For centuries, the Black Sea has been a vital economic and military asset for the nations around its shores. However, with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current tensions between the Russian Federation and NATO over Ukraine, the Black Sea is again under intense discussion in military and economic circles as it becomes a critical maritime flashpoint.
The control of the Black Sea has been seen as a key of the power in the region for hundreds of years. Czarist Russian leaders were well aware of this when Catherine the Great took Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century. Later, during the 19th century, the contest for control of the Black Sea led to the Crimean War. Russia’s inability to win this conflict was the consequence of the naval supremacy of the alliance between Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.
After this war, Russia could no longer maintain a major naval presence in the Black Sea. The fear of a return to this situation was a critical factor in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, as the Ukrainian government did not want to renew the lease on their naval base in Sevastapol.
The Montreux Convention
A crucial element in maintaining the balance of power and allowing free trade through the Black Sea has been the Montreux Convention. Since 1936, The Montreux Convention has regulated merchant and military maritime traffic into and out of the Black Sea. Signed by all nations with coastal territories, it remains one of the most successful international treaties and is still in force today.
The convention gives Turkey sovereignty over the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus and allows Turkey to regulate the passage of warships under a strict set of rules. However, Turkey is not allowed to charge transit fees for merchant vessels and must allow free passage. In addition, warships from non-Black Sea nations are only allowed to stay for a maximum of 21 days in the Black Sea.
A vital trading route
The Black Sea is crucial for linking nations in Eastern Europe with their trading partners in the rest of the world. Ports in Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Russia are vitally important for oil imports to the region. Petroleum and gas are also transported across the Black Sea in vast quantities. Without access to trading routes across the Black Sea, the economic consequences to any nation on its shores would be dire. Other economic benefits to nations around the Black Sea include tourism on its many beautiful beaches and access to fisheries.
But the importance of the area also implies different kind of illegal traffics: weapons, migrants or drugs. Over the past few recent years, the smuggling of opioids passing through the Black Sea to Europe has increased, especially given the resurgence of production from Afghanistan. The frozen conflicts between states of the region facilitate the development of illegal trafficking routes, exploiting the lack of coordination between the maritime actors.
Coastal nations on the European shore therefore intend to develop their capacities and gain experience in dealing with illegal flux with western partners. For instance, Romanian andBulgarian navy conducted at-sea exercises with the US Coast Guard in this area in May 2021. Romania is also involved in naval European missions, such as FRONTEX, and has a close cooperation with France who often deploys warships into the Black Sea and conducts training with NATO partners. The French-led task force currently deployed in the Mediterranean will detach a destroyer to the area for a few weeks, in addition to other interactions with NATO allies.
As outlined above, the Black Sea is a vital maritime area for all nations around. This has led to many serious conflicts throughout history, and remains a flashpoint today. Historically, the top rivalry in the region has been between Russia and Turkey, although this has waxed and waned through the years. Expansion of NATO into former Russia’s area of influence has further inflamed tensions in the region.
Bulgaria and Romania, two major nations on the Black Sea, strengthened their relationship with western countries after becoming NATO and EU members. Last January, French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs were welcomed in Bucharest to highlight their bilateral partnership: in 2019 Romania signed a deal to acquire four French built GoWind warships for 1.2 billion euros.