When Will Western Naval Powers Return to the Black Sea and on What Conditions? (Part Three)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 128

(Source: Ahram Online)

*Read Part One.

*Read Part Two.

The current absence of Western naval powers in the Black Sea marks a sharp break with the history of their steady presence. This new situation, now in its 20th month, stems from two separate but harmonized decisions: that of the Western powers to discontinue naval patrols, port visits and exercises in the Black Sea, in parallel with Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus Strait to its allies’ warships under a sui generis interpretation of the Montreux Convention.

Both decisions have explicitly been linked to Russia’s war against Ukraine. While the Turkish decision responded to the outbreak of war, the Western powers’ decision reacted to Russian threats of war two months before its outbreak. Both decisions have been unforced choices (see EDM, August 3, 7). Russia’s war of aggression (and even the anticipation of it) has thus resulted in removing the presence of Western navies from the Black Sea. The duration of their absence seems indeterminate at this juncture.

It seems equally unclear whether Western navies’ eventual return to the Black Sea—and Turkey allowing it—would depend on an end to active hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. The time horizon for “ending the war,” an armistice, or a “conflict freeze” between Russia and Ukraine remains nebulous; and those concepts (all currently under discussion) lack any agreed definition in this age of hybrid war and hybrid peace.

It seems, therefore, hard to predict whether de-escalating the war in some form would suffice for Turkey to re-open the Straits to Western navies, for these fleets to conduct port visits and exercises again in the Black Sea, and if so at what tempo and levels in comparison with the pre-2002 tempo and levels of visits and exercises.

Moscow insists that any ceasefire, armistice or preliminary negotiation must confirm Russia’s territorial acquisitions in Ukraine “enshrined in Russia’s constitution,” as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has just reaffirmed (TASS, August 7). Ukraine would never willingly accept such terms. Moscow’s implacable intransigence earns it the added benefit of keeping Western navies out of the Black Sea while hostilities continue between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s naval blockade has halted the Black Sea Grain Initiative (“grain deal”) for Ukrainian agricultural exports to global markets. Restarting those exports to reduce global food prices is a high priority on the Western diplomatic agenda. Yet, the Western powers are not prepared to provide naval escorts for commercial vessels through the Russian blockade. They work, instead, through the United Nations Secretariat (the grain deal’s initiator), and they defer to Turkey to negotiate directly with Russia for allowing the grain deal to operate again.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request for Turkish warships to escort grain-laden vessels past the Russian blockade (Ukrinform, July 18). Erdogan positions himself as the mediator to salvage the Grain Initiative, the parameters of which Turkey had helped broker alongside the UN Secretariat. These parameters allow Russia to choose which Ukrainian seaports may or may not participate, to control the route of shipments through the Black Sea and to constrain the volume and tempo of shipments by abusing Russia’s right to inspect cargos and vessels (see EDM, July 26, 27, 31).

Erdogan aims to demonstrate that he can resolve Black Sea regional issues in tandem with Russia, independently of the West or in its stead. But this is only possible on terms acceptable to Russia, and the temptation of Turkish-Russian bilateralism contributes to Ankara’s wariness about involving “non-regional” powers in Black Sea security affairs (see EDM, July 19).

Turkey in any case lacks sufficient strength to counterbalance Russia in the Black Sea. The rough parity of their respective forces ended by 2014 with Russia’s seizure of Crimea. And most of Turkey’s existing naval assets are committed to other theaters.

None of this means that Turkey is tilting toward Russia in net terms during the ongoing war. Overall, Ankara is balancing and hedging. It continues to express political support for Ukraine’s, as well as Georgia’s, membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as Erdogan confirmed for Zelenskyy in the run-up to NATO’s most recent summit (Hürriyet, July 8).

Turkey is also a significant arms supplier to Ukraine during this war. Ankara almost certainly realizes that it needs Ukraine to provide at least some counterbalance to Russia in the Black Sea region. However, Turkey also looks to Russia for hedging against Western powers. And it deems Russia as a foremost, irreplaceable economic partner.

The net result is that Turkey lacks the means to prevent Russia from consolidating its hegemony in the Black Sea basin. And given its economic interests, Turkey lacks the motivation to assume undue risks countering Russian ambitions in the Black Sea. Meanwhile, Russia’s expansion beyond Crimea to other parts of Ukraine’s coasts would increase the vulnerability of all Black Sea countries including Turkey.

The pullback of Western naval power has allowed Russia to advance from predominance to hegemony in the Black Sea basin since 2022. The features of its newly attained hegemony include:

  • Uncontested military predominance in this theater, except its southern fringes;
  • Cutting off Ukraine from access to the sea, using the sea with impunity to launch missile strikes into mainland Ukraine;
  • Declaring exclusion zones in international waters at will and intruding with naval exercises into others’ exclusive economic zones;
  • Unilaterally redrawing maritime borders de facto and imposing their tacit observance by other parties, selectively restricting the freedom of navigation or regulating it unilaterally and de facto suspending the applicability of international maritime law;
  • Constraining and manipulating Ukraine’s agricultural exports from the Black Sea to global markets and pressuring interested parties to meet Moscow’s conditions for allowing limited export volumes to proceed.

The United States and NATO riparian and non-riparian allies have responded with surveillance and reconnaissance activities, other situational awareness measures, air policing and developing shore-based defenses.

The presence of Western navies, however, is indispensable in preventing Russia’s looming hegemony in the Black Sea basin. If their current disengagement is allowed through inertia or risk-aversion to continue, then the absence of Western naval power could turn into a new, hard-to-reverse status quo in the Black Sea.