Europe’s frozen conflicts have two common factors: they are sustained by Russia and fall within the greater Black Sea region. The frozen conflicts’ nominal purpose is to prevent the countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova – from pursuing policies that would distance them from Moscow. Beyond this, Russia uses the conflicts to destabilize the Black Sea; and by exerting stress on the Black Sea, Russia can threaten the Balkan states, the European Union through Bulgaria and Romania. Additionally, Russia can challenge the United States by pressuring the NATO members on the Black Sea littoral. More importantly, the frozen conflicts themselves and their impact on the Black Sea assists Russia in its own self-definition as a Great Power.
Russia’s encroachment on the Black Sea littoral began in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War when Russia gained control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s Black Sea advance reached its apogee in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, placing Russian forces in the heart of the Black Sea. While Russia has reinserted itself into the Black Sea, its naval capabilities remain limited. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia received a truncated Black Sea Navy.
The navy was largely neglected for the next 25 years until Moscow prioritized revitalizing the Black Sea Fleet in the State Armaments Program for 2011-2020 following its poor performance in the Russo-Georgian War, receiving six new diesel attack submarines, three frigates, and other smaller surface vessels (with delays). This has continued for the State Armaments Program for 2027, which calls for five corvettes and up to 12 small missile-ships.
Crimea is key to Russia’s Black Sea security framework and its A2/AD systems. While Russia no longer possesses the means to effectively control the Black Sea, the Crimean annexation allowed Russia to cover the entirety of the Black Sea with A2/AD systems. Russia placed its Bastion and Bal coastal missile defense systems in Crimea, with the Bastion system able to hit targets in the Dardanelles Strait and in Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Turkish ports. Additionally, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers capable of reaching all of Western Europe with their cruise missiles.
The seizure of Crimea also enabled Russia to turn the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake. Following the annexation, Russia built a bridge across the Kerch Strait at a height preventing Ukrainian commercial ships from passing through to the Black Sea. Beyond this, Russia has harassed and captured Ukrainian navy ships operating in Ukrainian waters in the Kerch Strait. This fits Russia’s strategy of using the frozen conflicts to pressure Ukraine and create instability in the Black Sea – in 2017, GRU operatives were found to be recruiting fighters from the Moldovan region of Gagauzia to fight in the Donbas.
The other Black Sea states have not sat idly while Russia bolsters its position. Romania, once an allied fleet to the USSR, is a leading voice prioritizing the Black Sea within NATO; its recent 2020 national security strategy focusing on Black Sea stability. Romania has called for naval exercises in the Black Sea and purchased seven Patriot missile defense systems in 2017, and bought an additional three in 2018. The United States has established an air base in Romania, with Deveselu hosting an Aegis Ashore Ballistic Defense system.
Turkey has started to actively support Ukraine. In a February 2020 visit to Ukraine, Turkish President Erdogan declared that Turkey would not and does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea. Additionally, Turkey would assist in funding Ukraine’s military to the tune of 33.4 million U.S. dollars. Turkey has also sold to Ukraine its Bayraktar TB2 unmanned armed drones – Azerbaijan used these drones, in conjunction with Israeli Harop suicide drones, to destroy Russian-made Armenian tanks, trucks, artillery, and S-300 SAM systems. In 2019, Ukraine purchased six Bayraktars and announced in September 2020 its decision to purchase an additional 48 for use in the Donbas.
Russia has used the frozen conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova, and in the South Caucasus to sow instability and expand its power in the Black Sea region. The frozen conflicts are not just Russian violations of the norms of state sovereignty but constitute security threats against the European Union and NATO. While the United States has deployed navy vessels into the Black Sea, cooperation with local partners is necessary. The United States should work Romania in its efforts to integrate Moldova into the European Union, while assisting Romania in developing hard power capabilities in the Black Sea. Similarly, the United States should work with Turkey in providing Ukraine the assistance it needs to continue standing against Russian aggression.