About the author: Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.
American foreign policy has always sought to ensure the Western Hemisphere remained free of Eurasian political influence. Since World War I, this has meant active participation in the Eurasian balance to disrupt or defeat aspiring Eurasian hegemons. Today, America needs a Black Sea strategy that furthers its Eurasian interests.
Sens. Mitt Romney and Jeanne Shaheen introduced the Black Sea Strategy Bill last year. It charges the U.S. government with creating a comprehensive Black Sea strategy that includes political, military, and economic regional engagement mechanisms and a clear plan to counter Russia’s Black Sea aggression. A coherent Black Sea strategy would recognize the U.S. interest in the Black Sea as a gateway to the Eurasian heartland, identify as an objective the creation of a dominant Black Sea maritime position in concert with American regional allies and partners, recognize the role of Ukraine in a future Black Sea order, and create a roadmap for future Black Sea strategic action. A Black Sea strategy fit for purpose, put simply, would provide U.S. policy a coherence it currently lacks.
The Black Sea is a central geopolitical region in the ongoing struggle for Eurasian mastery. Just as the White House published an Indo-Pacific Strategy in February 2022, it should do the same with a Black Sea strategy. Except in this context, it would do to have a far more substantive strategic document that actually articulated American interests in the region, and a roadmap for military, economic, and political actions alongside U.S. regional allies to further those interests.
The Black Sea’s unique position within Eurasia makes it a natural zone of contestation during any struggle for Eurasian power. Europe is a peninsula of peninsulas, criss-crossed with rivers. Yet the farther east one moves, the less densely populated, and more truly continental, Europe becomes. Ukraine’s Donbas is the European terminus of the Eurasian steppe. It is an important secondary leg of the Eurasian Nexus Point, the maritime space centered upon the Levantine Basin that still serves as the heart of Eurasian trade. The Black Sea is also the closest maritime space to the Eurasian heartland. No territory contains such a wealth of material riches.
The Black Sea, then, is a lake within the Eurasian heartland. This explains its centrality to Russian strategy, and its relevance to Chinese and American strategy. Modern Russia’s objective is identical to that of its Soviet predecessor and resembles Imperial Russia’s. Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Joseph Stalin, seeks a Russia that is the only non-European participant in European affairs. This requires breaking the maritime coalition of European and North American states that U.S. power undergirds through NATO.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is at bottom a maritime war. Russia controls part of the Eurasian heartland and, through its entente with China and Iran, has access to nearly its entirety. But NATO bars it from access to the Eurasian coastlines. Early 20th-century geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder wrote that a power or coalition that controls the Eurasian heartland can employ its resources to subjugate Eurasia, and from it the world. He was only half right. Control of the heartland is necessary but insufficient for Eurasian dominance. A counterbalancing coalition with control of crucial Eurasian chokepoints can deny hegemonic powers Eurasian dominance.
The Russian invasion was not itself meant to destroy NATO and claim final victory. But it was meant to add to Moscow’s rule Ukraine and Belarus, thereby enlarging Russian territory, population, and economic potential. Control of Ukraine would provide the Kremlin with a dominant Black Sea position that it could reinforce through the rapid conquest of Moldova and Georgia, and in turn, political suzerainty over the rest of the Caucasus. This Black Sea position, combined with Russia’s Middle Eastern presence, would pry Turkey from NATO, give Russia access to the Mediterranean, and in time, enable a multi-pronged war on NATO that would shatter the Atlantic alliance’s credibility. After all, why should Paris and Berlin commit to defending the Baltics or Poland if Russian gas sustained their industries?
Of course, Russia’s war has not gone as planned. But it is telling that Russia seeks to consolidate its hold on the Black Sea nevertheless, maintaining its position in southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. A cease-fire that leaves eastern and southern Ukraine in Russian hands will rapidly allow the Kremlin to dominate the Black Sea despite its losses in Ukraine, thereby achieving significant strategic objectives.
The U.S. now has an opportunity to deny Russia control of the Black Sea, thereby gaining a lodgment adjacent to the heartland and limiting Russian long-term strategic options. It would also help reverse Iran and China’s recent involvement with Russia, thereby bolstering America’s position in western Eurasia.
Strategic, diplomatic, economic, and military elements are necessary for a Black Sea strategy to achieve a Black Sea controlled, or at least heavily contested, by friendly powers.
Strategically, the U.S. must ensure Ukrainian victory. A coherent Black Sea policy is far more difficult with Crimea in Russian hands and a Russian land bridge linking Crimea to Rostov Oblast. At minimum, a settlement in Ukraine that reduces Russian political control over the peninsula—or even returns it to Kyiv—would rip out the heart of Russia’s post-2014 strategic structure. This naturally requires that the West, whether the U.S., U.K., Germany, or some other power, transfer Ukraine a large tranche of armor, alongside anti-ship missiles, anti-air systems, and ideally long-range strike tools to dismantle the Russian rear area.
Diplomatically, the U.S. must center its Black Sea policy on Romania and Bulgaria concurrently with Ukraine. Romania provides the best basing for any NATO Black Sea forces and, through the Danube-Black Sea canal network, enables efficient transfer of forces that would circumvent limitations on naval movements under Montreux convention. Meanwhile, few measures would do more to resolve the Turkish question in the West’s favor than prying Crimea from Russia’s control, and thereby removing from Russian hands a dagger pointed at Turkey’s heart.
Economically, the U.S. seeks a stable Black Sea security order to allow its allies to develop the maritime space’s economic potential. Romania has invested heavily in offshore gas extraction. A post-Ukraine Black Sea should ensure these energy assets are protected.
Militarily, then, a Black Sea strategy must have a maritime focus. It should include American military investment in Romanian ports, primarily Constanta, but also Danube ports like Galati and Braila. The U.S. should make permanent its Black Sea Rotational Force deployments, specifically prioritizing anti-ship missile units, air defenses, and if possible long-range artillery.
Montreux restrictions limit foreign warship access to the Black Sea. But legally, if the U.S. or other NATO states deploy small missile craft and corvettes—armed with long-range anti-ship weapons—down the Danube-Black Sea canal, they may avoid violating the Montreux convention. Hence the U.S. can consider the proactive development of a small brown-water force of fast missile ships, designed to counter large Russian platforms in the Black Sea.
Whether or not the Senate votes on Romney and Shaheen’s bill—and it should—elaborating Black Sea strategy is vital to U.S. interests.
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