For decades, Russia has used political, military, economic, informational, and clandestine tools to advance its goals of establishing a privileged sphere of influence in the Black Sea region and enhancing its capabilities for national defense and wider power projection. In this report, the authors review those tactics and identify elements of a Western strategy to protect mutual interests and counter Russian malign influence and aggression.
- What are the nonmilitary and military tools that Russia has used to gain influence and achieve geopolitical goals in the Black Sea region?
- How do the NATO allies and partners in the region perceive and respond to Russia's strategy?
- What are some potential elements of a collective Western strategy to counter Russian influence and aggression in the region?
- What might NATO allies and partners in the region contribute to support that strategy?
The Black Sea region is a central locus of the competition between Russia and the West for the future of Europe. The region experienced two decades of simmering conflicts even before Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russia has used military force against countries in the region four times since 2008. The Kremlin is seeking to establish a sphere of privileged influence over countries in the region and limit their integration into Euro-Atlantic structures while enhancing Russia's regime stability and improving military capabilities for homeland defense and wider power projection into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Despite this instability and conflict, U.S. and European officials and analysts have not given nearly as much attention to the region's security challenges as they have to those in Northern Europe. In this report, the authors first assess how Russia is employing a variety of nonmilitary and military instruments to advance its goals. They then consider how the three North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey) and five NATO partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) in the Black Sea region perceive and are responding to Russia's activities and where those countries' interests align and diverge. Finally, the authors identify possible elements of a Western strategy to protect mutual interests, counter Russian malign influence and aggression, and foster regional stability.
Russia uses a variety of nonmilitary and military tools to achieve its geopolitical goals in the region
- Russia seeks to maintain a sphere of privileged influence in the Black Sea region through use of informational, diplomatic, economic, energy, clandestine, and military instruments.
- Russia uses hybrid tactics when overt military action is too costly or risky. But conventional military capabilities provide the essential underpinning for achieving Russia's regional goals.
- Russia's military buildup in Crimea, modernization of naval forces, and increased ground forces in the Southern Military District are designed to secure Russia's vital southwestern flank from an attack, dissuade and intimidate neighbors, and support wider power projection.
Most countries in the Black Sea region must carefully balance relations between Russia and the West
- Bulgaria is committed to Western integration but is subject to various Russian influences, which often leads it to balance relations between Moscow and the West.
- Romania is wary of Russia's intentions and military capabilities. And although it is largely resistant to malign influence, it gives high priority to countering Russian hybrid threats.
- Turkey still values the NATO guarantee but is willing to impede Allied initiatives and is systematically balancing relations between Russia and the West.
- Georgia and Ukraine are committed to Western integration and deeper defense cooperation with the United States and other allies, but they are constrained by active armed conflicts.
- Armenia is dependent on Russian security patronage but is open to diplomatic and limited security cooperation with the West.
- Azerbaijan pursues practical, measured relations with Russia and the West but can play a limited role in reducing Southern Europe's reliance on Russian energy.
- Moldova had a divided government that was seeking a middle road between Russia and the West before reorienting toward Moscow in 2019, but the nation has contributed to Western exercises and welcomed support on military reforms.
- Issue selective and proactive responses to Russian influence measures, highlighting the benefits of Western integration rather than seeking to discredit pervasive false narratives.
- Redouble assistance by NATO and European Union governments to help Black Sea countries counter Russian informational, cyber, economic, clandestine, and hybrid threats.
- Strongly support compliance with international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Montreux Convention, that contribute to regional stability. Develop a more robust conventional deterrent posture, beyond the NATO Tailored Forward Presence—although it need not match Russian capabilities. It could include expanded U.S. and NATO naval presence and exercises, as well as further integration of existing maritime capabilities, asymmetric responses, and the deployment of advanced air and coastal defense systems in Romania and possibly Bulgaria.
- Continue security assistance to strengthen partner resilience and self-defense capabilities, backed by allied cohesion, which can temper Russian aggression (as seen in Georgia since 2008 and Ukraine since 2014).
- More effectively use flexible bilateral and multilateral partnerships on mutual priorities (with opt-ins and opt-outs for potential spoiler nations), as well as existing mechanisms for subregional cooperation, such as the South Eastern Europe Defence Ministerial Process.