Today, there are five conflicts that share similar features in the Black Sea. That is, they are protracted, separatist Russia-supported frozen and active conflicts in the former Soviet space. Deeply rooted in the history of Soviet territorial reorganization and ethnic mixing, conflicts in Transnistria (Moldova), Crimea and Donbas (Ukraine), and Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia) are the result of violations to state borders that were integrated into the Soviet system. Russia’s presence in each conflict has prevented peaceful resolutions given Moscow’s unpredictability and unwillingness to abide by international standards. While Russia is the aggressor in Eastern Ukraine, it still manages to play a mediating role as part of multilateral formats managing the Ukrainian crisis. This is possible because Russia denies its involvement in the conflict and asserts itself as a far too powerful actor for the West to ignore when engaging in Russia’s neighborhood. These regional conflicts therefore pose arguably the biggest challenge to the security of the Black Sea. This is because effective Transatlantic cooperation is impossible without eliminating the threat posed by Russia to the sovereignty of local actors.

America’s Black Sea strategy in 2021 and beyond should focus on ending the enduring conflicts in the region before economic, maritime, or energy security can be built.

Liberal logic is at the center of conflict resolution in the region today. It focuses on multilateralism and regional integration as critical to ending Russia-supported frozen and active conflicts. However, even with the presence of regional organizations and multilateral peace agreements, progress has stalled for all Black Sea conflicts. Western strategies for the Black Sea should shift from a focus on economic engagement and military support to a deeper study of the cultural, historical, and political contexts in which the conflicts have occurred and continue to exist. Western security policies for the Black Sea should address the root causes of the conflicts first, and the pursuit of sustainable peace and reharmonization of the power balance second.

Drawing on Ukraine as a case study, this article aims to highlight some of the challenges of an international approach to conflicts in the Black Sea region.

Multilateralism and regional integration is ineffective in Ukraine

Conflicts in the Black Sea require a new approach because solutions based on liberalization and democratization seem to bring very slow results. A post-Soviet legacy of border violations, ethnic divisions, and mixed identities – combined with regional economic interdependence – gives Russia the upper hand in determining the future of regional security.  

There are several reasons why certain regional integration initiatives fail to provide and sustain peace in the Black Sea. In Eastern Ukraine, the Normandy Format and NATO are the two multilateral platforms currently relied upon to resolve the conflict and stimulate regional integration. Both have showed little progress over the years.

The Normandy Format was created in 2015 as an example of European diplomatic intervention in the military conflict resolution process in Donbas. In 2014, as a rapid reaction to the beginning of military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the Minsk Protocol (also known as Minsk I) was signed by representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine – made up of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE observer mission. The Minsk Protocol focused on halting the war immediately but proved unsuccessful because military aggression by Russian-supported separatist groups against the Ukrainian Army resumed shortly after it was signed.

In attempt to revive the Minsk I idea of a ceasefire, Germany and France stepped in as European mediators and created the Normandy Format. Both countries, along with Ukraine and Russia, worked on drafting and signing the package of necessary measures to achieve the objectives of the original Minsk Protocol (Minsk I). This package of measures was subsequently referred to as ‘Minsk II.’ It was believed European powers could establish the trust needed to ensure guidelines were adhered to, thus finally putting a stop to the violence and rising number of causalities. However, Minsk II did not bring stabilization to Ukraine’s uncontrolled territories.

This can be explained by an unequal balance of power in the Normandy Format. Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France each brought different influences and inputs to the creation of the package. Minsk II was weighted heavily in Russia’s favor because the document evaded Russia’s responsibility in conflict. In fact, the document signed by Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Yuryevich Zurabov failed to mention Russia at all.

Furthermore, in contrast to Minsk I, the package of measures outlined by the Normandy Format in Minsk II did not invite the leaders of two newly created separatist “republics” (i.e., Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic) to the negotiation table. This was because Europe did not recognize those territories or their governing bodies. Minsk II put the obligatory “‘in consultation with and upon agreement by’ the DNR/LNR actors” clause in all sections of the package that dealt with political matters. The European philosophy of not recognizing the self-proclaimed separatist territories created a power loop in which it became impossible to move toward any ceasefire resolution or reintegration of territories to Ukraine without consensus with local Russia-supported forces. With so much power given to the Russia-backed separatist areas, Russia was able to secure its control over violence on Ukrainian territory.

It is therefore unsurprising that the Minsk Agreements did not yield results. The efforts of the Normandy Format shifted the center of gravity from military operations to diplomacy – in an attempt to resolve through liberal logic – which completely ignored the reality, legacy, and dynamics of the conflict.

After U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told The New York Times that he would like to see the U.S. step in and join the Normandy Format. This is unsurprising given Ukraine’s desire to receive financial assistance from the U.S., no matter the administration. Kiev was collaborating with and protecting the Trump Administration during the Trump-Ukraine scandal, with efforts made to validate Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about Hunter Biden’s “huge corruption” ties in Ukraine and, consequently, help Trump’s reelection bid. After Biden's election, however, Kiev began disclosing previously unknown or unconfirmed information on the former president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani was acting on Trump’s behalf in spreading the false Hunter Biden narrative and making personal calls with Ukrainian officials in 2019. This new information confirmed claims made against Biden by the previous administration were false.

Zelensky’s interview with The New York Times highlighted Ukraine’s willingness to be closer to its Transatlantic ally. Ukraine’s president remarked that Biden “understands the issues of Ukraine and Russia well,” acknowledges the interdependency of Donbas and European security and agrees “that it is not enough to talk simply about the end of the war.” According to Zelensky, it is crucial to reintegrate Donbas into Ukraine both territorially and economically, something that can only be achieved successfully with U.S. assistance. Thus, it is high time America considers enlarging the Normandy Four to become the Normandy Five. However, despite the willingness of the Ukrainian government to cooperate, if the Biden Administration steps in, it should aim to focus more on the peculiarities of local and regional conflict dynamics, as well as its actors.

NATO holds a structural impasse for Ukraine’s conflict resolution because it requires all conflicts to be settled before the country can join NATO. Ukraine’s political leadership relies heavily on NATO mechanisms and instruments to solve the ongoing problem of separatism and thus is dependent on NATO for its territorial integrity. A vicious cycle of NATO-Ukraine dependency and unresolved ongoing military action in the region opens the door for persistent Russian presence and influence. There are several other major reasons for NATO’s inability to manage internal conflicts, including in Ukraine specifically. First, NATO focuses on inter-state security, making it ill-equipped to address structural, political, and historical root causes of post-Soviet conflicts that are built on the exploitation of state weaknesses such as lack of legitimacy, economic instability, and historical or cultural peculiarities. Second, NATO stands for Western values and interests that present a direct confrontation with Russian interests. Thus, its involvement in the ongoing struggles in Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ may create a backlash effect that could turn the frozen conflicts into escalating, or even interstate, clashes. Last but not least, NATO’s military capabilities would not be enough to defend Ukraine in case of direct confrontation with Russian-backed separatist forces in the region.

Ways forward for the region?

Failures on the part of multilateral initiatives and international bodies can be attributed to both an absence of coordinated cooperation and specificities of the conflicts. While institutional or structural changes might be lengthy and unrealistic, one way to ensure security and power balance in the Black Sea is through direct engagement with the conflict areas. This would entail shifting the spotlight from an international perspective of the conflicts to local peculiarities and regional interdependencies.

President Biden has a unique opportunity to engage with Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, turning the region into the fortress frontier of Europe. This would not only strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, but also empower democracy in Eastern Europe. The Biden Administration’s Black Sea strategy for 2021 and beyond should aim to strengthen and rebuild conflict areas by addressing the vulnerabilities through direct involvement with the local context. It is important for the U.S. to regain its active role in the Black Sea region and to implement a Black Sea strategy based on new ways of mediating conflicts, which are critical to overall regional stability.

The U.S. should join the Normandy Format if there is an opportunity to do so. However, it should generate a regional approach to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine that addresses the deep roots of both hostilities and Soviet legacies. The Normandy Format is not complete without America – the only Transatlantic power with enough capabilities to influence and change the power distribution within the mediation context. The Biden Administration should engage directly with the conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere in the Black Sea (including Moldova and Georgia) and revive mediations that have reached an impasse. Harmonization of post-Soviet disputes by the U.S. would finally set the region free of Russian influence, while advancing the region’s long-desired transformation into a set of truly independent, democratic, and secure states.

Maryna Parfenchuk is a fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are her own. 

Photo by Artur Lebedev\TASS via Getty Images