Russia’s maritime expansionism in the Black Sea region

Kristian Åtland
Senior Research Fellow, PhD
Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)

The geopolitical landscape in Europe’s southeastern corner has undergone dramatic changes in the more than eight years that have passed since the Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in February-March 2014. The country’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which started on 24 February this year, has further contributed to a deterioration of the security situation in this and other parts of Europe.

Europe’s second largest country, Ukraine, has become the victim of an unprovoked and unjustifiable war of aggression. Russia’s territorial expansionism, on land as well as at sea, has already had a devastating effect on Ukraine’s economy and security. Russia, for its part, is being faced with an international sanctions package, which will soon bring the Russian economy to its knees.

Much has been said and written about the underlying causes of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the way in which it has played out in the period between 2014 and 2022. In short, the situation has gone from bad to worse at every possible opportunity, particularly in the winter of 2021–2022. At every crossroad, Russia chose escalation over de-escalation, and ignored all possible “off-ramps” that could have been taken. Putin was dead set on invading Ukraine.

The long-term geopolitical impacts of this invasion are hard to assess at this point. The humanitarian repercussions of the war are certainly massive, with large numbers of civilian and military casualties, refugees, and internally displaced people. The amount of damage done to Ukraine’s infrastructure and civilian property is also horrific, particularly in the northern, eastern, and southern parts of the country. And, perhaps most importantly, the war has caused irreparable harm to the bilateral relationship between Russia and Ukraine, not to mention Russia’s relationship with the West.

Within the maritime domain, Ukraine currently finds itself in a blockade-like situation. Ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has strengthened its military presence in the region and sought to assert dominance over the maritime spaces of the Azov-Black Sea basin. Massively violating the Law of the Sea Convention and previous bilateral agreements with Ukraine, Russia has not only taken control of most of Ukraine’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the coast of Crimea, but also effectively strangled much of Ukraine’s sea-born foreign trade through the Azov Sea ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. The Russia-controlled Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, has become an almost impenetrable choke point for Ukrainian and third-country merchant and naval vessels.

In order to get a better understanding of the driving forces behind Russia’s maritime expansionism in the northern part of the Black Sea region, and how it has affected Ukraine and the four other coastal states (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Georgia) in the past eight years, we have to go back to the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s post-2014 quest for regional dominance in and around the Black Sea has been – and remains – a multidimensional endeavor. Backed by military and economic power, efforts have been made to replace the previously functioning legal order of the region with a new order, defined and enforced by Russia.

Russia does not share what seems to be the prevailing view among Western scholars and political leaders, namely that the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was “unlawful and therefore invalid”. Exercising de facto authority over the peninsula, Russia claims that a legal transfer of the territory has taken place, implying that Crimea is no longer a part of Ukraine, and that the legal status of the maritime zones off the coast of the peninsula has changed because of this.

West of Crimea, Russia’s illegally claimed EEZ is now directly adjacent to the EEZ of Romania. In this area, Ukraine and Romania had earlier agreed on a maritime boundary, established with the help of the International Court of Justice. In Ukraine’s view, the 2009 delimitation agreement with Romania is still in force, and Ukraine still holds a legal claim to this and other parts of its pre-2014 EEZ.

East of Crimea, Russia has since March 2014 been in control of both sides of the Kerch Strait. This has made it easier for Russia to impose restrictions on the commercial ship traffic between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, which is an important export route for Ukrainian coal, steel, and agricultural products. As demonstrated during the “Kerch Strait clash” in November 2018, Russia has also taken forcible measures to restrict Ukrainian naval vessels’ ability to transit the strait. Thus, the transit restrictions in this area has clearly also become a security issue for Ukraine.

As regards the economic dimensions of Russia’s maritime expansionism in the Black Sea, it seems to have been an important strategic objective for the Kremlin to get access to petroleum deposits on the Ukrainian continental shelf. By annexing Crimea, tripling the length of its Black Sea coastline, expropriating Chornomornaftogaz (the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz), and pushing Russia’s maritime boundaries well into the Black Sea, Russia has been able to significantly increase its economic potential in the region and deal a devastating blow to Ukraine’s hopes for energy independence. By pursuing its revisionist objectives through the use of military force, Russia has also upended the security environment in – and well beyond – the Black Sea region.

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