, but establishing one could improve NATO–Georgia relations and show how important the Black Sea region has become for Europe’s overall security. The Center of Excellence would provide an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and training in how to address the challenges associated with Black Sea security.

Finally, NATO should build relations with Georgia and Ukraine. These are two Black Sea countries that know what it is like to suffer from Russian aggression. They also aspire to join the alliance someday. Without close cooperation and relations with both, NATO cannot have an effective Black Sea strategy.

The economic, security, and political importance of the Black Sea and the broader region is only becoming more important. With Russia increasing its military capability in the region, now is not the time for NATO to grow complacent. 

Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, where he oversees research on nations stretching from South America to the Middle East. The views expressed in this article are his own.

This article is part of MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative, which explores the evolving political, economic, and security relationships between the countries of the Middle East and its northern frontier (Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia).

Photo: Anadolu Agency / Contributor