The Russian Tsar Peter the Great’s desire to gain access to the warm seas has almost become an undisputable Russian achievement in the Black Sea. Most probably, in the foreseeable future, access to the East Mediterranean Region is likely to de facto become a prize as well. In the last decade, the Russian Federation has succeeded, by means of soft, but mostly hard power politics to impose itself in the Black Sea Region and to consolidate an arch of power projection along NATO’s south-eastern frontier and the Middle East, areas which were controlled more or less wisely in the last decade by the United States.
Long before the Russo-Georgian “Five-Day War” of 2008, the annexation of Crimea (2014), Russia’s foothold in Syria (2015) and the establishment of a Black Sea A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) capability, Russia promoted a sustained and effective diplomacy in the Black Sea region by laying major critical energy supply networks in Europe (along with military cooperation, wherever possible), among Black Sea riparian or other relevant states, such as Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Republic of Moldova and Syria. Examples are the Blue Stream pipeline, the recently inaugurated TurkStream offshore gas pipeline system running through Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia; Russian financed nuclear reactors in Hungary, gas supplies to and joint energy projects with Serbia – along with Eurasian Union free trade agreement; privileged status of Russian energy companies in Syria, as a platform for Eastern Mediterranean energy projects.
Russia’s Creeping Influence via Energy
Even countries that did not have political or economic motivations for their entanglement with Russian energy projects, eventually became (influenced by Russia or not) “clients” of Russian energy supplies – particularly in terms of natural gas. For instance, Romania’s failure to develop in time its Black Sea offshore gas reserves (US energy giant ExxonMobil announced its intention to withdraw from the project, while Russian linked or backed undertakings are waiting in line to take over, despite recent Romanian legislation granting the government transactional veto rights, and while investor unfriendly and populist legislation still remains in force) and the consequent rise in Russian gas imports into this country, are factual confirmations of Russia’s capabilities in shaping energy markets and decision-making in the region.
The main vectors of Russia’s energy expansion in Europe have always been the crucial role of energy as main revenue (particularly from Western Europe) for the Russian state, and its strategic relevance as a foreign policy tool. More recently, an added rationale for Russia’s quest for energy dominance in the region is the strategic quest of avoiding transit routes through unfriendly or disobedient states, and an efficient combination of energy and military tools in a volatile geopolitical context to advance Russia’s hegemonic aspirations.
The EU’s Shifting Energy Policy
EU efforts in the last decade to enhance its energy security by developing natural gas interconnectors as part of the internal energy market and to promote alternative sources and routes of gas supplies (considering the role of natural gas as a fuel of transition to the ultimate goal of a decarbonized European economy), have been outpaced by a much more resolute and efficient Russian approach of integrating diplomacy, market penetration and traditional “active measures” campaigns.
However, this hegemonic energy status of Russia does not remain unchallenged. The interplay between the EU and Russia, as well as the much higher challenge of climate change have led to a historical and dramatic shift in EU’s energy policy, that is the European Green Deal, launched in 2019 by newly elected EU Commission.
A consequence of this shift in Brussels’ bureaucratic environment and rhetoric is that the notion of “natural gas as a transition fuel” has become a whispered subject within the EU and will, gradually, move to the bottom of EU’s energy policy agenda.
Despite its revolutionary nature and uncertainty in meeting the set targets (given the tremendous economic impact on member states), any the implementation of the European Green Deal policies will likely shake the natural gas trade of Russia with Europe. One might therefore expect sustained Russian efforts (combined with independent actions of certain countries, particularly in the SE European region, that are highly dependent on carbon intensive fuels) to delay the implementation of the Green Deal policy and continue banking on natural gas as a “transition fuel”. A major disruption caused by the European Green Deal on the short term to Russian energy interests might also add several “black swans” in the Black Sea as an “energy security sea”.
Militarization of the Black Sea
Another challenge to the Russian hegemony in the Black Sea region is Turkey. Despite its increasingly independent posture in relation to the EU and, perhaps more importantly NATO, and a certain rapprochement with the Russian Federation in critical sectors like energy and defense, Turkey’s regional power aspirations will most certainly collide with Russia in the Black Sea and near Middle Eastern regions. At least from an energy security perspective, Turkey, as a crucial hub and transit country, might eventually turn into a much more powerful and assertive Ukraine for the Russian Federation, thus impacting the energy security climate in the entire Black Sea region.
Last but not least, if not motivated by pure energy security concerns for Europe, but also by reasons of promoting LNG exports to Europe, another key actor engaged in the energy security landscape in the Black Sea Region is the United States. The Three Seas Initiative promoted by the U.S. on the European NE-SE axis will definitely add flavor to the energy security equation in the Black Sea Region and the progress of the European Green Deal.
The militarization of the Black Sea region by the Russian Federation also has a strong economic impact. Russia had approximately the same number of naval exercises in the Black Sea in 2019, but the number of days spent at sea by military vessels was higher. Russia has begun to block wider perimeters in the Black Sea, under the pretext of military exercises. It legally notifies an exercise within a certain perimeter, but it is not necessary for this exercise to actually take place. The area is declared “dangerous for navigation” for commercial vessels and the entry in that particular area is being made only on the own responsibility of the respective vessels. Many of them decide to embrace the perimeters announced to be the area of military exercises, which increases the number of days spent at sea and brings additional costs. Basically, freedom of navigation is impaired, and the prospect of sailing in an area with Russian military exercises is not one desired by commercial vessels. Russia especially started in 2019 to notify such exercises, even in the exclusive economic zone of Romania and Bulgaria, where both countries have gas reserves.
After the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, Romania and Bulgaria became de facto neighbours with the exclusive Russian economic area. As such, disputes over the Black Sea hydrocarbon reserves may occur between Russia and Romania especially, the estimated reserves of the latter being higher (about 200 bcm – billion cubic meters). *
In this way, Russia disrupts the movement of commercial vessels in the Black Sea, affects the areas of real exercises of NATO states, limiting the movement capacity of Allied military vessels and tests the responsiveness of riparian NATO states. In addition, it creates obvious pressure in the exclusive economic zone of Romania, where the prospects have shown the existence of natural gas reserves. In this way, Russia wants to signal that it does not want to have “energy competitors” in the Black Sea region, wishing to maintain and strengthen its energy monopoly. The emergence of an alternative supplier to Russia, even for a period of only 10 years or for as long as natural gas can be used as transit fuel according to “Green Deal”, entail the risk of diminishing the economic and political influence of Moscow in countries such as the Republic Moldova, Bulgaria or Serbia, which are heavily dependent on Russian natural. The issue of energy represents an important stake for Russia in the region and not only, thus remaining an important element for the strategic relevance of the Black Sea.
Authors: Laurențiu Pachiu**, George Scutaru
The Energy Policy Group (EPG) is a Bucharest-based non-profit, independent think-tank specializing in energy and climate policy, market analytics and energy strategy, founded in February 2014. EPG’s regional focus is Eastern Europe and the Black Sea Basin. Its analyses, though, are also focused on wider trends and processes at global and EU levels.
New Strategy Center is a Romanian think tank specialising in foreign, defence and security policy, a non-partisan, non-governmental organisation. The Balkans and the Black Sea space are priority areas of interest for New Strategy Center, activities of which also cover such subjects as national security, military modernization and defence procurement, energy security, cyber security and hybrid threats.
* In order to highlight the significant dimensions of the off-shore reserves of Romania, for reference, in 2018, the gas consumption of Romania was of 10,9 bcm, of Republic of Moldova was of 2,5 bcm, of Bulgaria was of 3,3 bcm and of Serbia was of 2,8 bcm. (Source: https://www.indexmundi.com)
** The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or views of the organizations the author is part of as a lawyer.