Egmont Institute logo

No Security for Ukraine or Europe without a Secure Black Sea and Mediterranean

Post thumbnail print


The Mediterranean and the Black Seas should not be viewed principally as “borders” for purposes of European security, with the attendant “Frontex”-type strategies augmented by a modicum of naval power.


No Security for Ukraine or Europe without a Secure Black Sea and Mediterranean

The Mediterranean and the Black Seas should not be viewed principally as “borders” for purposes of European security, with the attendant “Frontex”-type strategies augmented by a modicum of naval power. Nor should the overwhelming political orthodoxy continue to consider them as dividers rather than connectors. They are in fact, as they have been for most of their history, core strategic, rather than peripheral, regions, which connect Europe to its energy suppliers and trading partners, to people, and to the high seas. The consequences for military and diplomatic resources, strategies, and efforts are significant.

History and Strategy

The Romans called the Mediterranean the “Mare Nostrum”, OUR sea, as they understood Europe’s geography thoroughly, i.e., it combines both continental as well as maritime interests and challenges. That geography hasn’t changed, and history’s echoes are deafening.  The 70 years or so of the Cold War distorted, to some extent, the long-term and historic European strategic and geopolitical foci away from our core maritime interests in the “Two Seas” by focusing on the continental eastern borders along the Iron Curtain and the Elbe. The EU’s two separate Neighbourhood Policies, Eastern and Southern, were born out of this very recent (and in historic terms brief) strategic continental focus of European security.

Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, Europe still has no strategy, let alone presence, in the Black Sea. Maritime deployments compare poorly with the focus on deploying land armies in Romania, which, it can be argued, is partly a function of not taking full advantage of Romania’s key position as a Black Sea littoral state under the Montreux Convention of 1936. This Convention replaced the Treaty of Lausanne 1923 regulating the sovereignty, control and navigation between the Black and the Mediterranean Seas through the Two Straits, the Bosphurus and the Dardanelles. It brought them firmly under Turkish sovereignty and control, and effectively granted favourable littoral status to both Turkey and the Soviet Union, including by limiting the type of naval ships that can transit through the two Straits, as well as granting advantages to littoral Black Sea states, many of which were by then part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union tried to revise the Convention at the Conference of Tehran 1943, and at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, to achieve near unfettered transit rights in times of both peace and war for its war ships and deny that right to other non-littoral states. This is key also to current Russian geostrategic objectives as Russia requires transit to and from the Mediterranean Sea. Any Black Sea strategy will, therefore, by necessity, lead to developing a Mediterranean strategy, and to examining the Convention’s rules governing access through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

A great deal has changed in Europe’s maritime environment since the Soviet Union dominated the Black Sea during the Cold War. Georgia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union, so their coastlines were Soviet. Romania and Bulgaria were Soviet client states, thus extending Soviet naval presence geographically along the western coastline. Viewing the European security equation principally through the Great European Plain, extending from France, Germany through Poland and the Ukraine to today’s Russia, is of course key to maintaining Europe’s security. But the security of this continental stretch towards the east must be augmented by ensuring Europe’s security through the similarly critical southern blue-water expanse connecting Europe to the Ukraine, the Southern Caucasus, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova on Russia’s western flank; and simultaneously also to Africa, Asia and the “Great Global Trading Highway” from the Far East, through Suez.

Europe’s connectivity (pipelines, shipping, undersea cables carrying a large chunk of our internet data, people, transfer of values and cultural exchange) also depends, in no small measure, on protecting, defending, and promoting its security interests in the Two Seas.

Strategic Challenges

Europe will find it very hard indeed, if not impossible, to have a credible deterrence and a geopolitical vision without a serious, workable, and well-resourced “Two Seas Strategy”. Moreover, a Russia strategy that does not cater for the non-eastern (i.e., the southern) end of its touch line with Russia is simply incomplete, leaving a key strategic flank to the whims of fate, machinations of other actors, and circumstance.  In addition to other reasons, such a strategy is also necessary because Russia itself does see its strategic line stretching from the Black to the Mediterranean Sea, where Russia still has a naval base at Tartus in Syria.

For such an EU strategy to be imaginative and effective it should also examine the geopolitics of the Montreux Convention. Both straits are under Turkish control and sovereignty. How to handle Russia’s favoured status under the Convention, inherited from the Soviet Union, will be a fundamental strategic challenge, with far reaching consequences for European security in any negotiations to end the war on Ukraine, and beyond.

Moreover, the absence of credible US and European strategies in the Two Seas have created a vacuum that has already led to the mushrooming of regional alliances that, in turn, have created new adverse and irreversible challenges for European stability and security.  Into this vacuum moved not only new regional alliances, but also new doctrines, such as Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland). This doctrine calls for significantly extending Turkey’s sovereignty and control over the neighbouring waters of the Two Seas. It can be argued that the Libya-Turkey Maritime Boundary Treaty, signed between Turkey and the UN-recognised Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) on 27 November 2019, is an early manifestation of this doctrine. The agreement, if implemented, will create a de facto contiguous combined Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) connecting, north to south, the Turkish and Libyan EEZs.

Significantly, this agreement has not received endorsements from other regional actors, including the EU, and has already led to far-reaching implications for Europe as new regional alliances were created in response. Greece and France, two NATO members, signed a mutual defence treaty, effectively against a third NATO member, Turkey. Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and France created the East Med Gas Forum, and Italy and Greece also hurried to agree delimitation of their maritime boundaries, as did Lebanon and Israel, two states that continue to be technically in a state of war in the Eastern Mediterranean. Geopolitics abhors vacuums and Europe will have to urgently develop an integrated strategy for the Two Seas rather than being a mere reactive player, a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker.

If nothing else, Europe’s energy security post the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine should be a key incentive. Two new gas pipelines are planned that will traverse the bed of the Mediterranean: The East Mediterranean Gas and the Sub-Saharan Pipeline. The Trans-Caspian Pipeline, as well as the new electricity connector cable under the Black Sea (from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Romania and Hungary) will physically connect the southern Caucasus with Europe. Moldova’s security relies on being able to procure gas and generate electricity, otherwise domestic destabilisation, through Russian Hybrid operations, is most likely, and Transnistria may be next in the cross hairs of Russia – that would extend Russia’s coastline on the Black Sea.

A Broader Vision

It is high time our European geopolitical field of vision widened to what it used to be before the Cold War. When then French Premier Georges Clemenceau sat down on 1 December 1918 with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the French Embassy in London, to negotiate settling the post-WWI Anglo-French interests, their “basket” stretched from the Levant/Eastern Mediterranean, including the British oil pipeline from Kirkuk (Iraq) to Haifa (on the Eastern Mediterranean), to the French plans to “slice off” the Rhine region west of the Rhine, south to Tangiers, and to other Franco-German border matters to ensure France’s security. These were all “core” European security interests covering the Mediterranean as well as continental matters, both considered to be totally linked. These negotiations, moreover, took place in parallel with the negotiations on the status of the two straits, and alongside those leading to the continental Treaties of Trianon and St-Germain. Both the continental and maritime strategies were considered essential and integrated components of the Europeans security order.

From a cognitive perspective, to continue to view the Southern Caucasus through the prism of being “post-Soviet Republics”, will undermine the development of a coherent and practical deployable European strategy for the Black Sea. It simply will continue this “west-to-east-through-Russia” continental geopolitical focus. In fact, it takes less than two hours to fly from Tel Aviv to Baku, or from Beirut to Yerevan. Europe’s strategy should acknowledge that the southern Caucasus has a Two Seas dimension, in addition to the “eastern” dimension. The security of the Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria is every bit a Two Seas’ matter, as it is an “eastern” one.  Not to do so will simply lead to a dangerous Achilles Heel in any European security strategy.


In any future European security order a Two Seas Strategy will impose itself. This will by necessity mean assessing how the Montreux Convention will impact this future order. As Turkey will resist any changes it will be crucial for NATO and the EU to consider mitigating scenarios in which no formal treaty changes may be achievable. The NATO Strategic Concept underlined strengthening NATO’s forward defensive posture. The Two Seas to the south are the chink in NATIO’s armour. To what degree the Southern European states, indeed Europe, will succeed in refocusing US interest on the Black Sea will determine a key part of any future European security order. This is not only important for the competition generated by energy, maritime connectivity and security, but also for the US countering China’s influence in the region and beyond. China most likely considers Russia’s attempts to dominate the Black Sea (and deny NATO and the EU a counter role) to be in its interest. Involving the (non-EU, non-NATO states) Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova will be crucial.

Georgia and Ukraine did not sign the Convention as they were then part of the Soviet Union. It seems logical that they should be invited to join the Convention. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine raises many challenges that the current Convention was not designed to deal with, such as the weight of the modern naval vessels, and the passage of aircraft carriers. Any future security guarantees for the Ukraine will have to include access through the Two Straits, both for military vessels (possibly under a UN mandate), as well as for commercial vessels to freely export and import. The latter has proven to be a matter of global interest, such as food security.

Part of Europe’s energy security, prosperity and stability depends on undersea cables and pipelines in the Black and the Mediterranean Seas. Hard naval power to ensure connectivity, prosperity and security seems inevitable. France has been doing most of the heavy lifting in the Mediterranean, but Europe urgently needs a plan for the Black Sea, and for how to expand its presence in the Mediterranean. Romania and Bulgaria, as NATO and EU members, offer an excellent possibility to establish a significant naval presence on the Black Sea, particularly if the Montreux Convention will remain unchanged, to at least provide for alternative and additional military denial capabilities. Moreover, the current two separate neighbourhood EU policies should be reviewed and coordinated to produce one integrated strategic European policy. Time is of the essence.


(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)