Understanding Russian Black Sea Power Dynamics Through National Security Gaming

by Anika Binnendijk


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Research Questions

  1. What military and nonmilitary levers of power might Russia have in the Black Sea?
  2. What considerations would regional governments weigh during a military crisis in the region?
  3. How might Russia apply multidimensional levers of power to influence and constrain the decisionmaking of regional governments concerning defense and deterrence options?

Russian military investment in its Black Sea posture since 2014 has profoundly altered the security map of the region. Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has taken some steps to assert presence in the Black Sea, the United States and regional allies may have a limited set of military options with which to further expand existing defense and deterrence measures.

This report describes a June 2018 RAND Black Sea security game that convened subject-matter experts and policy practitioners to role-play Russia and U.S. allies and partners during a military crisis scenario. The game and associated research underscored the relative strength of Russia's position in the Black Sea and the challenges associated with developing a coherent response to Russian aggression in the region. Politically, the game highlighted the extent to which a Russian goal of preventing regional cooperation may be easier to achieve than the task of building regional consensus. Russia may strategically apply tailored pressure and incentives to the other five littoral states that would likely further undermine unity around multilateral action. Before a crisis, the United States and its allies should consider steps to address the regional military imbalance while amplifying engagement with Black Sea allies and partners across a range of issues, including energy security, media independence, and trade opportunities, as well as regional threat perceptions and contingencies.

Key Findings

Russia has successfully altered the military status quo in the Black Sea to its advantage

  • Russia's control of Crimea, recent investment in the modernization of its Black Sea Fleet, and deployments of assets to the region have shifted the military balance in the Black Sea.

Turkey's support would be critical to any response because of its naval capabilities and responsibility for the straits under the Montreux Convention

  • Turkish security interests in Syria and the need to maintain cooperation with Russia to address them, as well as Turkey's dependence on Russian natural gas imports with the completion of the TurkStream pipeline, could make Turkey reluctant to counter Russian aggression.

Romania would likely have the will and the capability to contribute to a regional military initiative in the Black Sea

  • Ongoing military procurement, modernization, and expansion plans could enhance Romanian maritime contributions.
  • The Romanian government's interest in bolstering U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea is likely to be deepened by Russian pressures.

Bulgaria remains vulnerable to Russian incentives and coercion

  • Russian integration in the Bulgarian energy sector may increase in the coming years.
  • Bulgarian wariness of Russian political meddling and military threats could once again prompt reluctance to support an initiative that would likely raise Moscow's ire.

Georgian and Ukrainian military capabilities were significantly eroded in their respective conflicts with Russia

  • However, both countries would likely seek a role in a regional initiative and would welcome U.S. and other Western presences for expanded exercises and training programs.


  • Measures designed to strengthen regional allies and partners and reduce Russia's military advantage would serve to enhance both deterrence and the prospects of regional cooperation during a confrontation.
  • Robust energy dialogues with Turkey and Bulgaria on their gas hub aspirations could identify options to maximize regional interconnectors and alternative sources of gas, such as that provided through the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, as well as future Romanian Black Sea gas extraction.
  • An open-source initiative to highlight streams of Russian government investment in the region could complement existing public analyses of Russian military power and help to guide dialogues with regional leaders.
  • Targeted senior-level political discussions could seek to encourage a regionally driven approach by improving communication about areas of commonality and divergence regarding threat perceptions, identifying potential contingencies, and evaluating mitigation measures before a crisis.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    The New Black Sea Military Balance

  • Chapter Three

    Diverse Perspectives and Avenues for Russian Influence

  • Chapter Four

    Tailored Russian Tactics, Constrained Regional Responses

  • Chapter Five


This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI).

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