NATO’s 2023 Summit: Modest Expectations, Modest Results (Part Three)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 116


*Read Part One.

*Read Part Two.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conclusively won the Baltic Sea; however, it risks losing the Black Sea in terms of naval posturing and discretionary air access. NATO’s summit, on July 11 and 12 in Vilnius, marked the accession of Finland and imminent accession of Sweden to the alliance, developments that turn the Baltic Sea, for all intents and purposes, into a NATO lake. Meanwhile, Russia is on course toward hegemony in most of the Black Sea’s maritime basin and airspace.

In the wake of the Vilnius summit, Russia suspended its conditional and limited acceptance of Ukrainian agricultural exports by cargo ships via the Black Sea (TASS, July 17, 18). Russia has seized all of Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov, imposed a full blockade on several Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea and allowed only limited and conditional operations at the three ports of Odesa. By suspending that acceptance, Moscow seeks to pressure Kyiv’s Western partners into lifting certain sanctions on Russia’s own agricultural sector.

Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine and the strict-constructionist Turkish application of the Montreux Convention have, in combination, excluded non-riparian NATO countries’ naval ships from the Black Sea. At the same time, Russian-staged air incidents have significantly reduced the scope of air reconnaissance by Western powers in the region. These developments also show that rolling back NATO is the wider goal of Russia’s war against Ukraine (see Part One and Part Two).

These are, for the most part, post-2022 developments, and, in this sense, it may be said that Russia’s quasi-hegemony in the Black Sea is one of the collateral benefits of Moscow’s all-out war against Ukraine.

Irrespective, however, of whether mainland Ukraine is the object of the Russian full-scale war or a “frozen” or low-intensity conflict (as in 2014–2021), the possession and militarization of Crimea is the basic prerequisite to Russia’s control of most of the Black Sea. Any “end to hostilities” in Ukraine (by whatever name, officially or unofficially) with Russia entrenched on the peninsula would help perpetuate that situation, exposing NATO’s member and partner countries in the region to heightened levels of intimidation and threats. It would also allow Russia to restrict international commercial shipping in the Black Sea by heightening risks and shaping the rules of trade and navigation. Russia demonstrated its power to do so yet again in the wake of NATO’s Vilnius summit.

The summit’s documents and the leaders’ accompanying public statements remained silent about the current situation in the Black Sea. The alliance’s eastern frontline (“flank” is a political euphemism) suffers from a growing disequilibrium between the Baltic (see above) and the Black Sea regions in terms of security and defense vis-à-vis Russia.

The communiqué dedicates a paragraph to the Black Sea region for the first time in the history of NATO summits. However, it consigns the Black Sea region to paragraph 79 in a total of 90 paragraphs. It reads as follows: “The Black Sea region is of strategic importance for the Alliance. This is further highlighted by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We underline our continued support to Allied regional (sic) (regional: italics added) efforts aimed at upholding security, safety, stability and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea region, including, as appropriate, through the 1936 Montreux Convention. We will further monitor and assess developments in the region and enhance our situational awareness, with a particular focus on the threats to our security and potential opportunities for closer cooperation with our partners in the region, as appropriate” (, July 11, Paragraph 79).

The public message seems to be that the Black Sea does not rank high on NATO’s list of priorities. The alliance seems to communicate that it is prepared to watch and bide its time. Situational awareness is the only type of effort being explicitly proposed. The words “as appropriate,” attached to the application of the Montreux Convention, slightly hints at possible differences over interpreting that document.

The wording “regional efforts” in customary NATO parlance implies activities not mandated by NATO nor under the NATO flag, but rather—in the Black Sea context—activities agreed on among the riparian countries in their own names. The Vilnius communiqué calls for “regional efforts” in the Black Sea without specifying the goals, using instead generalities that could also fit the communiqués of other major international organizations. The “regional” approach scuttled Romania’s 2016 proposal to establish a framework for periodic NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea. That would have involved exercises planned by NATO staffs, to be NATO-flagged and implicitly NATO-protected, and not limited to the Black Sea riparian countries. The Romanian proposal did not find the necessary consensus in the run-up to that year’s summit. Instead, NATO was collectively prepared to bless “regional naval exercises,” without NATO’s flag, limited to participation by NATO allies and partners riparian to the Black Sea. This flattered Turkey’s amour propre while catering to general reluctance to “provoke Russia”; both of those considerations caused Bulgaria to drop out, dooming the proposal.

Turkey’s position on this issue has, apparently, not changed to date. Its application of the Montreux Convention (see above) would in any case preclude the entry of non-riparian navies into the Black Sea until further notice, entirely up to Ankara’s discretion. In Bulgaria, meanwhile, a Western-oriented government took office shortly before the Vilnius summit, ending the Russian-friendly President Rumen Radev’s de facto control of foreign and defense policies (see EDM, April 6) and aligning Bulgaria with Romania on these matters.

In sum, the Vilnius communiqué declines to acknowledge the gravity of the current situation in the Black Sea. NATO political documents reflect consensus on the lowest common denominator, consequently undue restraint in this case. Some internal NATO documents may well recognize the growing dangers in the Black Sea and offer appropriate recommendations; yet, these have, apparently, not found the necessary consensus on NATO’s political and policymaking levels. This weakness is attributable to multiple factors in varying degrees. General Western reluctance to “provoke Russia” has, to a growing extent, been overcome in other areas but not yet in the Black Sea region. Reluctance to acknowledge recent setbacks (in the Black Sea in this case) reflects a natural political inclination. Romania’s tireless advocacy for a stronger NATO posture in the Black Sea region has not found the necessary support in Turkey and Bulgaria until now. NATO political authorities have recurrently cited the lack of synergy among riparian countries in that regard.

NATO has been chronically slow to turn its focus on the Black Sea. The alliance’s new Strategic Concept, adopted in 2022, at last referenced the Black Sea: “The Western Balkans and the Black Sea region are of strategic importance for the Alliance. We will continue to support the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of interested countries in these regions.” The concept lumps the Black Sea region together with the Western Balkans, notwithstanding the stark differences between those theaters in terms of Russian threats (direct and kinetic in the Black Sea, indirect and hybrid in the Western Balkans). This lumping dilutes the policy focus, as does relegating the Black Sea to paragraph 45 in a total of 49 paragraphs (, June 29, 2022, Paragraph 45).

On the sidelines of the Vilnius summit, the defense ministers of Romania and Bulgaria, Angel Tilvar and Todor Tagarev, respectively, signed a letter of intent to jointly establish a “regional special operations command component.” The decision is one aspect of “measures to consolidate the deterrence and defense posture on the eastern flank” (Agerpres; BTA, July 12). Turkey is not mentioned. The term “regional” seems to hint that participation is limited to Black Sea region countries and that this command would not be NATO-flagged (see above). The reference to the “eastern flank” seems, however, to hint that this is a NATO activity, though the document stops short of specifying whose eastern flank this is (NATO’s).

These ambiguities may or may not be cleared up in due course. And as a result, NATO’s Vilnius summit has altogether been meager on deliverables for the Black Sea region.