With NATO celebrating 75 years since its founding, Alliance members will gather in Washington, DC, on July 9-11, for a historic summit. Two of the key issues on the agenda will be addressing the acute threats emanating from the Black Sea region and adopting a strategic approach toward the Middle East and Africa. The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “Shoring up NATO’s Vulnerable Flanks,” which aims to help shape these twin consequential debates that will occupy the Alliance ahead of the Washington Summit and beyond.

In its 2022 Strategic Concept, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declared the Black Sea Region (BSR) of strategic importance for the Alliance — a culmination of years of fast-moving regional developments but foremost driven by the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Yet this recognition of the strategic importance of the BSR has never translated into NATO developing a proper strategy toward its critical southeastern flank. At the July 9-11 Washington Summit, Alliance members will adopt a joint Southern Strategy. But a similar initiative for the BSR has been left off of the agenda. That glaring gap must be addressed right away.

NATO’s footprint in the BSR has shifted in various ways over the decades. Turkey’s accession in 1952 was meant to contain the Soviet Union in the south and balance against Moscow’s dominance over the region. The Soviet Union’s loss of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Eastern Bloc permitted the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into NATO in 2004 as well as the North Atlantic Alliance’s 2008 commitment toward Georgia’s and Ukraine’s eventual membership.

At the same time, however, Moscow’s post-Cold War revanchism plunged parts of the BSR into decades of chronic warfare, from the Russian-fueled wars of the early 1990s in Georgia and Moldova to Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. And while most of these conflicts have since settled into smoldering, uneasy standoffs, the devastating Russo-Ukrainian war is now in its third year, with no end in sight. Its outcome, yet uncertain, will undoubtedly define the future security environment of the entire region, as well as the broader European continent and the transatlantic community. But even while, 75 years since its creation, NATO is witnessing the largest conflict on the European continent since World War II, the Western allies face destabilizing Russian disinformation and special operations at home as well as growing Chinese influence and Iranian military activity in the BSR.

It has thus become imperative for the Alliance to develop a collective strategy for the Black Sea that can safeguard the Allies’ shared values and enhance their and their partners’ security in this critical region. The following analysis outlines the challenges NATO faces in the BSR, identifies the resources already at its disposal to address these challenges, and offers a set of policy recommendations for crafting a regional security strategy necessary to intelligently direct the Alliance’s efforts in this area.

After the Ukraine war

Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine remains the most significant threat to Allied security, forcing NATO members to prioritize the BSR. But at the same time, the unclear outcome of the war is the most significant hindrance to formulating a regional security strategy for the bloc. Though NATO as an organization is not involved in the military support of Ukraine, the absolute majority of NATO member states, led by the United States, have aided Ukraine militarily, imposed the most comprehensive sanctions regime against Russia, and have committed to aiding Ukraine in defending itself against Russian attacks “for as long as it takes.” Former NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has argued that Ukraine is on an “irreversible path” toward membership and championed a $100 billion NATO fund for Ukraine military aid. Finally, all NATO members have collectively pledged themselves to eventually granting Kyiv membership in the Alliance.

Though Western support for Ukraine has largely held and progressively expanded, it has not deterred continued Russian military aggression. To date, Russia occupies approximately a quarter of Ukrainian territory, is in the middle of a summertime offensive, and continues to pummel Ukraine’s population centers and civilian infrastructure. The outcome of the war will be decisive for the Alliance’s posture in the BSR. Whether Ukraine remains independent and on course toward Euro-Atlantic integration and whether the country maintains access to the Black Sea will determine to what degree NATO can establish freedom of navigation throughout this basin, whether Moldova will be able to maintain its own independence, and whether the BSR can continue to crucially contribute to world food security, among other geopolitical consequences.

Allies collectively or individually should address these threats by formulating strategically informed objectives for Ukraine’s support. These objectives must include securing Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and ensuring that Russia can no longer use the Crimean Peninsula to project its power regionally or threaten freedom of navigation in the BSR. To achieve both outcomes and positively shape the regional security environment, NATO members will have to dedicate appropriate resources within an established timeline.

Defining the desired strategic outcome of the war in Ukraine will also be key to developing a containment strategy for Russia. Moscow’s demands that NATO “withdraw” to its 1997 borders, the unprecedented scale of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Russia’s systematic violations of international law make a rapprochement between the Alliance and Russia impossible in the near term. This means that Russia’s hybrid warfare against Allies, including in the BSR, will likely remain a threat in the years to come and require the Alliance to develop and employ a flexible set of tools for defense and containment.

Russian hybrid warfare tools against member states include cyberattacks, propaganda and disinformation, psychological warfare, energy blackmail, economic pressure, political interference, espionage, and sabotage. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has gradually blurred the line between kinetic and non-kinetic warfare across the Eastern flank. Therefore, in 2016, NATO stated that hybrid warfare attacks could lead to the triggering of Article 5; and in 2022, it has started developing a toolkit for responding to hybrid threats. But like with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so far the Alliance has not managed to deter these threats. Rather, Russian hybrid aggression against NATO and its closest partners has increased in quality — the methods employed in the BSR over the past year have included GPS jamming, the prevention of free maritime navigation for months at a time and threats to target commercial vessels in the Black Sea, the targeting of civilian infrastructure critical to world food security, and repeat instances of stray drones crashing and exploding on NATO territory.

Allies must commit to addressing these hybrid threats by developing a BSR strategy that emphasizes higher levels of deterrence against non-conventional attacks and offensive operations below the threshold of war. Committing NATO to adopting such a regional strategy will lay the groundwork for a more targeted and effective allocation of resources needed to address Russia’s hybrid activities. These properly resourced tools will also serve the purpose of containing Russia in the BSR and countering its hybrid warfare efforts against individual NATO member states, thus avoiding accidents and possible escalation, including NATO being forced to trigger Article 5.

Developing a comprehensive toolkit dedicated to countering regional hybrid warfare threats will also aid in checking Chinese and Iranian influence in the Black Sea Region. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) employment of political, economic, and military tools to increase its footprint and project power is increasingly visible in the BSR, where the PRC has acquired and continues to invest in critical physical and digital infrastructure, agricultural land and products, and military technology. Chinese attempts to control key technological and industrial sectors as well as create economic leverage and strategic dependencies are noticeable across the BSR, including in NATO member states.

The ever-growing Russian-Chinese strategic partnership is another challenge for the Alliance with direct impact on the BSR. With the PRC having become the primary foreign supplier of Russia’s defense industry, Chinese technology ends up facilitating Russian killings of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s aims and foothold in the BSR are much more modest than those of China, but they similarly require significant dedicated resources and corresponding strategic objectives to counter. NATO’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield, developed to counter possible attacks from Iran, is costly and complex; much of this system is based around the Black Sea, with key components in Turkey and Romania, and additional ones in Poland and the Mediterranean. But Iran has an asymmetric footprint in the BSR. Iranian-made kamikaze drones wielded by Russian forces are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, including its civilian centers. Tehran has deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military trainers to Crimea. Iranian-made drone fragments were found in Romania, in one of five kamikaze drone explosions on NATO territory. Furthermore, Iran’s strategic partnership with Russia, which has taken the form of assistance in dredging of the Volga-Don Canal for enhanced military access to the Black Sea and the operation of a joint Russo-Iranian ghost fleet between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, add to the complex security threats Iran increasingly poses to the Alliance in the BSR.

Allies must integrate into their Black Sea strategy a toolkit for countering Iran’s and Russia’s standoff capabilities in the region. Key components of conventional deterrence are already in place or in planning. NATO’s BMD shield is a key asset that deters any direct military attack from Iran. Moreover, NATO’s support to the coalition of members pledging increased production of up to 1,000 surface-to-air missiles for the Patriot system is an important step toward reasserting conventional deterrence against symmetrical and asymmetrical Russian and Iranian threats. Such initiatives will serve the wider BSR as well.

The development of additional tools, such as collective financing or deployment of more missile-defense systems in vulnerable NATO border regions, should also be considered. Complex defensive tools such as “drone wall” investments of NATO countries bordering Russia should be looked at for areas vulnerable to hybrid attacks in the BSR. Finally, Allies should think about more collective deployments of military capabilities that contribute to deterrence and free navigation and create a NATO Anti-Access/Area Denial capacity in the BSR.

Allied Black Sea policy and resources

NATO Allied presence in the BSR has grown more robust and multifaceted over the past few years, so many of the components for a NATO regional security strategy are already in place. But that future strategy will need to connect those deployed capabilities coherently and tie them to clearly formulated aims.

Black Sea Allies have significantly bolstered their defenses and actively supported Ukraine since 2022. To improve domestic capabilities, Romania has pledged 2.5% of its GDP on military expenses and is making ample acquisitions, including F-15 and F-35 fighter jets, Patriot missile-defense systems, the Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS), battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, corvettes, submarines, coastal-defense missile systems, and combat drones. Romania is also expanding its Mihail Kogălniceanu (MK) airbase, to become the largest one in Europe, with an investment of $2.7 billion. Bulgaria committed to spending 2% of its GDP and also initiated a modernization plan with acquisitions of fighter jets, infantry fighting vehicles, and patrol ships as well as investments into critical infrastructure. Turkey has boosted its defense budget by 140%, acquired additional F-16 fighter jets, and is heavily investing in making its defense industry self-sufficient.

Together, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey have launched a NATO regional de-mining operation in the Black Sea. Bulgaria and particularly Romania have been key in aiding Ukrainian grain exports and contributing to world food security, including by helping facilitate the maritime Grain Corridor, via which commercial ships export agricultural products from Ukraine by navigating along Romanian and Bulgarian territorial waters. All three member states have aided Ukraine militarily, politically, diplomatically, and economically, with Bulgaria and Romania also imposing sanctions against Russia.

NATO will not offer Ukraine membership in 2024, but it remains committed to enabling the integration of both Ukraine and Georgia into the Alliance. A NATO BSR security strategy should enable tailored programs with milestones to fulfill its commitment toward Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership. NATO’s Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine and Substantial Georgia Package should be boosted, and additional comprehensive military training programs should be added. A package should also be developed specifically for Moldova, building onto the assistance the Alliance has provided for the country since 2022.

Committing to pursuing shared values and to creating a secure environment in the BSR, and then integrating Allies’ and their closest partners’ collective capabilities to pursuing these aims will be the first steps toward developing a much-needed security strategy for the region.

The US Department of State drafted its own Black Sea security strategy in 2023. The document lists the United States’ strategic aims in the region as ensuring security, prosperity, democracy, and freedom of navigation. These objectives are shared among its NATO allies, individually and collectively; and hence they should be adopted as broad goals in a NATO BSR strategy as well.

Alliance policies and military capabilities in the BSR should be designed to service both Black Sea NATO members — Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey — and, where appropriate, also offer support for the regional partners Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. For example, in response to Russia’s heightened aggression against Ukraine in 2018, NATO increased its BMD shield’s situational awareness capabilities in the Black Sea and stepped up military training support for Georgia and Ukraine. Moreover, in 2022, Allies established multinational battlegroups for Bulgaria (led by Italy) and Romania (led by France), increased BSR air policing, and pledged new defense plans that include an increase of high-readiness NATO troops from 40,000 to 300,000.

The United States has expanded its military presence in Romania to brigade size and provided Bulgaria and Romania with military financing. France is leading the NATO battlegroup in Romania and has contributed a MAMBA missile-defense system to the region in 2022; furthermore, it is actively supporting Moldova through a defense pact and leading a coalition in support of sending NATO military instructors to Ukraine.

In line with such efforts in the BSR, Allies should commit to further bolstering NATO’s core tasks of deterrence and defense by boosting the levels of troops and capabilities deployed along the Eastern flank. At the 2020 Madrid Summit, members pledged to increase the NATO battlegroups “where and when required.” Complex hybrid threats in the region stemming from Russia, but also Iran and China, should justify the scaling up of NATO’s brigade-size presence in Romania and possibly Bulgaria with additional contributions from Allies.

Given the duration of the war and the effects the conflict has had on the Black Sea, NATO presence should be transformed from rotational to persistent. Such a change would openly signal the Alliance’s strengthened commitment toward Black Sea security.

Finally, given the number of sea-based threats and challenges Allies face in the BSR, and taking into account the strategic aim of ensuring freedom of navigation, a NATO maritime presence in the Black Sea should be prioritized, with both rotational and persistent components. NATO has bolstered its naval capabilities in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas in earlier years. But with the exception of the mostly modest navies of littoral members Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, the Alliance remains largely absent in the Black Sea, despite this being the basin on NATO’s flanks where maritime security is most under threat. Allied ships should restore their temporary deployments to NATO Black Sea ports as prior to 2022, in accordance with the Montreux Convention. This will require pushing Turkey to adopt a less restrictive reading of the war-time limitations written into Montreux. An Allied maritime coordination center in Varna, Bulgaria, should also be considered as a persistent commitment toward Black Sea security and free navigation. Lastly, an additional component of NATO’s forward defense in Romania should be the development of a multinational combined arms formation focused on the Danube Delta.


Beyond NATO at 75, and two and a half years into the war, it is high time for the Alliance to issue a Black Sea strategy that outlines the main challenges for member states and commits their collective and national-level resources to boosting regional security. Such a strategy should pursue three main aims: improving the Black Sea NATO members’ security environment, containing Russian aggression against Allies, and living up to the 2008 promise of granting Ukraine and Georgia membership. NATO’s Black Sea security strategy should build on the existing capability infrastructure member states have put in place over the years, develop these into coherent defense and deterrence systems, and agree to amplify them in sync with defined collective commitments. The time for the Alliance to act is now.


Dr. Iulia-Sabina Joja directs MEI's Black Sea Program and teaches European security as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and George Washington University. Her research focuses primarily on European and Black Sea security. 

Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

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