Europe Inside Out

Why the Black Sea Is a Geopolitical Gray Zone

Episode Summary

Thomas de Waal and Dimitar Bechev unpack the geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the Black Sea states, from Turkey’s mediating role and the UN-brokered grain deal that is helping to feed the world, to growing EU and NATO interest in the region.

Episode Notes

The Black Sea is geopolitically significant as both a theater of trade and a theater of war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shifted the traditional balance between Moscow and Ankara in the region and has led to an increased NATO presence there. Can the EU leverage its economic and foreign policy tools to expand its influence in the Black Sea?

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, and Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, discuss why the Black Sea is once again at the center of world events and what the future holds for the region.

[00:00:00] Intro, [00:01:50] The Black Sea Today, [00:07:45] The Russian-Turkish Cohabitation [00.17.58] What Future for the Black Sea Region.

Neal Ascherson, "Black Sea," Hill and Wang, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Dimitar Bechev, February 28, 2023, “Sailing Through the Storm: Türkiye’s Black Sea Strategy Amidst the Russian-Ukrainian War,” European Union Institute for Security Studies.

Dimitar Bechev, February 27, 2023, “Facing tragedy, Turkey mends ties with Greece and Armenia,” Al Jazeera.

Dimitar Bechev, April 13, 2022, “Russia, Turkey and the Spectre of Regional Instability,” Al Sharq Strategic Research.

Dimitar Bechev, March 30, 2022, “Turkey’s Response to the War in Ukraine,” Maple Institute.

Thomas de Waal, July 07, 2022, “How Georgia Stumbled on the Road to Europe,” Foreign Policy.

Thomas de Waal, June 09, 2022, “Georgia, Europe’s Problem Child,” Carnegie Europe.

Thomas de Waal, May 10, 2022, “A Fragile Stability in Moldova,” Carnegie Europe.

Thomas de Waal, March 03, 2022, “Darkness Looms Over Ukraine’s Neighborhood,” Carnegie Europe.

Charles King, "The Black Sea: A History," Oxford University Press, 2005.

Episode Transcription

Europe Inside Out
Episode #9 - Why the Black Sea Is a Geopolitical Gray Zone
Scholars: Thomas de Waal and Dimitar Bechev

Editorialized Intro

Thomas de Waal

The Black Sea, a region with thousands of years of history, is once again at the epicenter of world events.

Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline is a major theater of war one year after Russia’s invasion. Ukraine’s seaports are absolutely vital to its survival.

The Black Sea Grain Deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, allows Ukraine to transport its grain despite the conflict, and it’s keeping Ukraine’s economy alive. But it’s hanging by a thread.

More broadly, this is a stretch of water of growing geopolitical significance for Russia, for the EU, for NATO, and, of course, for Turkey, which controls all access to the Black Sea. So what does the future hold for this contested region?


Thomas de Waal

Hello, and welcome to Europe Inside Out, a monthly podcast from Carnegie Europe about the continent’s greatest foreign policy challenges.

My name is Tom de Waal and I’m a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe.

Guest Intro

Thomas de Waal

This episode of Europe Inside Out is about the Black Sea, the geopolitical theater of war and trade vital for the future of Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey.

I’m joined by Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe who comes from a Black Sea nation, Bulgaria.

And I should also express a personal interest here. My ancestors on my grandmother’s side were major grain exporters from Odesa in the 19th century, and I’ve just recently been back in Odesa.

So, welcome Dimitar.

Dimitar Bechev

Thank you, Tom. It’s a great pleasure to be part of this conversation.

Section 1: The Black Sea Today 

Thomas de Waal

We should begin by talking, of course, about the war, the Ukraine war, which is an existential issue for Ukraine. Its very survival is at stake. But the Black Sea is absolutely crucial here, not just for Ukraine, but also for all the six so-called littoral states that have a coastline on the Black Sea. That’s Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, which is also a country I know very well. Three of those are now members of NATO, which complicates the picture. So let’s begin by talking about the war.

Dimitar Bechev

That’s right, Tom. We have plenty to discuss, but why don’t we start from Odesa? I’m curious to know your impressions since you were there not long ago.

Thomas de Waal

Well, absolutely. I was there just recently. So I should say this was my first visit since the war began and, not surprising I guess, but important to see with my own eyes is that the Ukrainian identity of Odesa is really emerging strongly since the war. This is a very cosmopolitan city which never wanted, really to be part of Russia, but was also a bit distant from Ukraine, had this rather distinct identity. But the war, I guess, forced people to choose. And overwhelmingly, people have chosen Ukraine.

So, the war has really kind of been a turning point for this city. In terms of damage, fortunately, it’s been quite light. Other cities have been much unluckier than Odesa, but it’s still very much the city on a war footing. The famous boulevard at the front of the city overlooking the sea where my ancestors used to live is completely sealed off. There are soldiers there, I guess there are anti-aircraft defenses there. The famous statues are covered over.

The good news is that the port has started working again thanks to the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Deal which we’ll be talking about, which is absolutely vital for Odesa’s economy. Exporting stuff by road is incredibly costly compared to exporting by sea, and these Black Sea ports are absolutely vital for the Ukrainian economy.

Dimitar Bechev

Yeah, it’s good that you mentioned the Grain Deal. It’s obviously now in the news both because it’s always hanging in the balance one way or the other, because we’ve seen how difficult and costly is the alternative.

Indeed, the overland shipments through Poland and Romania have generated so much friction over the past couple of weeks, and now it’s a heated issue in Brussels. So, it’s probably good to think about its implications for Ukraine, but also for Black Sea security.

What strikes me is how much Turkey’s role as a mediator, as the regional power has been in the spotlight because of the deal.

Thomas de Waal

Talking to people about the deal, including in the United Nations. One, is absolutely vital for Ukraine. I mean, Russia also stands to benefit from it as well, of course, because that was part of the deal.

I think it’s worth saying that, basically, it’s sort of two deals which were a package and they can’t be disentangled. One is about Ukrainian exports, the other is about Russian exports. What’s going on at the moment, I’m told, is that Russians are threatening to walk away because one thing that they think is important, which is ammonia exports from Russia, there’s a pipeline that goes from Russia to Odesa, in fact, of ammonia, but that hasn’t been working, and the Russians are complaining about that.

The other issue for the Ukrainians is this big backlog of ships is that every vessel has to be inspected by four inspectors in Istanbul, UN, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine. What seems to happen is the Russians deliberately slow things down. And I was told last week there’s a backlog of 60 ships still stuck in Istanbul waiting for inspection. So that’s a big frustration for the Ukrainian side.

So this is a kind of precarious deal. It’s very important for Ukraine and it also obviously has this humanitarian aspect. Now, one can be a bit cynical here and say that actually, of the total grain exports, only about 2% apparently have gone to absolutely food insecure countries like Ethiopia. Little just over half a million tons out of 29 million tons in total. So that maybe should be higher. But that’s as much, I’m told, as the UN can handle. It basically takes over vessels and exports wheat from Ukraine for free.

But I guess the bigger picture is that because all this massive amounts of grain is now being exported, the overall price of grain of food on the world markets has gone down. So I guess that’s important as well. And if Russia does pull out of the deal, there’s definitely going to be a humanitarian impact as well.

Dimitar Bechev

Yeah, I mean, Russia has made all kinds of noises about NATO’s presence in the Black Sea, but it seems to me that there’s this opposite effect. We observed that actually there is more NATO in this area. Of course, NATO’s naval presence is limited because of the so-called Montreux Convention of 1936, which we’ll eventually discuss later in the conversation. But there’s so much NATO deployment on the shores of the Black Sea and Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO has expanded as a result of the war and armed shipments and all kinds of other joint activities on the intelligence site and others.

So, there is a fundamental shift in the Black Sea. As well we shouldn’t forget EU’s involvement in the Black Sea. There’s so much more the EU does these days, thanks to its advanced relationship with not just Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia. 

Section 2: The Russian-Turkish Cohabitation 

Thomas de Waal

You mentioned NATO, and I wanted to ask you a bit about as a Turkey scholar. You’ve published a praised book about Erdoğan’s Turkey. So it looks as though in the Black Sea, Turkey is not really wearing its NATO hat. It’s very much wearing its Turkey hat. It’s not really kind of aligned with NATO as a whole as a security actor in the Black Sea, would you say that’s correct?

Dimitar Bechev

Oh, yes, absolutely. Turkey has always seen itself as a regional power, and it has been skeptical about the potential role played by external actors in the region. When NATO started looking at to enhance Black Sea presence following its enlargement in 2004 to Romania and Bulgaria, Turkey was really reticent, it joined forces with Russia. There was a local initiative called BLACKSEAFOR about naval security. Turkey was sort of pushing back against U.S. offering help to Georgia. In 2008, there were two medical ships blocked, delayed entering the Black Sea.

And Turkey has always tried to stabilize the Black Sea by turning into a condominium, where you have two countries at the top table and nobody else really matters. But I suppose the annexation of Crimea has changed the balance somewhat, thanks to Crimea’s position in the middle of the Black Sea. To the extent that during a rare moment of sincerity, when you had this brief clash between Russia and Turkey in 2015-2016, Erdoğan went as far as saying that the Black Sea has turned into a Russian lake with endorsements or tacit approval by the West. So there was a bit of frustration.

Of course, now Turkish rhetoric has changed. Turkey is a friend of sorts for the Russians, but the underlying insecurity is still there, and therefore NATO is still relevant, I think, to Turkey as the ultimate insurance policy given Russian expansionism.

Thomas de Waal

It’s amazing how the historical dynamics continue. If you look at the history of the Black Sea, there’s some great books by Charles King, Neal Ascherson, people like that. It’s always about the clash of the two big countries, Russia and Turkey, or Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire, a whole series of wars. The one we remember is of course the Crimean War of mid-19th century, but there were many others.

And then it’s all about the Straits, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, which this kind of weird quirk of geography whereby Russia’s only access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean goes through this very, very narrow passage, which is Turkish territory, but is also international waters, right through the heart of Istanbul. That’s always been the tension of who controls the Straits, who is the gatekeeper, what are the rules, and Russia and Turkey sort of play along and then they clash.

You’ve already mentioned the Montreux Convention of 1936. I’m curious, maybe you should first of all tell us a bit those of us who don’t follow these things so closely, what its main point is, and then also whether you think that Montreux Convention is still fit for purpose.

Dimitar Bechev

Well, from Turkey’s perspective, the key to Montreux Convention is that allowed the then young republic to reestablish sovereign control over the Straits and reposition military forces remilitarize the Straits, which was not the case under the preceding Lausanne convention from 1923.

The flip side, of course, was that external powers were not allowed to maintain military presence in the waters of the Black Sea beyond a certain limit of days and certain tonnage without getting too technical. And that’s a provision that has helped.

For instance, during the Second World War, Nazi Germany was unable to send its navy to the Black Sea through the Straits. I mean, there were some ships sent via the Danube, but it limited the Nazis’ capacity to wage war and certainly Turkey helped in that respect Russia, even though it also was helping the Nazis, let’s not forget, by being neutral until the very end of the war. So, there are certain historical echoes from the Second World War in that respect.

But more recently, in current times, Montreux is essential to how Turkish elite sees, and by elite, I don’t mean just people associated with Erdoğan, but across the board in security, even people in the opposition. They see that retaining control over the Black Sea and keeping others out at an arm’s length is needed to maintain stability and also Turkish primacy.

Lastly, yes, there were many wars between Russia and Turkey, but the last conflict, the Cold War, was actually won by Turkey, where Russia receded and a number of buffer countries appeared, including Ukraine that enhanced the sense of security for Turkey and made probably cooperation with Russia possible. That was not the case before.

Question is, if the current conflict is changing the balance of power and we don’t know right now how it will play out, certainly. The worst case scenario of Ukraine being cut off from the Black Sea didn’t materialize, but it’s not over. And Turkey is always cautious when it comes to Russia, precisely because of this long history of wars, most of which, if not all of them, not the last one, even the First World War was not won by Russia, but most of them were won by the Russians. So, Turkey has this historical memory of being on the downside, losing those conflicts.

Thomas de Waal

I think we should also mention the issue of the Bosphorus, which is a big issue for Turkey, that the fact that Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, 15 million people, did you say? It’s in the middle of this international waterway with these huge ships going through it. So, there’s a huge environmental stake here. About 10-12 years ago, I made a radio documentary for the BBC about the Bosphorus. That involved going out with a pilot who every big ship that goes through the Bosphorus has to have an Istanbul pilot guiding it, who stands on the bridge with the captain from the beginning to the end, making sure that they go on the correct route. At one point, there’s this bend called the Kandili Bend, where you have to make a kind of sharp turn. You can only imagine the impact if that collided with a key with a big Istanbul neighborhood. So that’s a big issue for Turkey to try and stop all that shipping or to reduce that kind of shipping going through the Bosphorus, isn’t it?

Dimitar Bechev

Absolutely. And the waters of the Bosphorus are famously treacherous, or infamously treacherous because of currents. So it takes experience, skippers and boats to guide heavy traffic. There have been many accidents involving boats in the Bosphorus. For those of our listeners who’ve read Orhan Pamuk’s book on Istanbul, there are plenty of references how the locals enjoy the view of yet another ship colliding with one of those villas on the shores of Bosphorus that are now disappearing progressively at last.

But, yeah, there have been many schemes looking at ways to create bypasses, and the most recent one is the so-called Canal Istanbul, causing huge controversy in its own right because of the environmental concerns. Now it seems that it’s put on hold, but it might reappear. 

Thomas de Waal

What else I wonder is different now from how it was 100, 200 years ago? You mentioned Crimea. Do you think that was a critical turning point for the Black Sea, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014? Did that really change the dynamics in a negative way as far as everyone else is concerned?

Dimitar Bechev

I think there’s interesting echo with Crimea, not because of Russian expansionism, but one of the reasons that Russia lost this war was that it was lagging behind in terms of economic power, but also infrastructure and logistics vis-à-vis the West, so distant UK and France could project force in the Black Sea from far ashore, then Russia, which lacked the railways to send its troops to Crimea. So despite all the heroism that Russians are fond of, and Admiral Nakhimov and all those people, basically it was a way to showcase Russia’s inferiority towards industrial powers of the West. Something of the sorts might be happening now despite the build-up of Russian forces and Russia’s modernization effort buoyed by high hydrocarbon prices. We see in this conflict the Western superiority in terms of conventional military technology, logistics, intelligence. But another continuity is probably Crimea’s location. So geography doesn’t change. Of course, there are some discontinuities in the Black Sea. Just one very briefly, it’s not such an important conduit for Russian oil exports that it used to be in the past, but now has become an important channel of gas exports after the TurkStream pipeline and Blue Stream before it became a reality.

Thomas de Waal

Wow. But is it fair to say who controls Crimea, controls the Black Sea?

Dimitar Bechev

In many respects, yes. I mean it’s the combination of Crimea plus the Montreux convention limitations and to some degree Russia’s investment into military technology as ballistic and cruise missiles that can cause havoc. Crimea has also allowed Russia to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean. The Eastern Mediterranean Squadron that was reestablished in 2013 and has made its mark in Syria and operates also from the Tartus naval facility is essentially an extension of the Black Sea fleet that uses Sevastopol and has always used Sevastopol even before the annexation. So Crimea is a huge asset, not just symbolically for Putin, but also in concrete military and strategic terms.

Section 3: What Future for the Black Sea Region

Thomas de Waal

We’re talking in May 2023, and obviously we’ve been talking about Turkey. All eyes on the imminent Turkish election. I think everyone agrees this is probably the biggest election in two decades in Turkey. President Erdoğan currently trailing the opposition, but not by much, so it could go either way still. But let’s imagine that the opposition wins in Turkey. What does that mean for Russian-Turkish relations? And what do you think does that mean for the Black Sea?

Dimitar Bechev

Well, an opposition win probably will lead to some form of realignment with the West. For one, the virulent anti-Western rhetoric will recede coming from the government. There’ll be an attempt to reengage with the EU. I’m sure many political prisoners will be freed, including some of our friends who have ended up in jail unjustly in Turkey, which will open space for renewed talks on upgrading the Customs Union.

But having said that, I don’t expect a radical U-turn, if you will, in Turkish foreign policy. There won’t be renewed membership negotiations and there won’t be any bridges burnt to Russia. I’ll be surprised to see Turkey aligning with the Western sanctions, for one. So Turkey will proceed with its policy of being the intermediary and doing business with Russia and the west at the same time, and trying to negotiate and supporting Ukraine. Not to forget, Turkey needs Russia on energy, but also in Syria. And therefore it will be very costly and dangerous to make a radical change in foreign policy.

Thomas de Waal

Turkey has also been very clever at playing both the west and Russia and sort of marketing itself separately as an energy hub for both Western countries and Russia in using the Black Sea. I guess that obviously won’t change. Yeah?

Dimitar Bechev

No, absolutely. Russian gas will continue to flow to Turkey. Turkey counts on being able to resell some of this gas, transforming itself from a transit country to a energy hub. There is also Azeri gas that will be flowing to Europe. Just on Saturday, President Ilham Aliyev appeared side by side with Erdoğan at an aviation show in Istanbul, showing his support for his reelection bid. And many European countries hope that Azerbaijan will be able to ramp up its gas exports in the coming years to at least replace some of the volumes that used to come from Russia. That puts Turkey on the map.

So, yeah, energy dependence on Russia on the one hand, but there is more to Turkish foreign policy and energy diplomacy than just being dependent. Last but not the least, another development that’s relevant is that last week you had the inaugural ceremony for the nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, which is a Russian-Turkish project dating back to 2010. Putin was expected to be there, but now with the International Criminal Court, that’s probably impossible. But it’s one of those big achievements that everyone wants to showcase ahead of the election, that Turkey is now a nuclear power, with civilian nuclear energy being in play.

And Russian Turkey might be building the second nuclear power station at the Black Sea coast this time around. So, Akkuyu is closer to the Eastern Med, but Sinop is a Black Sea port, so watch this space. There’s not just gas and oil, there’s also nuclear when it comes to Russia and Turkey.

Thomas de Waal

I’m conscious we are the Europe Inside Out podcast. We haven’t really talked about the EU and we should do that before we close. To what extent is the EU now a player in the Black Sea, do you think? Both economically and politically?

Dimitar Bechev

I think it’s increasingly the case that the EU is absolutely important and you don’t have to look at words because talk is cheap. Whether a candidate can be a potential candidate, in the real world probably doesn’t make such a profound difference compared to the world of symbolic power. But look at trade. So for Ukraine, for instance, you replaced long time ago, even before the war, Russia as the main destination of exports. Same for Georgia for a long time, which of course trades heavily with Turkey as well. Same for Moldova. Migration from the Black Sea nations is going towards the West, so there’s more and more EU going forward. EU deploys humanitarian systems, developmental aid. The EU Green Deal, the green transition will become important going forward. So, even without membership negotiations, my understanding is there will be EU-ization going. One recent example going to energy, for instance, is this Global Gateway, and Global Gateway is the EU’s response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. One of the flagship projects will be a high-power cable running from Georgia all the way to Romania and then to Hungary and Central Europe. Georgia’s hydropower will be providing green electricity to consumers in the EU. And this is probably the way forward. I see more and more EU involvement at the functional level in the years to come.

Thomas de Waal

Georgia is very keen to market itself, not just as a Caucasus country, but as a Black Sea country. By implication, that means linking it across the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Romania to Ukraine. So absolutely. This is critical for Georgia. I just hope that the EU big idea can match up to the moment.

Obviously, I guess that’s the positive scenario, the negative scenario is that the conflict doesn’t go away and the Black Sea becomes a theater of collision, of confrontation between the Western powers and Russia. I mean, we saw one dangerous U.S.-Russia incident, and I guess that’s the fear that Russia remains the disruptor and NATO is there. And we like to think of the Black Sea as a theater of trade, but it’s also still a theater of war.

Dimitar Bechev

Very much so, yes. I’m reminded of Moldova, which for decades has been trying to rebrand itself as Southeast Europe and not former Soviet Union. So that’s nothing new about it. But my gut feeling is probably Black Sea will be a bit of both because the conflict is not going away. So, on the one hand, even under the best circumstances, the Russian-Ukraine war will transform into a frozen conflict, which will be part of a standoff over the long term between Russia and the West. And there’s no way that the Black Sea will be out of it. Indeed, it will be one of the central arenas, but at the same time doesn’t preclude economic integration between littoral countries with heavy involvement by Brussels by way of ideas, but also money and policy support.

So we will be living in this gray zone for decades to come, I expect, where the positive and the negative will go hand in hand. But yeah, I mean, conflict, unfortunately is not going to evaporate even if the fighting recedes in the coming years.

Thomas de Waal

Black Sea gray zone, I guess that’s what we’re talking about for some time to come.

Dimitar Bechev


Thomas de Waal

Thanks so much, Dimitar. It’s been a real pleasure to speak to you on this episode of Europe Inside Out.

Dimitar Bechev

It was a real pleasure talking to you, Tom. Thank you.


Thomas de Waal

For those of you interested in learning more about the Black Sea and geopolitics, I encourage you to follow Dimitar’s work on Twitter at DimitarBechev. That’s D-I-M-I-T-A-R-B-E-C-H-E-V. And you can find me at Tom de Waal. That’s Tom_D-E-W-A-A-L.

Please join us again next month when Rosa Balfour and Stefan Lehne will discuss the power plays and priorities that guide the EU’s external action.

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Our producers are Francesco Siccardi and Mattia Bagherini. Our editors are Maria Dios and Alexander Damiano Ricci of Bulle Media, sound engineering and original music by Jeremy Bocquet.