The 2014 Winter Olympics. The 1945 Yalta Conference. Anton Chekhov’s 1899 story “The Lady With the Dog.” These are but a few testaments to the enduring geopolitical and cultural significance of the Black Sea. But the region’s history isn’t all sports, seaside romances and peace negotiations – far from it. Over the centuries, the Black Sea has time and again been the focus of competition and conflict as its littoral states, namely Russia and Turkey, vie to protect critical security interests there. These powers and others have fought over, won and lost territory in and around the sea – some of them more than once. And as Russia’s interventions in the Crimean Peninsula and in Georgia attest, the struggle is alive and well in the 21st century. This Deep Dive will look at why the Black Sea and its surrounding shores have been the subject of so much strife and how the power distribution among its littoral states today propagates the cycle of conflict.
Water Worth Fighting For
Of the six states that border the Black Sea, Turkey and Russia are primarily responsible for the course of the region’s development over time. The two have spent most of their history in a bitter rivalry, despite their recent alliance of convenience over short-term endeavors, such as the war in Syria. Over hundreds of years, the Russian and Ottoman empires fought numerous wars – each of which traced back in one way or another to the issue of territorial control of the Black Sea.
In terms of geography, the region offers plenty of features worth fighting over. The Bosporus and Dardanelles straits – which connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and from there to the Aegean, the Mediterranean and the wider maritime world – have inspired several battles for their control. During World War I, for example, Ottoman and allied British, Australian and French forces fought over the Dardanelles at Gallipoli. On the opposite side of the Black Sea lies the Sea of Azov, situated between Russia and Ukraine. The Don and Kuban rivers flow into the sea, linking it to the Russian heartland as well as the Caucasus. Connecting the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula is the Kerch Strait, the site of a newly constructed Russian bridge and a recent dustup between Russia and Ukraine. The Black Sea itself is no less strategic than the waterways that surround it. The Dniester, Dnieper and Danube rivers flow into the sea and have made for strategic transit routes dating back to Ottoman times.
A History of Violence
Conflict between Russia and the Ottomans dates back to the 16th century, but the competition began in earnest only toward the end of the next century. At the time, Russia faced threats on multiple fronts. To the west, there was Poland, which had gone to war several times with Russia in the 17th century and even occupied Moscow during a particularly tumultuous period in Russian history. To the south were the Tatars, who controlled the Black Sea and often conducted raids into Russian territory on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Russia signed a truce with Poland in 1667 that gave it control of Ukrainian territory east of the Dnieper River. Russia also gained control of Kiev, strategically positioned on the river, for two years and wanted to make it permanent.
At the time, Poland was at war with the Ottomans. Having pushed them out of Vienna, Poland, along with its allies in the Holy League (which included the Holy Roman Empire and the Venetian Republic) tried to drive the Ottomans back out of Eastern Europe. Russia, which had cordial relations with the Ottomans in the recent past, initially stayed out of the war but ultimately decided to join the fight in exchange for Poland ceding control of Kiev beyond the initial two-year arrangement.
The effort had strategic benefits beyond putting a stop to the Tatar raids. The main objective of Peter the Great’s rule was to catch Russia up with Western Europe so that it could compete as an economic and military power. Gaining greater access to the outside world was a critical part of this endeavor. And for that, Russia needed a reliable year-round port, unlike Arkhangelsk, its biggest port up until that point, which lay so far north that its waters stayed frozen much of the year. St. Petersburg, established in 1703 on the Gulf of Finland, eventually drew much of Russia’s maritime traffic, but it, too, froze in the frigid winter temperatures, as did the Neva River that flowed into it. To obtain a true warm-water port, Russia would have to look south.
Russia seized control of the Sea of Azov in its operation in the late 17th century, beginning the gradual erosion of Ottoman control of the Black Sea. But the area was traded back and forth between the Russians and Ottomans for over half a century. Russia lost control of the Sea of Azov in a short war with the Ottomans in 1710-11 and then regained partial access in another conflict from 1735 to 1739. It was granted the right to build a port there but was not allowed to sail its naval fleets on either the Sea of Azov or the Black Sea
It wasn’t until the Russo-Turkic war of 1768-74 that Russia ousted the Ottomans from their post on the sea. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, which ended the conflict, enabled Russian fleets to move freely in the Sea of Azov, through the Kerch Strait and into the Black Sea. It granted the Crimean Khanate independence from the Ottoman Empire, making it a smaller, weaker foe and, in effect, securing Russia’s Black Sea coast. The treaty also declared Russia the protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, a position it used repeatedly in the following centuries to justify wars with Turkey, and set an enduring precedent for Russian intervention in defense of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and the Caucasus.
But for all Russia’s efforts over time to control the Black Sea, the strait that links the body to the seas beyond, the Bosporus, has always stayed beyond its grasp. The Bosporus has been and remains Turkey’s ultimate point of leverage over Russia. Russian vessels can sail the Black Sea all they want, but without Ankara’s consent, they can’t leave it. This is no idle threat for Russia. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire crippled the Russian economy by cutting Russian commerce off from the Mediterranean through a blockade of the Bosporus. Turkey wielded that power as a critical part of NATO’s containment line in the Cold War, keeping the Soviet Union hemmed in at the Black Sea.
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the contest for the Black Sea region has continued. Ukraine’s independence in 1991 introduced the possibility that the country would align with the West, an intolerable risk for Russia – and one the 2014 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine has only reinvigorated. Today, Russia supports separatist groups in eastern Ukraine and has reasserted its control of the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed nearly five years ago. It also built a bridge across the Kerch Strait with such a low clearance that it prevents Ukrainian vessels from passing; Russia detained several Ukrainian sailors in November after a confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels in the strait. If Russia escalates its intervention in Ukraine, Turkey may face a difficult choice between allowing NATO forces into the Black Sea, counter to the terms of the Montreux Convention (which governs access to the Bosporus Strait), or defying its allies in the bloc by denying their passage through the Bosporus.
Though Russia’s naval base at Tartus, Syria, gives it access to the Mediterranean, it’s of little concern to the Turks. Under its agreement with Syria, Russia can deploy up to 11 warships at the base. Moscow has also been investing in support infrastructure to house a larger flotilla there. But the base doesn’t present much of a threat to Turkey because, in case of a war, Russia would still need to bring supplies to the base through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus.
The Competition for Other Shores
Ukraine isn’t the only Black Sea state that has weathered competition between Russia and Turkey. The two powers have also vied over the centuries for control of the South Caucasus region, including Georgia. Georgia’s strategic value is its role as a buffer along Russia’s southern border.
Just over a decade ago, Russia invaded the former Soviet republic, an otherwise minor player in the region’s maritime activities. Georgia at the time was considering a bid for NATO membership. It was also dealing with a separatist uprising in the territory of Abkhazia, which broke away in a war in the early 1990s. Russia intervened on Abkhazia’s side, and by the end of its dayslong war with Georgia, it recognized the territory, as well as the breakaway region of South Ossetia, as an independent state. It has occupied the two territories ever since. Russia’s involvement in Abkhazia gives it access to a few additional ports on the Black Sea: Sukhumi – Abkhazia’s capital and main port – Ochamchire, Gagra and Novy Afon.
The remaining littoral states of the Black Sea – Bulgaria and Romania – are also part of the competition between Russia and the West. Today, they are NATO members, but their ties to Russia and Turkey date back centuries. Bulgaria and Romania were members of the Warsaw Pact. Long before that, though, the Russian and Ottoman empires struggled for dominance over the states.
Most recently, Bulgaria has been caught in a competition over energy supplies between Russia and Ukraine. Bulgaria depends on natural gas pipelines that run from Russia through Ukraine, and when Moscow cut supplies to Ukraine in 2009, it didn’t receive enough natural gas to meet domestic demand. The construction of the TurkStream pipeline, which runs through the Black Sea, will enable Russia to use natural gas supplies as leverage over Ukraine without jeopardizing the access of importers down the line, including Bulgaria and states in Eastern and Southern Europe. Bulgaria is even planning to invest about $1.6 billion in the construction of an additional link to Turkey, the pipeline’s terminus and, as such, an essential partner in the TurkStream endeavor. (As the only alternative route to European markets, the pipeline also gives Turkey some leverage over Russia, though Russia is Turkey’s top supplier of natural gas and, therefore, still has the upper hand in this regard.)
Earlier in its history, Bulgaria was embroiled in a more violent regional struggle, as Russia and the Ottomans fought cyclical wars, including the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war. The peace deal the two powers reached in that conflict, the Treaty of San Stefano, granted Russia so much territory that Germany intervened to mediate a solution more palatable to Europe. An ascendant Russia, after all, would have posed enough of a threat to the weaker Austro-Hungarian Empire to upset the balance of power on the Continent. (Were Austria-Hungary to fall, Germany would have no ally to its east to help fight or insulate it against Russia.) The revised agreement, the Treaty of Berlin, vastly curtailed Russia’s land acquisition and turned Russia against Germany, leading to the Franco-Russian alliance and laying the groundwork for World War I. It also established Bulgaria as an independent state for the first time since the Ottomans conquered it in 1396.
In the years that followed, conflict in the Balkans, including the discord that gave rise to World War I, frequently distracted Bulgaria from its Black Sea interests. And as a NATO member, Bulgaria plays a modest role in the region, hosting a small contingent of Italian jets and four U.S. military bases, one of which Washington plans to upgrade this year, investing about $5 million.
Romania, by contrast, is home to a substantial NATO force at its air base in Constanta, where the Danube connects with the Black Sea by way of a canal. The base, which regularly houses an armored brigade combat team, is the only installation in the Black Sea region that supports U.S. forces, according to Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army Europe. For missile defense, Romania has installed the Aegis and Patriot systems and recently placed its second order in two years for more of the latter system. (The Danube itself is a possible vulnerability for Romania, though it’s also a potentially important transport link for commerce. NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, for example, destroyed several bridges along the Danube, forcing the river’s closure and costing Romania hundreds of millions of dollars in lost trade.)
For centuries, the multiple axes of competition in the Black Sea have made it a site of repeated conflict over the same strategic passages. The contest has been most pronounced between Russia and Turkey, which have fought countless wars to secure access to the Black Sea and its surrounding waters. Threats from the West have driven Russia to intervene in Ukraine, which can draw Russia into conflict with Turkey. Whether the competition manifests in Russian military intervention or in energy disputes, the struggle continues to this day.