Since the conclusion of the grain deal between Russia and Ukraine, both countries have escalated attacks on each other’s commercial vessels in the Black Sea. Russia terminated the agreement in mid-July and has frequently targeted Ukrainian ports, threatening cargo ships. In response, Ukraine has identified six ports on the Russian coast of the Black Sea as vulnerable areas to warfare and has warned of retaliatory attacks on cargo ships and port facilities.
A Global Gateway
German network “Deutsche Welle” affirms that as a global gateway, the Black Sea holds enormous strategic and economic significance for both Russia and Ukraine. Additionally, other nations with coastlines on the Black Sea—especially NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania—also have vested interests in the region.
It notes that the Black Sea forms the southern flank of a superpower, serving as Russia’s launchpad for exerting influence across the Mediterranean, Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe. The Black Sea provides Moscow access to countries farther afield, such as Libya and Syria, the latter of which hosts a Russian naval base in Tartus.
The German network adds that Russia’s military axis in the region is its Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in the coastal city of Sevastopol in Crimea since 1793. After annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia has maintained its importance, using it as a rare deep-water port with military potential even in winter.
Strategically, the Black Sea holds immense importance in Russia’s trade policy. Russia exports a significant portion of its grains, fertilizers, and other commodities through Black Sea ports. Furthermore, the trade route has gained importance as it provides access to countries not subject to Western sanctions against Russia.
A Vital Trade Route
The Black Sea holds paramount importance for Ukraine as well. In peacetime, over 50% of Ukraine’s total exports pass through Odessa, the country’s largest Black Sea port. As a significant global grain producer, Ukraine heavily relied on this route until the grain agreement with Russia ended in mid-July. Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine jointly accounted for just under 24% of global wheat and about 19% of barley exports, in addition to 60% of the world’s sunflower oil exports.
Currently, Russia and Ukraine strategically target each other’s commercial ships in the Black Sea. If trade through the Black Sea slows down, both countries will suffer economically. Despite diversifying export routes, Ukraine still heavily relies on this route. While it now only exports 40% of its grains through the Black Sea, it sends the rest through overland routes via the European Union.
As Russia and Ukraine compete for North-South trade routes, East-West connectivity has become increasingly important for the European Union. The Black Sea holds significance as a vital passage for goods and energy between Asia and Europe, especially as it houses EU member states Romania and Bulgaria, along with partnership agreements with Georgia and Ukraine.
Amid the EU’s pursuit of independence from Russian oil and gas, petroleum-producing countries in the Caucasus, such as Azerbaijan, have gained importance. For instance, Azerbaijan exports oil and gas to Europe through Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russia to the north and Iran to the south, thus strategically positioning the Black Sea as a crucial passage for goods and energy.
The NATO alliance also has strong security interests in the Black Sea region. From 1997 until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 31-member military alliance conducted major maneuvers there annually. However, only three permanent naval fleets—Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey—belong to NATO and are stationed in the Black Sea.
Having secured access to the Black Sea through international treaties, Turkey holds a key geostrategic position. It is NATO’s principal partner in the region and considers itself a commercial center for Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Turkey also safeguards its leading role in the region through NATO, rendering its relationship with Russia of special importance. Both Turkey and Russia view the Black Sea as a top priority. Meanwhile, Turkey closely watches to maintain power equilibrium.
The Montreux Convention allows Turkey to exclude other actors—including NATO—from involvement in the region, thus minimizing external influence from the Kremlin.