The Black Sea Conundrum - How Georgia and Ukraine can stop Putin from turning the inland sea into a Russian lake

Irina Arabidze

How Georgia and Ukraine can stop Putin from turning the inland sea into a Russian lake

On January 31st, US Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker announced that the U.S. and Europe are considering new measures against Russia if it does not return the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia last November in the Kerch Strait. A day earlier, the European Union again called on the Russian Federation to “immediately and unconditionally release the...sailors,” following similar demands from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Unmoved, Russia advised the West to “abandon the double standard” and instead focus on real threats created by Kiev.

Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval forces in the Black Sea is dangerous for European security, as a dominant position on the Black Sea would give Russia the ability to project power in Europe and the Middle East. Furthermore, as Black Sea riparian states, three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey could  be directly affected by such incidents. With respect to energy security, the Black Sea also offers important transit route for resources. More broadly, instability in Georgia and Ukraine - the two countries directly affected by Russia’s revisionist regional policy - can destabilize the Black Sea and Europe as a whole.

In the given context, what should Georgia and Ukraine do to improve their security and stymie  Russian attempts to dominate the Black Sea? There are several possible, but important steps: first, the two countries have to actively engage in continuous diplomacy to secure increased defense assistance and should amplify the voices of those states which promote creation of permanent NATO naval presence on the Black Sea. Georgia and Ukraine should also explore the possibility of defense industry cooperation with the United States and work with Western partners to pressure Russia through meaningful sanctions. Lastly, it is important to seek membership in regional integration projects which brings the two countries closer to Europe.

It is important to note that if any of these policy options are to succeed, it is crucial for Georgia and Ukraine to have a streamlined Western-oriented foreign policy trajectory. During the past decade, the two countries, at times, followed divergent foreign policy paths and their drive towards Western integration was not uniform. Maintaining vigorous enthusiasm for partnership with the West and high-level interstate cooperation will largely determine the viability of the any of these policy options.

Push for Increased Defense Assistance

Georgia and Ukraine have to actively work with the United States to secure defense assistance that increases the cost of Russia’s aggressive actions on the Black Sea. Russia is well aware that the cost of hostile actions against Ukraine and Georgia are tolerable. Both countries are outside of NATO and neither possess enough naval capability to meaningfully challenge Russia’s superiority. Providing defensive security assistance is one way to alter Russia’s calculation of costs and benefits. As Michael Carpenter writes, when it comes to securing the Black Sea, land-based anti-ship missiles, radars, and surveillance equipment for domain awareness do not risk offensive escalation, but “send a powerful message to Russia that its actions have consequences.”

Support Black Sea Naval Presence

Georgia and Ukraine should join voices with those Central and Eastern European states which call for reorganizing NATO’s Black Sea strategy under the U.S. leadership. Establishing Black Sea Maritime Patrol Mission with regular and rotational maritime presence will significantly strengthen NATO posture on the ground and reduce the likelihood of Russia’s bellicosity. The U.S. bolstered the presence of its warships in the Black Sea in 2014 with U.S. navy spending over 200 days in the area. However, the number has considerably decreased since then. Furthermore, if the Kerch incident is any indicator, the current NATO naval presence which increased from 80 to 120 days last year, has not stopped Russia from acting. Consequently, permanent NATO presence promises to be a much more effective deterrent than reactive dispatches of warships to the area.

Source: Bosphorus Naval News, (Accessed, February 2, 2019)

Yet, there are currently significant restrictions in place for permanent NATO Black Sea presence. The Montreaux Convention strictly regulates the passage and presence of military vessels through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles by states which do not have a coastline on the Black Sea. The non-Black Sea warships can only remain for up to 21 days and no more than nine non-Black Sea warships totaling 30,000 tons can be present at one time. Romania has long called for creating a permanent NATO Black Sea flotilla, but it would currently necessitate rotating out the ships that are not under Bulgarian, Romanian, or Turkish command.

A noteworthy project which promises a potential way around these limitations is Canal Istanbul, a 45 km long canal that Turkish authorities aim to build as an alternative route to the Bosphorus. Proactive cooperation with Turkey is crucial to secure a deal that removes limitations on number, tonnage, and duration of stay for NATO naval vessels in the Black Sea.

Explore the opportunities for co-producing weapons systems

Another important novelty would be exploring the opportunities to co-produce weapons systems in` joint manufacturing with the United States. This will improve interoperability with NATO, create additional avenues of cooperation with the U.S., and help adopt new technologies. As Jakub Grygiel writes, a broad framework of cooperation can encompass licensed production, joint venture or intergovernmental partnership where one result of defense-industrial cooperation can be turning into a producer nation for the supply chain of a large U.S. defense company. Since defense companies often subcontract parts of bigger weapons platforms to producers worldwide, Georgia and Ukraine have a chance to become suppliers of this integrated chain. As Grygiel highlights, government regulations as well as reluctance to expose technological knowhow makes such cooperation very difficult, but with sufficient political will, not at all impossible.  

Ukraine already has a formidable defense industry. If meaningful reforms are carried out, the country can reorient its efforts to meet NATO standards and attract Western-investment. Meanwhile, Georgia has been successfully operating a military research-technical center Delta, which produces armored and infantry combat vehicles,  and develops and manufactures military gear, munitions, as well as optical and other military equipment. In the past, Georgia has looked into defense industry cooperation possibilities with Turkey and Israel. Exploring the opportunities of joint manufacturing with the United States can be the next step.

Push for Making Sanctions Count

The US House of Representatives recently passed a bill imposing sanctions against human rights violators in Russia-occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region. This is a highly welcome step, in addition to signifying an important message of support to Georgia. The EU can follow suit by identifying clear criteria for directly basing its sanctions on Russia’s human rights and international law violations.

The well-targeted sanctions can have a number of positive long-term effects, including raising the cost of Russia’s aggressive actions in its neighbourhood, as well as dangling the prospect of further punishment if Russia attempts to continue pushing the boundaries in the Black Sea. Georgia and Ukraine have to actively work with the Western partners to promote the type of sanctions that can truly hurt Russian leadership and its economy. These sanctions can range from freezing assets for leading Russian banks to banning new Russian sovereign debt, along with new debt financing of all Russian state enterprises.

n concert with the EU, the U.S. should also broaden technological restrictions that will hinder Russia’s future oil production, and more importantly, go after Putin’s inner circle by closing pathways for Russian investment in the Western markets that is currently available through different legal means.

Actively engage in regional integration projects

Finally, by working directly with the United States and NATO, Georgia and Ukraine should seek closer cooperation with other Black Sea states, as well as actively push for participation in new forums that  focus on integrating Central and Eastern Europe. One such regional undertaking is the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), designed to unite Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas ring countries through trade, energy, and digital interconnectivity projects. Maintaining stability in the Black Sea will aid initiatives such as 3SI, which aim to promote economic projects and have the added benefit of decreasing Russian influence on the continent. On the sidelines of the 2018 TSI Summit in Bucharest, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Turkey  participated in the international economic forum for the first time. The engagement must continue and deepen.


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