Security and Synergies — The Impor­tance of the Black Sea Region and Russia’s War on Ukraine

Foto: Shut­ter­stock

The geostrategic potential of the Black Sea region has often been over­looked. Natalia Stercul analyses why this is changing in the face of the war, what economic perspec­tives are open to the EU and what part the Republic of Moldova plays in this.

The Black Sea region has seldom been seen as an area of strategic impor­tance, and its potential for coop­er­a­tion has often been over­looked. Yet this geostrategic region has long repre­sented the transit zone between the East and the West and between the north and the south as well. The great powers failed to recognise the signif­i­cance that the Black Sea countries have for the emerging security archi­tec­ture of the region, despite the recent history of the area around the Black Sea littoral, which has seen multiple wars and political turbu­lence unmatched in any other maritime space in the world.

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine revealed the economic potential of this area, however, espe­cially in relation to its impor­tance as an energy and trans­porta­tion route to Europe. The war also caused a shift in the percep­tion of the geopo­lit­ical impor­tance, in the broadest sense, of the countries of the Black Sea basin, with regard to military chal­lenges, secure trade and travel, and agri­cul­tural exports to global market and other aspects.

Although the EU and NATO enlarge­ments brought the Black Sea countries closer to the West and enabled their inclusion in Western mech­a­nisms, the inter­na­tional visi­bility of the region remained, until recently, prac­ti­cally nil. When bombing and the blockades imposed by the Russian Feder­a­tion on the Ukrainian territory disrupted supplies of energy and agri­cul­tural products, however, the inter­na­tional public became acutely aware of the vital role played by the region, a real­i­sa­tion that triggered shock waves through the global economy. Hence, the Black Sea region plays a pivotal role for the flow of trade between the East and the West, and the exchange of goods and resources through the trans­porta­tion routes and pipelines that transit through the Black Sea area is of growing impor­tance given overall economic patterns and the emerging geopo­lit­ical situation.

Economic and energy signif­i­cance of the Black Sea region

The presence of large reserves of important natural resources under and around the Black Sea makes the region one of geostrategic and geoe­co­nomic signif­i­cance for the global energy players. The exact volumes of natural gas are unknown, but rough estimates predict that the Ukrainian shelf may contain more than two trillion cubic meters of gas. A conser­v­a­tive estimate of the reserves of Romania, one of the region’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, put them at around 200 billion cubic meters. Georgia’s gas resources are thought to be of a similar scale, while Bulgaria’s reserves are believed to contain suffi­cient gas to meet more than 30 years’ worth of country’s annual needs. Turkey, a regional player that is striving to become an energy hub to Europe, recently announced that the discovery of a new reserve had brought the total volume of its Black Sea natural gas resources up to 710 billion cubic metres. This means that the area could make a vital contri­bu­tion to the energy security of Europe and could become a key factor for an inte­grated regional economy.

That the region’s agri­cul­tural potential is also of impor­tance for European economic security has also become evident. When the war began, the Russian Feder­a­tion imposed a blockade on Ukrainian ports that disrupted grain supply chains, partic­u­larly those supplying devel­oping countries, and resulted in huge increases in global prices. In view of all of this, the EU should consider the security of the Black Sea region to be a key factor in the broader European and Euro-Atlantic security. As the war continues, success­fully addressing the security issues of the Black Sea basin will be essential to main­taining the stability of economic and commer­cial relations between the East and West.

Russia’s war against Ukraine succeeded in drawing attention to the strategic impor­tance of the Black Sea region. In its attempts to free itself of its energy depen­dence on Russia and to develop alter­na­tive sources, the EU focussed on possi­bil­i­ties for coop­er­a­tion in the field of oil and gas exports with Azer­baijan. Conse­quently, the European Commis­sion and the Govern­ment of Azer­baijan signed a memo­randum of under­standing concerning the intent to double the natural gas imports to the European bloc by 2027. This and other actions are the result of the initia­tives to diversify the energy resources of the European countries and to make Europe less suscep­tible to blackmail and pressure from the Russian Feder­a­tion via this sector.

The place and role of the Republic of Moldova

Moldova can point to several achieve­ments resulting from  its engage­ment with the Black Sea region since the estab­lish­ment of the BSEC, of which it is a founding member. One of the most important areas of coop­er­a­tion is that encom­passing projects relating to the inter­con­nec­tion of the Moldovan and European energy and elec­tricity sectors. The Iasi-Ungheni-Chisinau pipeline, which became oper­a­tional in 2020, was built to ensure that natural gas could be trans­ported to Moldova through Romania. Another project involves the construc­tion of the high-voltage Isaccea-Vulcanesti-Chisinau power line. This project, launched in 2019 with the support of the EU, the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment, the European Invest­ment Bank and the World Bank, is expected to be  completed by the end of 2025. Once completed, it would enable Chisinau to free itself from its partial depen­dence on elec­tricity from the Transnis­trian region and to connect to European energy distri­b­u­tion networks.

The prospect of broader involve­ment by Moldova in the activ­i­ties conducted by the countries of the Black Sea region was welcomed on the sidelines of the Atlantic Council event dedicated to the Three Seas Initia­tive held during the Munich Security Confer­ence in February 2023. Bogdan Aurescu, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, reit­er­ated the openness to the partic­i­pa­tion of the Republic of Moldova in the activ­i­ties of the platform, which will create oppor­tu­ni­ties for the devel­op­ment of infra­struc­ture, energy sources and bridges over the Prut and will facil­i­tate faster and simpler access to the European space. Moldova’s partic­i­pa­tion in the initia­tives developed by the countries of the Black Sea region could be an addi­tional element supporting the pro-European orien­ta­tion of the Republic of Moldova.

Recon­structing the post-war Black Sea region: future prospects for the EU

Despite being  an important political partner of the Black Sea countries as well as a signif­i­cant market for their energy resources, the EU has failed to become an important player in relation to security in the region. There have been some indi­vidual initia­tives aimed at supporting the inte­gra­tion of the Black Sea region into the European project, such as the Eastern Part­ner­ship, but none of these involves an overall strategy for the entire region. Such a strategy would require the construc­tion of proper infra­struc­ture and transit capac­i­ties from the Black Sea to Europe, as well as the devel­op­ment of infra­struc­ture for a potential capi­tal­iza­tion of renewable energy resources.

When rethinking the impor­tance of Black Sea region, though, it would be unwise to forget that Moscow is inter­ested in keeping transit volumes and new projects in this area. Moreover, Russia’s strong position in the Black Sea states enables the Kremlin to pursue political and economic expansion aims in the Balkans and the Middle East. The gist of the new Maritime Doctrine of the Russia Feder­a­tion, released in 2022, is clearly enun­ci­ated in its first strategic objective: “Devel­op­ment of the Russian Feder­a­tion as a great maritime power and the strength­ening of its position among the leading maritime powers of the world”. The doctrine clearly indicates that the United States and NATO are Russia’s chief adversaries.

A complex approach to the Black Sea region as a space with special potential for collab­o­ra­tion aimed at securing the energy needs of the European continent would enable a reduction of the energy depen­dence on Russia, while also ensuring the diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the economy of the Black Sea littoral states and their gradual inte­gra­tion into the common projects of the European Union. The war in Ukraine has consid­er­ably weakened Russia’s geopo­lit­ical influence in the region and caused the states of the Black Sea basin to review those of their strategic part­ner­ships that are directly related to ensuring and main­taining security. Although China has not offi­cially prior­i­tized the Black Sea region in its Belt and Road Initia­tive, its economic influence could become a challenge for the European Union in the medium term. For these reasons, the EU should use the current window of oppor­tu­nity to establish lasting contacts through an integral and synergy-based approach to the post war Black Sea region.


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