Longstanding tensions around the Black Sea have only increased since Russia attacked Ukraine.
In April, Ukraine's foreign minister said Kyiv and NATO should integrate air defenses in the region.
Doing so would help turn the Black Sea into another "sea of NATO," the foreign minister said.
At the Black Sea Security Conference in April, Ukraine's foreign minister called for NATO to extend its presence around one of Europe's most important bodies of water.
"It's time to turn the Black Sea into what the Baltic Sea has become, a sea of NATO," Dmytro Kuleba said.
The Baltic Sea has long been a vital avenue for Russia, allowing its military and commercial traffic to reach the Atlantic, but the admission of Finland and expected admission of Sweden to the alliance has further isolated Moscow.
The Black Sea is similarly important, providing the countries around it — all of which, besides Russia, are NATO members or partners — access to the Mediterranean Sea and the oceans beyond. It also has some of Russia's only warm-water ports and is home to its Black Sea Fleet.
The sea's strategic importance has only been underlined by the war in Ukraine and tensions there remain high — in April, Russian jets downed a US drone over the sea.
"The Black Sea can never be a NATO sea," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to Kuleba's comments. "This is a shared sea, it must be a sea of cooperation, interaction and security for all its littoral states. And this security is indivisible."
A sea of trouble
Russia has long used its dominant position in the Black Sea to protect its southwestern flank. Its presence there also gives Moscow "a springboard" to project power into the wider region, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană said at the conference in April.
When Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, it initially aimed to capture Ukraine's Black Sea coastline, but its advance was soon halted. Russia has also sought to blockade Ukraine and cut off its grain exports. A deal brokered by the UN and Turkey allowed those exports to resume, but commercial traffic in the sea is still being affected.
Some of the most high-profile operations in the sea have been Russian losses. In the battle over Snake Island, Russia ultimately withdrew, and Ukraine's sinking of the cruiser Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet flagship, was an embarrassing defeat.
Russia's focus on the Black Sea hasn't shifted even if its capabilities are limited, according to Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor at Ukraine's Odesa Mechnikov University.
After the sinking of Moskva, Russia has "discovered that it can do much less with what it has" in the Black Sea and that its naval advantage over Ukraine does not give it a decisive edge, Dubovyk told Insider.
Ukraine has strengthened its coastal defenses and deployed US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles, making Russia's naval operations more difficult and limiting its ability to enforce its blockade.
Many Russian warships "have become sitting ducks for the Ukrainian anti-ship missiles, aerial and naval drones. So they limit their function to launching missiles, but one does not need to use ships to do that as such," said Dubovyk, who is also a visiting professor at Tufts University.
Limiting Russian presence
NATO increased its attention on the region following Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014. The Black Sea region is "a strategically important area for Euro-Atlantic security," Geoană said in April.
Last year, following Russia's invasion, NATO set up four more battlegroups in its southeastern flank, including in Romania and Bulgaria. While those countries have modest militaries, they are beefing up their forces. Romania recently announced plans to buy two submarines and two mine-hunting ships as part of a larger military modernization program.
At the conference in April, Romania's foreign minister said a strong NATO presence in the Black Sea was a "must."
The US has also increased its presence in the region. Its warships haven't been able to enter the Black Sea since the war started, but US forces continue to train with nearby countries. US lawmakers have also called on the Biden administration to develop an official Black Sea strategy.
As part of his call for greater NATO presence in the region, Kuleba said he supported the integration of Ukrainian air- and missile-defense systems with those of NATO members around the Baltic and Black seas.
While Ukraine has defended its airspace from Russian aircraft, its systems can only do so much on their own. "All air-defense systems, no matter how good, are limited by line of sight when operating without other networked assets," Alex Hollings, an aviation journalist and editor-in-chief of Sandboxx News, told Insider.
Linking different systems together increases their effective detection range and "creates more time and opportunity to track targets and assess a trajectory for intercept," which in turn "creates a blanket of awareness over a huge swath of airspace and reduces the chances of any missiles making it through unchecked," Hollings said.
Ukraine is not in NATO — though alliance leaders have long said it will join — which is likely to limit how closely they can integrate their air defenses. The war is also likely to limit what NATO can do around the Black Sea.
"It is hard to envision that NATO will be able and willing to step up its presence in the Black Sea region substantially now, during the ongoing stage of the Russia-Ukraine war, especially as it concerns naval presence," Dubovyk told Insider.
NATO could continue increasing its presence on land, although that may not have a direct impact on the war. "Continuing to support Ukraine directly" is the best way to help, Dubovyk said.
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.
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