Since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States has spent billions on Black Sea security. Assistance has been insufficient in real terms however, given Russia’s continued aggression and land grabs. US support for the Black Sea and the Middle East has been through several phases in recent years, with President Donald Trump’s generals having the biggest impact on policy change. While there has been increased engagement in the region, much more is needed from the US – as well as NATO and the EU – to ensure Black Sea security.

Responding to Russian aggression 

In 2008, following 15 years of relative quiet in the region, the Black Sea returned to global attention when President Vladimir Putin made a surprise appearance at a NATO summit. In Bucharest, a three hour drive from the Black Sea shores, the US was promising Ukraine and Georgia a path to NATO membership despite Western European opposition. It was here that Putin travelled to personally oppose NATO’s decision. 

Just a few months later, Putin ordered his tanks into Georgia stopping them short of the capital Tbilisi. As a result, Russia occupied 19 percent of Georgian territory declaring the two separatists regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent. While Russia, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria have formally recognized these territories’ independence, Georgia and the West consider them occupied by Russia. 

The West responded lamentably to the invasion despite NATO members declaring conditional support to integrate Georgia and Ukraine only a few months earlier. The Bush Administration sent USD 1 billion in aid and French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a peace deal between Russia and Georgia on behalf of the EU. So, while western powers were forthcoming with aid and diplomacy, they stopped short of imposing strict measures and sanctions. The invasion of Georgia would ultimately lead to few repercussions for Russia. 

In the ensuing years, global attention turned from the Black Sea to its eastern and southern neighbors. The Syrian war is ongoing, and millions of refugees continue to place strain on Turkey’s social and economic infrastructure. Western unwillingness to intervene in the conflict has caused a power vacuum, filled by Russia since 2015, and led to the European migrant crisis. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers seized the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014 and launched a proxy conflict in Donbas. 

Converging at the Black Sea

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Georgia on the one hand, and the Syrian conflict on the other, have historically been viewed in two distinct lenses: Eastern European security and Middle Eastern security. These two lenses converge at the Black Sea. 

In 2015, the European migrant crisis connected Europe and the Middle East via Greece, circumventing Bulgaria and narrowly missing Black Sea shores. Since then, the Black Sea has gradually grown in importance as a South-North migration path. Tensions between Bulgaria and Turkey have increased over migration and minority issues, while Bulgaria has been challenged internally by growing nationalism and cases of armed groups fighting refugees hosted by Turkey. 

Syria’s civil war reached the Black Sea’s southern shores with the arrival of millions of refugees to Turkey, many of whom are now congregating at Western borders amidst a growing pandemic. Meanwhile, US involvement in the conflict has been tempestuous. President Barack Obama authorized direct support for rebels in 2013 but failed to shore up Congress’ support. The first US airstrikes were launched in 2014 and troops entered Syria the following year, only to be withdrawn in 2018. As western powers stepped away from the conflict and uncertainty in the region grew, Turkey and Russia became more involved. This is a bilateral relationship that has seen a Russian plane downed after violating Turkish airspace, sanctions imposed by Russia, and Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system. 

Conflict is also waging on the northern shores of the Black Sea. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and war broke out in Donbas. This time, Western response was more decisive than it was for Georgia. The US imposed sanctions and most of the West followed suit. The Obama Administration also began providing significant military assistance to both Ukraine and Georgia. Between 2014 and 2017, the US provided more than USD 850 million in military equipment and training to Ukraine, but an absence of lethal weapons meant Russia remained undeterred.  

A shift in US policy 

Georgia has been a major beneficiary of US military assistance since 2008 when Bush approved the USD 1 billion aid package. While President Obama boosted aid to Georgia, he also continued the previous administration’s policy of refusing to send lethal weapons.

The situation radically changed with the Trump Administration, initially for the better and then for the worse. In 2017, at the initiative of former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Ukraine and Georgia received a first shipment of lethal weapons. This was to defend themselves against Russian-supported separatists and deter against another Russian invasion. The shipment was a significant but first step for Northern Black Sea security and the US has continued to deliver military assistance in the form of lethal and non-lethal equipment.

A shift in US policy was also felt a few hundred miles south of Georgia and the Black Sea shores when, in 2017, the Trump Administration launched the first direct assault on Syria. One year later, the US was joined by the UK and France to launch attacks on Damascus and Homs. However, Western involvement in Syria was short lived, with Trump announcing on Twitter in 2018 the US withdrawal from Syria. Two days later, Secretary Mattis resigned in protest.

US defense assistance to Ukraine has more than quadrupled from USD 91 million in 2014 to USD 415 million in 2019. It has been the only NATO power to significantly contribute, providing approximately 90 percent of the military assistance received by Ukraine. But this hasn’t been without hurdles. The Trump-Ukraine scandal, which saw the president block US military assistance to Ukraine and ultimately face impeachment proceedings, shocked the global community. 

While Ukraine has received lethal and non-lethal equipment worth more than USD 1.5 billion since Crimea’s annexation, this has been insufficient in deterring Russian aggression. Counter-battery radar systems may have helped drastically reduce Ukrainian fatalities but Ukrainian armed forces are struggling to defend themselves against Russian attacks. In November 2018, Russia attacked Ukrainian military and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels at the Kerch Strait – a passage connecting the Black Sea with the much smaller, land-locked Azov Sea. The incident led to massive economic loss for Ukraine, which depends on maritime access, and has had a significant economic impact for Western trade partners. 

Signs of hope, but more to achieve  

Billions of dollars in military assistance could well deter Russian aggression and improve Black Sea security. But as we’ve seen in the case of Ukraine, the impact of a few tens of millions of dollars in lethal equipment has so far been limited.

Efforts by the US, Ukraine and Georgia to stabilize the region should be viewed within a wider context. While Georgia and Ukraine are reforming their armed forces to meet NATO integration criteria, some NATO member states will actively oppose their membership and others will fail to actively support it. In this sense, only limited Black Sea security can be achieved. Another point worth considering is that security in Ukraine and Georgia is reliant on a holistic regional infrastructure and coordinated action. NATO’s Black Sea security suffers from a common threat assessment, both regionally and within the organization, because Black Sea countries have vetoed NATO military presence in the region. The lack of consensus for Black Sea security has left the region ill equipped to deter Russian aggression.

Everyone can do more for Black Sea security. On the southern shore, the only choice left for the EU is to face increased pressure or to address the problem head on. On the northern shore, the most effective deterrent is a functional, reformed and efficient military. Post-communist reform processes have also been widely underestimated. 

NATO member states can and should increase their military presence in the region, contribute to a security infrastructure that deters Russia and push for multilateral security action. This would prevent NATO members who oppose Black Sea security from abusing their power. Ukraine and Georgia could be more involved in joint military exercises with NATO. EU member states could start contributing to military assistance in the Black Sea to protect their own security. Strategic partnerships, such as those seen between the US and Georgia or the US and Ukraine, will help streamline aid and support the democratic reform of the armed forces.

Iulia-Sabina Joja is a Senior Fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Program and a DAAD Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she researches Black Sea security. The views expressed in this piece are her 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: Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty Images