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Security in the Black Sea region after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine in 2022 triggered a reshaping of the entire security architecture in the Black Sea region and the whole of Europe. How does the expert community perceive the changes to regional security? What are the lessons learned for the international and regional actors? What could be done to restore and maintain security in the Black Sea region?

September 29, 2022 - Hanna Shelest Maksym Khylko - Hot Topics

Photo VolodymyrT / Shutterstock

The Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” conducted an expert survey and semi-structured interviews with Ukrainian experts and diplomats. The full text of the study can be read here. Below is a summary of the key results from this study.

Re-evaluating regional security

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only reshaped the security situation in the wider Black Sea region but also dramatically changed the world powers’ perception of the region, its importance for global security and the roles of key regional players. Previously, the Black Sea was rarely considered among the world’s most important strategic spaces. Key member states of the European Union and NATO have shown limited interest in Black Sea security, lacked a coherent strategy on the region and even had no certainty whether the Black Sea region is an integral part of Europe.

Yet, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shifted the Black Sea region from the periphery to the centre of the Euro-Atlantic security processes, as Dr Yevgeniya Gaber points out in her interview within our study. The war also indicated that the Black Sea region should be considered not separately but as a part of the whole European security system, Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar says. The return of large-scale war to Europe forced many countries to soberly re-evaluate their security and defence sectors and become better aware of their vulnerability. The future geopolitical landscape will be shaped by a vision of Russia as a threat that should be contained, Dr Volodymyr Dubovyk remarks.

Indispensable NATO

Against the background of the return of large-scale war to Europe, the value of collective defence in NATO becomes more obvious than ever. Over 66 per cent of Ukrainian experts surveyed within our study consider that further destructive actions by Russia in the Black Sea region can be prevented by admitting to NATO those countries that seek membership. Over 26 per cent of experts believe it is necessary to focus mainly on strengthening the capabilities of the current NATO members in the region − Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. At the same time, less than seven per cent consider that NATO should reduce its activities in the Black Sea region, and no expert chose the option of accepting the Russia-imposed status-quo in the region.

It is also indicative that considering the options for Ukraine and it Caucasian partners – Georgia and Azerbaijan – to contribute to strengthening security in the wider Black Sea region, the vast majority (over 86 per cent) of Ukrainian experts believe that all three countries should primarily focus on strengthening their co-operation with NATO.

Significantly fewer experts (53 per cent) put hopes on enhancing the military and defence co-operation of these three countries with each other and on elaborating their joint energy projects of regional importance. Over 46 per cent also named co-operation of three countries in resistance to hybrid threats as a possible option (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: What Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine could do to contribute to strengthening security in the wider Black Sea region? (Respondents could choose several options at once; results are presented in percentage)

When asked about the vision of Ukraine’s final stage of relations with NATO, over 93 per cent of the surveyed Ukrainian experts chose “membership”, less than seven per cent chose “partnership” and no one believed that Kyiv should not co-operate with the Alliance at all.

Noteworthy, when speaking about NATO, Ukrainian diplomats and experts emphasise the mutual benefit of possible membership. Dr Gaber says that in repelling Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine “proved to be a major player and security contributor” to the region. So, not only does Ukraine need NATO for its security, but “NATO also needs us for their security because we have the practical experience in fighting Russians,” Amb. Bodnar notes.

Given that accession to NATO will take time, Ukrainian diplomats and experts assume that Kyiv may consider establishing some regional security infrastructure with neighbouring countries, including Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, perhaps Turkey, as well as security mechanisms together with the United States and the United Kingdom – not as an alternative to NATO membership, but as a compliment to the path to the Alliance, Amb. Sergiy Korsunsky and Dr Yevgeniya Gaber emphasise in their interviews.

Role of regional and non-regional actors

Along with recognition of NATO’s importance, another crucial change in perception of the regional security architecture is better awareness of the role of the Central and Eastern European actors, which proved their ability and willingness to actively stand against the Russian threat, while the “old Europe” showed a lack of pro-activeness in the security realm, especially during the early stages of war, Dr Gaber notes.

Given the combat experience of its army, Ukraine can become one of the guarantors of security in the Black Sea region, Ukrainian diplomats and experts say, emphasising that “today Ukraine is defending NATO” (Amb. Bodnar) and that Ukraine has proved to be not a recipient, but a provider of the regional security (Dr Gaber).

Assessing the actual effectiveness of international actors in the Russia-Ukraine war and in containment of Russia’s assertive regional policies, surveyed experts firstly named Baltic states, the UK, Poland, and the US as the most effective. At the same time, the low marks of the UN and the OSCE, which according to their founding documents should have played a much more active role in ending the war, testify to their extremely low ability to fulfil their own statutory obligations (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: How would you assess the role of the following actors in the Russia-Ukraine War and in containment of Russia’s assertive regional policies? (Standardised on a scale of 0-100 [very effective])

While considering the possible positive role of the international actors in strengthening security in the wider Black Sea region, the UK, the US, NATO and Ukraine were named by more than three quarters of the surveyed experts. They are followed by Turkey, Romania and the EU, named by more than half of the respondents (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: How would you assess the possible positive role of the following actors in strengthening security in the wider Black Sea region? (Standardised on a scale of 0-100 [very effective]; 3SI = Three Seas Initiative)

As for China and India, experts do not have much hope for their participation in strengthening security in the Black Sea. Despite China’s interest in stability in the region as a part of its Belt and Road route, the maximum that Ukraine can expect from Beijing is neutrality, formal support for Ukrainian territorial integrity and “not helping Russia in its invasion”, Dr Gaber notes.

It should be noted that along with international co-operation, Ukrainian experts also stress the necessity to develop Ukraine’s own defence capabilities: “Secure environment must be based, first of all, on our own Ukrainian military force: modern, well-equipped and well-trained”, Amb. Korsunsky says. In this context, Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership is of vital importance as the post-war restoration of the economy will need EU assistance, and the level of economic development will directly affect Ukraine’s capabilities to invest in security and defence, Dr Dubovyk notices.

Restoring security to the Black Sea region

To restore and guarantee security in the Black Sea region, certain actions are needed to be pursued as well as political choices to be made both by Ukraine and its international partners, including the following:

  1. Security of the Black Sea region should be seriously considered by NATO and the EU as one of the key factors defining European and Euro-Atlantic security. Restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine and establishing a fair balance of powers in the Black Sea should prevent the existence of exclusive anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) zones, guarantee security of all littoral states as well as freedom of navigation and maritime trade.
  2. Successfully addressing Black Sea security issues requires a significant and closely coordinated build-up of integrated coastal defence infrastructure and naval and other forces interactions of Romania and Ukraine in partnership with Bulgaria and Georgia, which could be done much more effectively if Ukraine and Georgia join NATO and the EU.
  3. Ukraine’s coastal defence infrastructure should be improved and naval forces developed in close co-operation with NATO and EU partners. Such military infrastructure should, on the one hand, be able to serve as a component of NATO collective security and, on the other hand, ensure sufficient capabilities to provide Ukraine’s basic security needs independently. Ensuring freedom of navigation, prevention of port blockades and coastal defence are top priorities.
  4. As Ukraine is an EU candidate state, its participation in EU initiatives in the field of security and defence, as well as EU’s military-technical co-operation should be considered.
  5. Ukraine’s maritime co-operation with Turkey and Romania should be enhanced, so to counter the existing challenges in the maritime domain, including the Black Sea patrolling, monitoring and reconnaissance, demining, ensuring the safety of navigation and critical infrastructure protection.
  6. Repairing relations between the US and Turkey is of great importance for Black Sea security, and more close co-operation between the EU and Turkey is also much needed.
  7. Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova should reconsider co-operation within the GUAM format and focus more on practical mutually-beneficial co-operation with each other in multilateral or bilateral formats where their interests coincide. In particular, this applies to countering hybrid threats, developing energy projects and trade. As all these countries have a high level of cooperation with Turkey, it would be logical to involve Ankara in such a partnership where possible and beneficial.

This article is part of the wider research project “Black Sea Cooperation for Stronger Security: Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan”, implemented in 2022 by the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”, along with the Georgian Institute of Politics, and the Caucasus Policy Analysis Centre (Azerbaijan), and supported by the European Union through BST. The authors of the article express special thanks to their colleagues Mykhailo Drapak and Oleksandr Kraiev for their significant contribution to the research, as well as to Amb. Vasyl Bodnar, Amb. Sergiy Korsunsky, Capt. (ret.) Andriy Ryzhenko, Dr Yevgeniya Gaber and Dr Volodymyr Dubovyk for their valuable thoughts and expertise.

Maksym Khylko is the Director of the Russian and Belarusian studies programme at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and Chairman at the East European Security Research Initiative.

Hanna Shelest is the Director of security programmes at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and Editor-in-chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica and a non-resident senior fellow at CEPA (Washington DC).

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