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The Black Future of the Black Sea

, In 2016-8, I spent nearly two years by the Black Sea in Krasnodar, Gelendzhik, and Sochi. Russia is a landlocked empire and the Black Sea is its make-believe exit to the world. Make-believe because the Black Sea is an inland body of water, trapped hopelessly between Europe and Asia – mentally as well as geographically.

Now, the Black Sea and its environs are the scene of war between Russia and Ukraine. Ever since the demise in mid-July of the implausible grain deal between the two, they have been bombing each other’s merchant ships, naval vessels, infrastructure, and port facilities. As Ukraine has put it recently, ports in the black sea are “war-risk areas”.

The retaking of Crimea by Russia in 2014 complicated matters. The Black Sea is both a hinterland and a bridge to the peninsula. Moreover: several NATO countries claim interests in the Black Sea, including Russia’s traditional adversaries Turkey and Romania and its sycophant Bulgaria. 

Yet, no one bar Russia and Ukraine has vital strategic and economic interests in the Sea. This fact renders the Black Sea theatre an internecine affair between these two combatants. 

Both the Russian Empire and the USSR of yore leveraged access to the Black Sea to project influence – and menace – in multiple domains: the Mediterranean, North Africa (recent example: Libya), southern Europe, and the Middle East (e.g. Syria and the Russia naval base in Tartus). 

The much celebrated – and recently battered by Ukraine – Black Sea fleet has been a continuous presence in Sevastopol in Crimea ever since 1793. It is the only deep water port at Russia’s disposal and can therefore be used in winter, too.

Under international law of the seas, Russia by right should own only about 10% of the coastline. In reality, though, it deters any attempts to encroach on its control of more than one-third of it. It invaded Georgia and established Abkhazia – a Black Sea-hugging Kremlin puppet “state” – precisely for this reason. 

Military considerations apart, most of Russia’s non-energy exports, such as grain and fertilizers, transit via Black Sea ports. This is especially vital now: Western sanctions served to redirect Russia’s trade at non-complying countries which can be supplied only via these littoral outlets.

But the same applies to Ukraine: about 50% of its exports – mainly wheat, barley, and sunflower oil – were processed prior to the war in Odesa, the country’s most sizable Black Sea port. 

The developing and poor world’s food supply depends critically on the uninterrupted flow of these commodities: one-quarter of the world’s consumed and processed wheat, one-fifth of its barley, and a whopping three-fifths of its sunflower oil consumption originate in Black Sea harbors. Land routes via the European Union are no substitute: they are prohibitively costly and inefficacious. 

For decades now, the European Union and NATO have been encircling Russia on the Black Sea: Georgia and Ukraine have been granted EU associate status recently. The West is attempting to secure this indispensable east-west, Asia-Europe supply corridor. 

It is not only about sunflower oil, of course. Europe needs to wean itself of Russian energy and the only way to accomplish this reasonably fast is to import oil from the Caucasus. Azerbaijan is now a supplier, shunting its oil and gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. This Black Sea route bypasses both pariahs: Russia and Iran. 

NATO is not far behind the EU as far as geostrategy goes: it has been holding major exercises in the Black Sea every year since 1997. Three NATO navies are permanently stationed there, mere kilometers away from Russia’s borders. 

Ever since 1936 (the Montreux Treaty), Turkey, now a pivotal member of NATO, has been in control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, the choking points on the way to the Mediterranean. It has closed these passageways to all warships in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, attempting to portray itself as a neutral trade hub and a trustworthy mediator on this crossroads. The Ukraine war is mostly about access to the Black Sea and, exactly as Russia claims, it is a war by proxy between the West and the Rest. But it is bound to escalate and engulf other littoral powers, most notably Turkey and Romania. This may yet evolve into a 21st-century version of the Seven Years’ War.

Dear reader,

Opinions expressed in the op-ed section are solely those of the individual author and do not represent the official stance of our newspaper. We believe in providing a platform for a wide range of voices and perspectives, even those that may challenge or differ from our ownAs always, we remain committed to providing our readers with high-quality, fair, and balanced journalism. Thank you for your continued support.Sincerely, The Brussels Morning Team

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