In today’s context of mounting tension between great powers, notably the West and Russia, the Black Sea holds a particular strategic importance: it represents the waterway connecting Europe, Russia, and the Middle East; it is believed to host substantial reserves of hydrocarbons; it is a gateway for gas pipelines fueling the European markets; and it is a key theatre in the confrontation between Russia and NATO. And now that the Atlantic Alliance’s cohesion is strained by internal disagreement (especially as Turkey wants to assert its own interests and act more independently from, if not against, its European and American allies), Moscow has a good opportunity to increase its influence in this critical region.
Controlling the Black Sea has been an objective of Russian foreign policy for centuries. As a vast continental power, Russia wanted to reach the southern warm seas to expand its influence. Under this logic, dominating the Black Sea was the first step to later reaching the Mediterranean. After centuries of struggles, the rising Russian Empire finally managed to establish its firm control over the Black Sea’s northern coast after conquering the Khanate of Crimea in 1783. Afterwards, Russia’s push toward the south became an axis of its grand strategy. Among other factors, the tsar’s efforts to extend influence over the Balkans and to weaken the decaying Ottoman Empire triggered the Crimean War (1853-1856), which ended in a severe defeat for Russia. But this did not stop St. Petersburg’s quest, thus causing other conflicts in the region which culminated in the Great War. After the shocks of the 1917 Revolution and of WWII, Russia (now the Soviet Union) took control of all the Balkan Peninsula, Greece excepted, by establishing communist regimes that in 1955 were tied in an alliance known as the Warsaw Pact. As such, the Black Sea turned into a largely Soviet-controlled zone during the Cold War. The only section that fell outside of Moscow’s dominance was the southern coast, part of NATO member Turkey. In strategic terms, this meant that access to the Mediterranean was difficult for Soviet forces, but at the same time it was equally challenging for NATO units to enter and operate in the Black Sea.