For many policymakers the Black Sea is a secondary consideration when it comes to transatlantic security. A lack of resources by NATO members meant that initiatives taken to bolster territorial defense were limited geographically after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the time, Baltics were seen as the most pressing priority. Instead of bolstering NATO’s frontline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Alliance focused most of its energy and resources on northeastern Europe.

While the Baltic region is incredibly important for NATO, this lack of focus on the Black Sea was unfortunate. The region matters to the U.S. and its NATO allies. The Black Sea is home to three NATO members (Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria) and two aspirant NATO countries that face partial Russian occupation (Ukraine and Georgia). Important oil and gas transit links crisscross the region. So do many important fiber optic cables and shipping lanes.

On the tactical level, Moscow’s action in the region and its militarization of Crimea furthers its goal of making the Black Sea a Russian lake. Russia has deployed 28,000 troops to Crimea and has embarked on a major program to build housing, restore airfields, and install new radars there. In addition, Russia has deployed advanced air defense and anti-ship missiles that give it a leg up above the rest in terms of controlling the surface and the skies above the Black Sea.

On the strategic level, Russia uses the Black Sea as a springboard to challenge U.S. interests elsewhere in the world. For example, Russia has used its Black Sea presence on occupied Crimea to launch and support naval operations in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the early days of Moscow’s intervention in Syria, the Moskva, a Russian navy guided missile cruiser, played a vital role in providing air defense for Russian forces. Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and wheat have been shipped from Crimea to Syria to help the Assad Regime’s food shortage problems. Hundreds of trips have been made between Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol and the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria to transport military hardware and resupplies.

Thankfully policymakers are now waking up. For the U.S. three Black Sea countries can play an important role in America’s presence in the region: Romania, Georgia and Ukraine.

Romania is the most enthusiastic of all the Black Sea countries inside NATO about maintaining a strong presence in the region. Romania has sought closer military, economic, and political relations with the United States. As Romania’s new National Defense Strategy states about Romanian-U.S. relations: “Romania aims at consolidating its military cooperation with the United States, not just as a mere course of action derived from our status as allies, but as an operational objective to be implemented on the national territory.”

When it comes to Black Sea security Romania also has a special role to play serving as the confluence of the Danube River. This is especially true as proposals have been made to use access to the Danube River as a way to increase NATO presence in the Black Sea.

Romania has shown a willingness to step up to the plate when the geopolitical situation requires. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Bucharest became an outspoken supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. And was one of the first countries in Europe to call for the arming of the Ukrainian military in the face of Russian aggression.

Even before becoming a member of NATO Romania was willing to support NATO led operations in the Balkans by giving access to its airspace for operations. Romania has contributed troops to the NATO mission in Kosovo. Thousands of Romanian troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq to support US and NATO led operations in those countries. Currently, Romania has more than 730 soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Also, Mihail Romania’s Kogalniceanu Air Base is a major logistics and supply hub for U.S. equipment and personnel traveling to the Middle East region.

Across the Black Sea from Romania, Georgia is another important partner for the U.S. After the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the subsequent occupation of 20 percent of its territory, Georgia has transformed its military and has been steadfast in its support of NATO, as well as non-NATO, U.S.-led overseas security operations. Georgia has contributed thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds of peacekeepers to the Balkans and Africa. Even with the Russian invasion and its aftermath, Georgia has not been deterred from getting closer to the West. This has made Georgia a net contributor to transatlantic security and is a key part of any Black Sea strategy.

Georgia is important to the U.S. and NATO for three main reasons.

First, Georgia is a proven and dependable ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, when many NATO countries were rushing for the door in Afghanistan, Georgia added hundreds of troops to the mission there. At the height of the Georgian contribution to Afghanistan, it had more than 2,000 troops serving in some of the deadliest places in the country, if not the world, in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Today, Georgia has 870 troops in Afghanistan, making it the largest non-NATO troop contributor to the NATO training mission.

Second, located on the Black Sea, Georgia sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads and has proven itself to be strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries. Today Georgia offers its territory, infrastructure, and logistic capabilities for the transit of NATO forces and cargo for Afghanistan. Over the years, Georgia has modernized key airports and port facilities in the country. This is particularly important when it comes to the Black Sea region. Key pipelines like the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku–Supsa pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor transit through Georgia, as do important rail lines like the recently opened Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway. The oil and gas pipelines are particularly important to Europe’s energy security, and therefore NATO’s interest in the region.

Finally, Georgia’s journey to democracy is an example for the region. Since regaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has been on a steady journey to democracy. Over the years, successive Georgian governments have pursued an agenda of liberalizing the economy, cutting bureaucracy, fighting corruption, and embracing democracy.

As the target of Russia’s most recent act of aggression in the region, Ukraine also plays an important role regarding stability and security in the Black Sea.

Ukraine is in the midst of a national struggle that will determine its future geopolitical orientation: the West or Moscow. The outcome of this struggle will have long-term implications for the transatlantic community and the notion of national sovereignty. Since 2014, almost 5 percent of Ukraine’s landmass and more than half of its coastline have been under illegal Russian occupation in Crimea.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and so it does not enjoy the Alliance’s security guarantee, but it was Kyiv’s desire to join institutions such as NATO and the EU that persuaded Russia to invade in 2014. Ukraine represents the idea that countries in Europe should be free to choose how and by whom they are governed, and which international organizations and alliances they wish to join. No outside country, in this case Russia, should have a veto.

With time Ukraine has the potential to become one of the most dominant powers on the Black Sea. The U.S. has been investing and improving Ukraine’s maritime capabilities.

For different reasons Romania, Georgia and Ukraine play an important role in the Black Sea. The U.S. can work more closely to enhance its bilateral relationship and improve Black Sea security.

For Romania, the U.S. should look at ways to increase its presence in the land and air domains in the country. This could mean U.S. troops and fighter jets permanently based there. For years most of the U.S. and NATO focus on the Black Sea has been the maritime domain. While this is important, the land and air domains cannot be ignored.

For both Georgia and Ukraine, the U.S. must work with NATO allies to ensure both are kept on the path to eventual membership into the Alliance. At the same time the U.S. should work with both to improve their military capabilities.  

While the U.S. is not a Black Sea country, it needs to be a Black Sea power. To make this happen Washington must build on its relations with Romania, Georgia and Ukraine. This will make America, NATO, and the region safer.

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.

Photo: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images