The Black Sea region is one of the most strategically important areas of the globe. It influences the economic and political balance of both the Middle East and Europe. Conflict or instability there easily spreads to the Caucasus, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and beyond. Conversely, trade and stability in the region holds the promise of greater affluence (and energy security) for multiple regions. It is no surprise, then, that a Black Sea war has become a defining event in the early 21st century geopolitical landscape.
Despite hopes from some that Putin’s war will end with catastrophic collapse and political reformation in Russia, current dynamics do not suggest that outcome. Putin seems intent on sustaining the war despite difficulties, many Russians continue to support him, and Russia can sustain a fight for a very long time. Russia’s relative advantages over Ukraine in economic resources and military potential will persist for the foreseeable future, despite a year of heavy losses. This implies sustained massive subsidy of Ukrainian security by the West, political support for which cannot be assumed. Balancing Russian menace over the longer term will thus require a mechanism that a) effectively enables Ukrainian defense b) coordinates that defense with neighboring NATO partners whether Ukraine joins or not c) offers a horizon of gradual decrease in U.S. direct economic and military costs, and d) offers assurances to Russia that will make abandoning the Ukraine gambit more palatable.
These conditions can be met through a triangular balancing mechanism in the Black Sea: Turkey, Ukraine itself, and pro-Western littoral states (Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia) on one hand, Russia on the other. Turkey is the lynchpin, given its unique role as staunch defense partner to Ukraine, pillar of NATO’s maritime presence in the Black Sea, and a savvy frenemy that alternately fights, trades, and negotiates with Russia. A Russia disabused of prospects for military success in Ukraine is more likely to accept a negotiated end to the war if Turkey is guarantor – as much preventing a punitive peace against Russia as assuring Ukrainian sovereignty.
Changing the Russian Calculus
Russia must not be allowed to win an aggressive war; Russian victory would be a strategic disaster for the U.S. and its European allies. The West has shown impressive unity in preventing this. Yet Russia’s ability to sustain messy wars is significant and proven, their battlefield reverses have been neither catastrophic nor determinative, and even if Ukraine parlays new tanks, other equipment, and experience into successful counter-offensives later this year, the result is more likely a stalemate than a strategic Russian defeat.
War is unpredictable, and the collapse of the Russian military or political upheaval are possible. But a catastrophic Russian loss could be destabilizing, too- perhaps leading to renewed fighting under more capable leadership. Western planning must account both for a potential Russian defeat, and for subsequent Russian revival. Ending the conflict in Ukraine must, in any case, lessen incentives for future Russo-Ukrainian wars.
At present, the two sides’ war goals remain irreconcilable and each retains the will and means to fight, so the war may continue for years. Because the fight is rhetorically existential for Moscow, but substantively so for Kyiv, Russian calculus has more room to change - given the correct balance of deterrence and incentive. While UN Secretary General Gutierrez has recognized that such a shift is not expected in the near future, Russia - faced with an increasingly well-armed Ukraine, but not inclined to simply surrender - will ultimately be forced to consider shifting from conquest to compromise to achieve its regional goals.
What can make a shift real? Western pressure to punish Russia only feeds Moscow’s paranoia about NATO. The Global South refuses to take sides. This dichotomy offers scant prospects. Russia likely still believes that the West will tire of supporting Ukraine, and that American concern over China will lead it to decrease outlays for Ukraine. A Russian change of tack becomes more likely if the Kremlin believes that it can profit more by a negotiated peace than by sustaining the military campaign. As the costs of war mount on all sides, a post-war arrangement offering regional trade, diplomatic engagement, and a demilitarized area between Russia and Ukraine (as opposed to “demilitarized and de-Nazified Ukraine”) might be attractive enough for both sides to sign on. For this, Turkey is the key: it combines solid commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, good trade relations with Russia and a track record of co-managing conflict borders, plus a demonstrated desire to see the conflict end at the negotiating table.
Turkey’s Pivotal Role
Such an approach can turn the Black Sea into a zone of engagement that includes Russia, in exchange for the Kremlin “de-militarizing” its approach to Ukraine. This would require Russian military withdrawal from occupied Ukraine, to be replaced by some sort of observer force. Turks (and other observers) in between, doing joint patrols with Russians on one side and Ukrainians on the other, might be an acceptable model OSCE observers might offer something of a precedent. To be clear, this solution will not be ripe until the current Russian offensive and occupation has been operationally defeated, which may take years.
Ankara plays a key role in ensuring that the Russian offensive will not reach its goals. It categorically rejects Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. Concern over Russia turning the Black Sea into “a Russian lake” has led to an energetic Turkish response, including extensive military aid to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and ramping up domestic naval capabilities. The Turkish counterweight to Russia has been critical to NATO pushback against Putin more broadly. Aid from Turkey to Ukraine underwent a qualitative change after 2016, from primarily diplomatic and political support to training and equipping Ukrainian forces and developing a merged defense industrial complex. A string of military and political agreements have bound Kyiv and Ankara ever closer over the past decade, with major new defense projects announced each year.
Yet, Turkey has managed to support Ukraine without alienating Russia, and this has been critical for the balance and stability in the future Black Sea security equation. While Turkey and Russia have engaged elsewhere - Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus - in mutual confrontation and containment in a kind of “brutal agreement”, they also have maintained robust trade and diplomatic ties, and evinced a shared desire to limit Western control over the Black Sea. The key point here is that Turkey views Russia as part of a stable balance in the Black Sea region: prevented from dominating militarily, cooperating economically, but engaged rather than excluded. A Russia weakened by the Ukraine war but engaged rather than excluded assures an intra-regional balance rather than increased European or American presence, which neither Russia nor Turkey desires.
Forging A Triangular Balance
Russia’s greater military potential means that Ankara in future will still need some degree of NATO and other allied support to check Moscow’s ambitions. Public support for NATO among Turks has risen since the invasion, while support for continued trade and engagement with Russia remains high. Turkey has championed Black Sea fora that overlap, but are not confined to, NATO; these include the multinational Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG) and Black Sea Economic Council (BSEC) initiatives. A triangular balancing mechanism would need both the security and political dimensions of such regional cooperation to be strengthened. The Turks have also developed an effective military axis with Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, countries outside SEEBRIG but inside BSEC, and thus is a linking element among all Black Sea countries to counterbalance Russia.
Strengthening regional capabilities not only does not require an American lead, it might only be possible without it. Much of the world beyond the U.S. and Western Europe sees Russia’s concern over NATO encirclement as rational if overblown, and Russia has not really been isolated economically or diplomatically in the global sense. A large American or NATO presence in the Black Sea could be seen as a provocative move in the Global South as well as in Moscow. Yet a regional strategy built on cooperation of the littoral states themselves, with robust economic and political dimensions and the backing of the broader West, as well as space for engagement with Russia, provides a possible way out.
As the Turkish-mediated grain deal demonstrated, adroit diplomacy can create win/win economic propositions with the Russians. Turkish energy diplomacy (pipelines and Black Sea gas resources) also offers potential mutual economic benefits for Turkey, Russia, and Europe. Turkey wants to do business with the entire Black Sea basin - NATO, NATO-friendly states, and Russia - and can provide the sort of incentives and creative diplomacy to channel Russia from a military-led to an economy-led engagement in the region. Should a clear Russian military defeat not occur, there is virtue in a regional mini-bloc that does what Turkey already does, but on a broader scale: oppose Russian military aggression without anathematizing or isolating, while proffering pragmatic benefits on economic and diplomatic matters.
Such a stabilizing mechanism requires several military and diplomatic preparatory steps. First, Ukraine and the West must not lose militarily - Russia must be convinced that it cannot hold seized territories, or seize more, at acceptable cost. Second, Ukraine and the West must not insist on an explicitly punitive peace or forward U.S. presence in the Black Sea region, as these will incentivize continued or future wars. Third - and most importantly - Turkey’s U.S., Western, and Gulf partners must reinforce Ankara’s unique peacemaking potential by supporting Turkish diplomacy; by promising post-war reconstruction projects and trade terms that benefit the entire region, including Russia; and accepting that any military monitoring force must be based on a Turkish core, and not restricted to NATO member states.
The Black Sea region has usually been conceptualized as a backwater, border area, or conflict incubator - rarely as a functioning regional system for mutual benefit of the littoral states. It may in fact be fated to remain an area of frozen and occasionally hot conflicts, but that would be a missed opportunity. Agile statecraft, and a diplomatic strategy that provides benefits for Ukraine and NATO, Turkey and its non-NATO allies, and even Russia offer the opportunity for conflict termination, regional stabilization, and reduced costs and threats to the U.S. national interest. Continued support to the defense of Ukraine need not preclude talks in this direction.