Russia has a strategic vision for the Black Sea, the West does not


In the XNUMXs, Nicholas John Spykman developed the concept of "rimland»1 the “semipermeable” maritime and coastal strip that delimits the island-world and which is both a border and an access to it. This "belt of marginal seas" is what allows the maritime power to project its forces towards the interior of the heartland, and in the competition between continental powers and maritime powers it is the first point of friction.

It is in these areas that the diplomatic and military maneuvers of the continental powers are concentrated, and the reason lies not only in the natural tendency to concentrate one's interest in neighboring countries: in fact, the progressive erosion of power cannot escape that in these "marginal areas " takes place.

The US hegemon and, by extension, its allies e primarily the Atlantic Alliance, see their decision and their unity of purpose and objectives continuously tested in such contexts; over time the screening initiatives have become more and more daring and aggressive, as a consequence of the perceived decline of the US as the leading power of the Western bloc. This perception is shared not only by Russia and China, but also by other regional powers, such as Iran and, to some extent, Turkey. All have shown the tendency to take initiatives aimed at testing the will and the responsiveness of the United States and NATO in neighboring areas of influence, gray areas where there is always an imbalance of interests between the distant hegemon and the actor's ambitions. local.

While it is clear that an explicit showdown would often only be counterproductive, it is also clear that power erosion is an unsustainable process in the long run. It is a phenomenon that tends to feed itself: the lack of possibility or will to spend oneself towards small allies, or potential such, on the edge of the sphere of influence, and the disinterest, actual or apparent, leads at that point to a reorganization balance; the sum of the reorganization of the local equilibria reduces the power in absolute terms, declined both as hardpower That like soft power, and will encourage this trend elsewhere.

Furthermore, the direct or indirect occupation of the buffer zones that were present until the early XNUMXs between the allies of the western bloc and its competitors it has stifled the room for maneuver and placed many of the more peripheral allies on the sidelines. These found themselves having to deal with threatening and cumbersome neighbors, and not infrequently they were left to themselves in this. A similar situation, if not addressed, risks evolving into one of these two scenarios:

  • The competing powers of the West are gradually able to enlarge the gray areas, always avoiding direct confrontation, but increasing their sphere of influence and their network of alliances, to the point of being able to exclude from the single theater the participation of countries that are friends of the bloc. NATO. This leads, even without precipitating a conflict, to a continuous friction with localized arms races and interventions by warfare hybrid or cybernetic, and, if badly managed, to lose ground.
  • Due to a miscalculation or a precise will, an open conflict is reached, in an operating theater that is generally unfavorable due to complex logistics and lack of motivation on the domestic front. The United States can continue to boast a notable military superiority to this day, but war, von Clausewitz would say, is constantly connected with chance and fortune.2

In both of these scenarios the balance in international politics would shift, not necessarily in favor of the West.3

For this reason NATO and the United States should not make the mistake of ignoring only apparently secondary sectors, because that is where the game of indirect strategies is played. In particular, the Russian Federation, which does not have sufficient economic and military forces to place itself on a par with China and the United States, concentrates its efforts in areas where it knows it can obtain valid results, without over-extending.

In this light, the area of ​​the Black Sea must be examined, whose outlet to the Mediterranean must never be forgotten, and which for completeness of analysis should be considered, within certain limits, as one with the Caspian Sea. This area constitutes for Russia the connecting corridor towards the warm seas and the Middle East, and for centuries it has been an area in which the Russian rulers have wanted, and had to, concentrate their foreign policy. The push towards the south constitutes, as is well known, one of the basic directions of Russia, and the attention towards the Black Sea is a direct consequence of this.

In general terms of "grand strategy", the Soviet Union has historically been thought of as extended on two axes: a main vertical axis, which goes from the Arctic to the Black Sea-Caspian fault line, and a horizontal, secondary one, which moves between the Western European bloc and China.

This arrangement has in principle remained in the Russian Federation today, but with a greater equity of importance between the two axes, as in recent times has made evident a shift on the horizontal axis, today more relevant than in the past: the hostility from the Western bloc, which culminated following the invasion of Crimea in 2014, in fact pushed the Russian center of equilibrium towards Asia, and in particular China, dividing it in part from the more natural view towards Europe.

However, it would be a mistake to apply in whole the same Soviet categories to modern Russia, since, if in a certain sense the aspirations of great power and the nostalgia for its ancient role on the international scene remain intact, the approach of the current Russian political decision-makers is much more pragmatic: they have treasured the scorn of the early nineties, when the gap between the habit ofimperium (and the consequent pretentious attitude) and the actual inability to enforce it had pushed many ex-Soviet republics out of the Russian sphere of influence that could potentially have remained in the orbit of the Federation.

Threat and coercion alone have proved to be limited tools, and the Russian administration now makes a different use of them: military force is applied quickly and decisively to defend what are perceived as vital interests, and at the same time it serves gives a clear signal of military capacity ad usum of all spectators, especially those from the neighborhood. For the rest, the monolithic and intimidating approach has made room for a more flexible one, modulated on the actors of a jagged and complex theater.

Having acknowledged how to cut off any Western influence by resorting to more or less explicit violent methods was counterproductive, the trend is now to encourage collaboration with Russia, leveraging cultural influence (in particular where language constitutes an advantage starting point) and economic advantages.

At the same time the Federation tries to isolate and actively debilitate any US or European influences, but where necessary it is able to accept pragmatic compromises; in particular as long as they do not threaten the general harmony of the Kremlin's strategy and, of course, do not clash with the established red lines.4

The Russian strategic approach is therefore characterized by three aspects whose effectiveness must be recognized and taken into consideration:

  • lucidity of analysis, that is, the ability to look at individual situations, recognizing their peculiarities, but without failing to place them in the general context, having clear medium and long-term objectives, one's limits and vital interests;
  • pragmatism, therefore willingness to compromise, flexibility and ability to adapt to the peculiar characters of the actor and the situation that arise from time to time.
  • firm will not to renounce its minimum objectives, established on the basis of a realistic assessment of one's possibilities, and the consequentiality in maintaining them

These aspects are closely related: the ability to make a compromise that proves to be advantageous is subordinated to clarity in recognizing one's role, one's abilities and the direction in which one wants to push. If this fails, the risk is that of confusion, which condemns failure.

In the macro-region of the Black Sea-Caspian Sea, competition is underway for the future order of the European equilibrium with Russian power. The Russian Federation tries to make it a region of semi-exclusive influence, or at least a privileged one, in order to ensure at the same time a defensive position of advantage of its territory and a power projection platform towards the "soft underbelly" of the Mediterranean,5 towards the Middle East and potentially the Indo-Pacific. This is one of the long-term aspirations of the Russian apparatus: an economic corridor that connects the Arctic regions with the oceans to the south.6

The importance of the area does not seem to be adequately perceived by the European administrations belonging to the NATO, and even less so by the US administrations. However, it is necessary to evaluate the Russian approaches and propose countermeasures, in order to avoid an imbalance in the region, harmful not only to the interests of the West, but potentially a harbinger of wider conflicts. In the area of ​​the Black Sea, which although it presents a higher level of complexity, one can glimpse the settings of a general scheme in harmony with that applied in the last twenty years in the Caspian region:

  • Extreme clarity in the aims (Zweck) and objectives (Ziel), and precise delineation of which are those for which one is willing to use force to reach or defend them, and where instead a compromise can be evaluated.
  • Tailor-made initiatives for each individual directly involved, exerting pressure, granting advantages or courting, as the case may be.
  • Construction of a general narrative framework in which the need to solve the problems of the region is supported internally, avoiding external interference, and in which Russia very often assumes the position of mediator.
  • Management and influence of events, rather than their absolute control, for which the resources and the mindset.

It should not be forgotten that the status of a great power, and its maintenance, is the engine of a large part of Russian initiatives, and the primary declination of this status is security. Security also and above all means control of one's neighboring countries and maintenance of key access points.

The Black Sea area covers both requirements, and includes directly neighboring states, such as Ukraine and Georgia. An aspect that should be underlined, because it is reflected in an evolution in the terminology of the Federation's declaratory strategies: we have moved from "near abroad»Of the 2015s to the« immediate proximity to the Russian borders »of XNUMX.7 That is to say: the closer the state, the more it is considered an integral part of the security of the Russian territory. The Black Sea is therefore a crossroads of several key interests of the Federation:

  • its concern for security, both in the strict sense (of access to its territory) and in a broader sense (of the possibility of enlarging the air and coastal defensive umbrella);

  • the access it presents to global communication lines;

  • the possibility of being used to project one's forces in other theaters of interest;

  • here are the only ports on warm seas in Russia.

The complexity of the management of the area, given by the presence of member countries of the NATO, and aspiring such, it also lends itself to opportunity. In fact, it is quite evident that the common denominator of the Russian approach is not so much trying to conquer the Black Sea states to one's direct sphere of influence, but rather creating sufficient friction in the West to make it fractured and ineffective in challenging Russian power. .

This is facilitated by the lack of overview and by the distraction that weakens the Western apparatuses.

To carry out its objectives, and at the same time to make the West as little as possible in the conditions to effectively oppose, the Russian Federation has recourse to a set of initiatives that can be divided into those that somehow involve the use of force, and those that do not use it. Among the latter we include:

  • Exercising influence through the media: this is particularly relevant in Russian-speaking countries or in which a significant part of the resident population understands Russian (such as in Bulgaria, Moldova or Ukraine), but also in terms of support or direct possession of sources media in the local language (as in Turkey and Romania).
  • Exploiting energy and economic policies: energy policy as a tactical lever is now a tradition in the toolbox available to the Russian apparatus. This can be both in terms of incentives: resources at special prices, partnerships for refineries, oil / gas pipelines (and therefore transit taxes), and as a weapon: cutting supplies, supporting competition ..
  • Clandestine operations: these can concern corruption and blackmail, but also murder on commission, extortion and threats organized or supported by the intelligence services, instrumental use of organized crime.

As for the Russian military forces in the area, these have the main task of defending the south-west flank of the Federation, both in direct terms, i.e. potential corridor of invasion of the national territory, and indirectly, such as the defense of infrastructures and ports. . It should not be forgotten that Novorossiysk, less than 180 kilometers from the border with Crimea, is the nation's most important commercial port, with over 142 million tons of cargo sorted in a year. 8

Therefore, anti-aircraft and missile defense capabilities are fundamental, and more broadly than denial area, to maintain control of the communication lines.

Add to this the only relatively secondary task of dissuading neighboring states from openly harming Russia's interests, and in general ensuring that the Western sphere of influence does not extend smoothly to the Russian periphery.

In fact, the Federation has shown that when it sees its red lines overwhelmed, the open use of military force is an option it is willing to pursue to the end. This offers the advantage of adding credibility when the use of force is only threatened.

In this regard, the crisis with Ukraine in April 2021 showed not only the effectiveness of an intimidating pose but also how Russia is counting on a good ability to move troops within its territory, not matched by European states, and in all likelihood this is a general tactic that the Russian apparatuses rely on, and that is to be able to concentrate a relatively large number of ground forces in a single point in a short time.

This is accompanied by the underlying economic problem that plagues the Federation's ambition for power: there are no resources to be able to maintain numerous contingents on a hypothetical front for prolonged periods, but this is compensated by the ability to reach a saturation in a short time. mass of the theater, which ideally should allow for a rapid resolution of the conflict.

The same approach is visible behind the choices made in terms of renewal of vehicles and missile deployment: rather than looking for units with large offensive capabilities, the aim is to make it expensive, for a hypothetical third adversary, to actively intervene in that geographical area and at the same time maintain in whole the ability to retaliate.

This takes on a useful value for evaluating a wide-ranging strategy in the region when it is considered in the historically relevant context of coexistence. NATO- Soviet Union and, subsequently, NATO-Russian Federation. While it is clear that there are no fixed rules in a state's foreign policy, it is at the same time possible to observe how Russia's historical tendency is to avoid open conflict with NATO, in the awareness of not having the ability, especially economic, to support a war.

A clear vision and a unitary foreign policy on the part of the Alliance in the region, accompanied by an active and cohesive diplomatic presence, would therefore be a fundamental element to properly contain any Russian excesses, and it is on this that the efforts of the leadership of the 'West.

Without a long-term strategic vision for an area that appears to be peripheral but borders directly on the European Union, it will neither be possible to effectively oppose a loss of importance in the area nor to be able to exploit those windows of opportunity that in the relationship with a distressed superpower like Russia will inevitably show up.

The risk is that such opportunities instead they are caught by other actors, like China, contributing to significantly accelerate a decline in the West, especially in Europe, which has been evident for some years.

Bruno Santorio (Center for Geopolitics and Maritime Strategy Studies)

1 Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of Peace, New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1944 (

2 “No kind of human activity is so constantly and generally related to chance as war. But with chance the element of uncertainty also comes to have a large part, and with this the element of luck ”(K. von Clausewitz, Della guerra, Mondadori 2011, pp. 34-35).

4 Nikolas k. Gvosdev, Russia's Southern Strategy, Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 2019, p. 8.

5 F. Sanfelice of Monteforte, The declaratory strategies of NATO and the EU. Analysis of strategic concepts, Aracne 2014, p. 64.

7 Russian National Strategy 2015, para 17.

8 (data for 2019).

Photo: Russian Federation Defense Ministry / US Army / Kremlin