Special forces with the Romanian navy: "We're holding down the fort."

Special forces with the Romanian navy: "We're holding down the fort."


Petrut Calinescu / DER SPIEGEL

Russia's Dark Shadow The Black Sea Region Is Suddenly Cast in Geopolitical Spotlight

For many years, the Black Sea was largely ignored by geostrategists. But with Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its aggressive posturing elsewhere in the region, countries along its shores find themselves on a dangerous fault line. How are they dealing with their belligerent neighbor?

They fire from extremely close range. Fingers on the triggers of their pistols, elite fighters from the Romanian navy approach to within just three meters of the enemy. An enemy made of cardboard.

The war game on board the Romanian flagship Regele Ferdinand is to prepare the troops for the worst-case scenario. The almost 5,000-ton frigate is carrying a crew of 240 men and women as it glides through the waters of the Black Sea under a steel-blue sky. Off the port side, to the north, lies Ukraine. The coast of Russia is to the northeast, Georgia lies to the east and Turkey to the south.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2023 (March 11th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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"You have to earn respect, particularly in NATO," says Georg-Victor Durea, the bald-headed commander of the Regele Ferdinand. Since the withdrawal of the Standing NATO Maritime Group from the crisis region, the Romanian navy has been the most active fleet in the Black Sea. "We're holding down the fort here."

For decades, the Black Sea wasn't really on the radar of political strategists when it came to geopolitical conflicts. There were few incidents here during the Cold War, when it stood between the Warsaw Pact countries of the Soviet Union, Romania and Bulgaria on the one hand, and NATO-member Turkey on the other.

The Regele Ferdinand, an aging warship armed with torpedoes and a 76-millimeter cannon

The Regele Ferdinand, an aging warship armed with torpedoes and a 76-millimeter cannon

Foto: Petrut Calinescu / DER SPIEGEL
Onboard the Regele Ferdinand

Onboard the Regele Ferdinand

Foto: Petrut Calinescu / DER SPIEGEL

High Alert on the Black Sea

Now, though, the sea between Europe and Asia finds itself bathed in the spotlight of global attention. Even the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could detonate a tactical nuclear weapon in the region – which is home to 300 million people – cannot be discounted.

On Tuesday, it became known that a U.S. Reaper drone was intercepted by the Russians 120 kilometers west of Russian-occupied Crimea. It was escorted by two Soviet-era Su-27 fighter-bombers before then being shot down.

How has life changed since the outbreak of war for the people who live on the shores of the Black Sea? In an attempt to discover the changes wrought to the region by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we traveled clockwise around the body of water, sticking close to the coast. Our central question was: How do residents of the Black Sea region intend to carry on with such a violent neighbor as Russia?

Romania exerts control over 30,000 square kilometers of the Black Sea. Yet Russian warships repeatedly appear in the country’s exclusive economic zone. They are, says the second-in-command on board the Regale Ferdinand, on an elevated state of alert, though he is not authorized to provide any military details. He does, however, say: "Even though the Russians clearly have the better navy, they were unable to hang on to Snake Island." The barren chunk of rock home to just a handful of buildings is a strategically important bastion, contested by Russia and Ukraine – and within sight of the Romanian coast.

It seems doubtful that the Regele Ferdinand, built in 1976 and armed with torpedoes and a 76-millimeter cannon, commands the respect of the Russian military. The point, though, seems more that of establishing a presence on the open sea. Since last June, Romania has been extracting natural gas off its coast. The war right outside its front door is not at all welcome.

Romanian territory is within range of Russian ballistic missiles, and only 225 kilometers (140 miles) separate the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and the Danube Delta, most of which lies in Romania. The government in Bucharest has announced its intention to increase military spending this year to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product – a huge burden for this country that has long been plagued by poverty. Romania is planning on purchasing two French-built submarines along with 32 used F-16 fighter jets and new helicopters.

Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă, a former soldier who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is respectfully referred to in the country as the "Desert General," and is considered to have the trust of the Americans. He both embodies and defends Romania's commitment to upgrading its military, which also includes an almost 4-billion-euro contract for the delivery of Patriot surface-to-air missile systems from the United States.

"Nihil obstat" (essentially: Nothing stands in our way) – it is a saying that the Romanian commander of Air Force Base 57 proudly displays. Located northwest of the port city of Constanța, this place in the former empire of communist despot Nicolae Ceaușescu is one of six bases to which NATO has access. The trans-Atlantic defensive alliance intends to flex its muscles here on the eastern flank to a greater degree than ever before.

A War against Western Ideals

Up to 10,000 U.S. troops are to be stationed at the site in the coming years, with many describing it as a Romanian counterpart to the vast U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. Thousands of Americans are already there, along with soldiers from France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Belgium. With planned investments of 2.8 billion euros, Romania is transforming the air force base into a hub of NATO strategy in the face of the growing Russian threat.

The appearance of two Russian fighter bombers not far from Romanian airspace, according to the commander in charge, has unsettled many in the alliance. Just how seriously the Americans are taking their presence in the Black Sea region was underlined in her own way by First Lady Jill Biden, who visited the base in Romania last May – and brought along almost 20 liters of ketchup for the troops.

Sandbags in front of the opera house in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa

Sandbags in front of the opera house in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa

Foto: Petros Giannakouris / AP

On the surface, Russia is waging war against Ukraine, but at its core, it is an attack on the Euro-Atlantic edifice of ideas. How thin, though, is the membrane between this Western world of values and the archaic slaughter on the battlefields of Ukraine?

Before it spills into the Black Sea, the Danube separates Romania from Ukraine. Packed buses and heavily loaded trucks cross the waterway, with customs officials on the Ukrainian side monitoring the border traffic.

Ukraine’s most important port, the oft-invoked pearl of the Black Sea, is Odessa, long a favorite of Russian rulers with its southern flair and multicultural history. The city was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, though the monument dedicated to her was torn down in November 2022.

Is that the new form of approaching history and ethnic relations on the former riviera of the czarist empire and the Soviet Union? "Where all breathes Europe to the senses / And sparkling Southern sun dispenses / A lively, varied atmosphere," Alexander Pushkin once wrote of Odessa. He is said to have had an affair with the governor’s wife almost 200 years ago after being banished from his native Moscow. Is it still permitted to read his verses? The works of the Russian national poet are still sold in the bookshops of Odessa, but they are shelved in the section for foreign literature.

Access to the Potemkin Stairs and to the port has been blocked since the outbreak of war. Hardly a ship’s horn can be heard, the strip clubs are largely empty of sailors, and signs hang in Taras Shevchenko Park warning of mines. And yet the old spirit lives on in Odessa, this Russian dreamland with its pastel-colored, classicist aristocratic palaces.

A Strategic UNESCO Listing

One morning last autumn, preparations were being made in the mayor’s office for the Odessa city center to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as quickly as possible – before a Russian missile destroys the stone splendor. That declaration then came in January, a milestone for the city. "What is currently taking place is an attack on this culture, which the Russians claim doesn’t even exist," complains an adviser to the mayor.

The UNESCO listing is important to the residents of Odessa – because it makes the world at least partly accountable for the fate of the city, its culture and its art.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, members of the symphonic orchestra and the choir of the Odessa Opera House gathered on the street to belt out Verdi’s aria "Va, pensiero" – ("O mia patria, sì bella e perduta" – Oh my homeland, so beautiful and lost!). And several months later, the stately 1883 Opera House designed by Viennese architects opens its doors for the premier of "Kateryna."

Festively clad guests crowd the red carpet, most of the women dressed in exuberant attire, with the men choosing either the vyshyvanka – the embroidered national costume – or suits. Or camouflage. Members of the military have been given free tickets in the second tier of the theater, trimmed in red satin and gold.

Resisting the Barbarity

Only 400 people are allowed in for the evening, the number dependent on the capacity of the theater's air-raid shelter. "If there are strikes at the port, the windows of the opera house rattle," says the conductor Igor Chernetski, who has been there for 22 years. During the break, cognac, sparkling wine and caviar is served. The almost 100-person ensemble plays for nearly two hours.

In Odessa on the Black Sea, art is seen as a weapon, as a form of resistance to the barbarity.

"Real art comes from the soul," says sculptor Mikhail Reva. Born in Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula, Reva is likely the most famous living artist from Odessa and an appropriate representative of the cosmopolitan city he has chosen to make his home: a descendant of Greeks, Crimean Tatars, Jews and Cossacks. His mother was Georgian.

Sculptor Mikhail Reva: "The Black Sea was my first university."

Sculptor Mikhail Reva: "The Black Sea was my first university."

Foto: Igor Ishchuk / DER SPIEGEL

Reva’s father served as the captain of a passenger ship, and Mikhail would accompany him on trips to Poti and Sukhumi in Georgia. "The Black Sea was my first university," says the artist, whose reliefs and sculptures grace the streets and squares of the port city of Odessa.

How might it be possible to live with the Russians – their Black Sea neighbors – after the war? "I think and feel Russian," says Reva. "But for me, that country ceased existing on February 24." The idea that he fashioned a gift for the Kremlin ruler in 2002 is one he'd prefer to forget: The compass that he created for Putin’s 50th birthday included a quote in which the philosopher Immanuel Kant described his two guiding principles: "The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

Putin, Reva says 20 years later, clearly didn’t understand the discrete message of those words. "We now know what is really inside him – he is a murderer."

Two or three hours through the coastal hinterlands east of Odessa brings one close to the front. This region, on the northern coast of the Black Sea, was pried from the grip of the Cossacks, Crimean Tatars and Ottomans, an area known as Novorossiya in czarist times. Putin revived the term in 2014, a fist indication that the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula had not sated his appetite.

In Mykolaiv, long lines of people can be seen waiting at a tanker to fill up canisters with drinking water. The city’s pipes have been bombed to bits. A few kilometers further along, where the Southern Bug meets the Dnieper before flowing into the sea, the pounding of exploding artillery shells testifies to the ongoing fighting near Kherson.

Mykola Levytskyi, a captain in the Ukrainian coast guard (right) with DER SPIEGEL journalist Walter Mayr in April 2021.

Mykola Levytskyi, a captain in the Ukrainian coast guard (right) with DER SPIEGEL journalist Walter Mayr in April 2021.

Foto: Oksana Parafeniuk / DER SPIEGEL

No-Man's-Land on the Black Sea

It is currently impossible to know how things look east of Kherson on the Sea of Azov and the Russian Black Sea coast. It was possible to travel there up until the outbreak of war. Putin's hermetically sealed residence in the resort town of Sochi, for example, hints at the isolation of Russia's long-time ruler – and at the tightness of his grip on power. Behind high walls, he receives state visitors and signs treaties there – including the pact of mutual assistance with Abkhazia, the renegade republic that is part of Georgia according to international law, but which is de facto independent.

From Sochi, it is just a one hour’s drive to the border crossing into Abkhazia, an exotic bit of no-man’s-land on the Black Sea coast. The current status quo in the republic is guaranteed by thousands of Russian troops, making it essentially a military protectorate under Moscow’s control. Home to numerous stunning beaches, it lies right at the intersection between the great powers' areas of influence in the Caucasus.

Georgian families and soldiers waiting to be evacuated at the airport in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi in October 1992.

Georgian families and soldiers waiting to be evacuated at the airport in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi in October 1992.

Foto: AP

Abkhazia was home to bloody fighting during the war of independence from 1992 to 1993, a conflict which saw the Russian-backed ethnic Abkhazians facing troops from post-Soviet Georgia. Each side is thought to have suffered around 4,000 dead, while some 200,000 people were displaced. Since then, the Abkhazia question is one of numerous powder kegs that Putin can detonate as needed.

Russia did recognize Abkhazia’s independence in 2008 following the five-day war against Georgia. But still today, nothing can be done in Abkhazia without the permission of the Russian secret service. Moscow has a particularly tight stranglehold on the border region with Georgia. Russian military vehicles, recognizable from their black license plates, patrol the eucalyptus-lined boulevard leading down to the Enguri River.

The sheer number of heavily guarded barracks in the hinterlands also provides a clear indication that the Russian troops aren’t planning on leaving any time soon. And Soviet nostalgia is on full display: In the office of the senior-most secret service agent in the border district of Gali hangs a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the bloodthirsty founder of the Bolshevik security agency Cheka.

Face-to-Face with Russian Troops

What is it like for the Georgians on the other side of the border to have Kremlin troops right up in their grill? North of Anaklia on the Black Sea coast, Russian soldiers and special forces from NATO-partner Georgia face each other across a border fence, separated by a mere 500 meters. "I can see the Russian warships with the naked eye," says the guy in the baseball cap who operates the last beach kiosk on the Georgian side of the border.

With its ports on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, Georgia could play a key role in various postwar scenarios – as a waystation between Europe, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, as a trading hub for goods and energy away from more traditional Russian routes, and as a forward NATO deployment area. A prerequisite for each of these scenarios, however, would be a secure spot for Georgia within Western alliances.

Protest in Tiflis against the Russian citizens who have fled to Georgia to avoid the draft back home.

Protest in Tiflis against the Russian citizens who have fled to Georgia to avoid the draft back home.

Foto: Nicolo Vincenzo / Malvestuto / IMAGO
The Port of Batumi on Georgia's Black Sea coast: a waystation between Europe, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea

The Port of Batumi on Georgia's Black Sea coast: a waystation between Europe, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea

Foto: Bruno Coelho / PantherMedia / IMAGO

That, though, doesn’t appear to be in the offing, at least not right now. Early last week, thousands of Georgian citizens protested before parliament in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi against a law that would follow Russia’s lead and brand government critics as "foreign agents." The draft law was withdrawn for the time being on Thursday.

"We are the Peter Pan of the Caucasus – basically we’ve never grown up, though doing so is urgently necessary," says Tedo Japaridze, a former Georgian foreign minister. He complains that his country, located strategically in the Caucasus, hasn’t been able to profit from "what we are, and mostly, where we are."

The government, says Japaridze, is steered by the pro-Moscow billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and lacks a clear direction on foreign policy. Sandwiched between the hegemonial powers of Russia and Turkey, toggling between ties with the East and the West, his country, says Japaridze, is walking a fine line. You can’t choose your neighbors, he says, but one thing is clear: "We want to live with Russia, not in Russia."

"Grandma Valia" at the barbed-wire fence near Khurvaleti, a Georgian village that is completely surrounded by Russian troops

"Grandma Valia" at the barbed-wire fence near Khurvaleti, a Georgian village that is completely surrounded by Russian troops

Foto: Dina Oganova / DER SPIEGEL

Behind the Barbed-Wire

Georgia, which is home to fewer than 4 million people, is a fragile construct. One-fifth of its territory is occupied by Russian troops. The South Ossetians have also declared independence from Tbilisi and allegiance to the Kremlin. On top of that is the recent mass influx of Russians fleeing the draft back home, with estimates that several hundred thousand Russians are now living in Georgia. There are no reliable statistics, but fears in the country are growing of the "Donbas Model" – suggesting that Putin, on the pretext that he must protect his own citizens abroad, could again send troops into Georgia just as he did in 2008.

"The Russians are the only people that send occupation forces and refugees into the selfsame country," says an angry Georgian in reference to the caravans of Russian vehicles traveling along the Black Sea coast. For the Georgians, a lot depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

Beyond Stalin's birthplace of Gori, the road continues past farmhouses to Khurvaleti, a divided village located in a restricted area directly on the demarcation line. More than any other place, it is symbolic of the everyday madness in central Georgia.

"Our territory," says Luda Salia, "is contracting. The Russians are advancing." The village spokeswoman then marches up to a barbed-wire fence, which the Russians – stationed on the South Ossetian side – keep covertly shifting to the south. Part of the strategically important oil pipeline leading from Baku in Azerbaijan to Supsa now runs through occupied territory.

Luda's uncle waves from behind the fence, just 10 meters away. He lives on the Russian-occupied side. If he wanted to give his niece a hug, he would have to travel 250 kilometers to the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz, board a plane from there to Tbilisi, and then travel back to the border. He prefers waving.

But it gets even more absurd. Valia Valishvili, known in the village as "Valya bebo" – Grandma Valia – lives not far from Khurvaleti, all by herself behind barbed-wire on South Ossetian territory. The nearest inhabited building is several kilometers away. Valishvili, 86, is wearing a pinafore with her blue headscarf – and she refuses to leave her property, no matter which direction. Russian sentries patrol in front of her home, periodically calling out to her that she should finally leave. She responds: "You should leave! This isn’t Russia."

Things like canisters full of water, crackers and toilet paper are reached to her over the fence, important supplies that the tough yet frail old woman must then carry 50 meters up to her house. The Russian soldiers refuse to help her.

In a situation report from last June, NATO wrote that Russia is seeking to expand its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region "through coercion, subversion, aggression and annexation." The Georgians know what that means. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already mentioned the possibility of annexing Georgia.

Mere saber rattling? Or an omen of future conflicts on the Black Sea?

The entrance to the Bosporus at Rumelifeneri

The entrance to the Bosporus at Rumelifeneri

Foto: Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

The Eye of the Needle

If you cross the border into Turkey not far from the Georgian village of Sarpi, you end up in a completely different world after just a few steps. The once unpassable southern border of the Soviet Union demarcates a language and cultural divide, but also a prosperity differential. Georgians can be seen carrying tea kettles, T-shirts and medicines to the north.

Once customs formalities are completed, you enter NATO territory. Turkey is considered a bastion of the alliance. Since the beginning of the war, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been acting as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine, and he also controls the entrance to the Black Sea. Without permission from Ankara, no warship can pass the Bosporus, and no freighter loaded with Ukrainian grain can reach Africa.

The Bosporus Strait, just 700 meters wide at its narrowest point, is the eye of the needle through which the fleets belonging to Black Sea nations must pass. Just before the outbreak of war, 16 ships belonging to the Russian navy passed through the strait heading north.

The Bosporus also works like a membrane. In times of war, it is a boundary, but in peace times, it is permeable. The decision lies with the Turks.

"Of course, we want to keep track of everything that is going in and coming out," says Serkan Gerçek, the Mukhtar – municipal head – of Rumelifeneri, located at the northern mouth of the Bosporus, which was part of a military exclusion zone until 1985. From his office chair beneath a portrait of Atatürk, Gerçek looks out over the spot where the Bosporus meets the Black Sea. He has a real-time view of the shipping lanes heading into the theater of war, and also keeps tabs on the Marine Traffic app.

"The war is far away, geographically at least," says Gerçek. "Psychologically, though, it upsets us, because we have bread on the table and some over there in Ukraine do not."

Violence, flight and displacement – they are recurring issues in the Black Sea region. The town of Rumelifeneri was once settled by Pontic Greeks. Today, a mosque stands on the foundations of the old Greek church. Those who have settled the town come from the area around the Black Sea city of Rize – like the ancestors of the president.

Erdoğan, who has dominated his country's political stage for the last two decades, has positioned himself as a mediator in the face of Russia's aggression against Ukraine. On the one hand, he allows combat drones built by his own son-in-law to be delivered to Ukraine and demands the return of all areas occupied by the Russians. On the other, though, he continues to be in constant contact with Putin and ensures that Russia has access to badly needed supplies in exchange for cheap natural gas deliveries to Turkey.

Erdoğan doesn't support the sanctions that have been levied against Russia, putting up with being referred to as "Putin’s dealer" as a consequence. Capital flowing out of Russia is gratefully absorbed by Turkey. In return, Turkish and – by way of the Turkish detour – European companies find themselves operating in a sanctions-induced vacuum. From Anatolian ports, they deliver wares via ferry across the Black Sea – 8,200 of them per month last spring, one every five minutes. Supplies also make their way into Russia overland through the Caucasus.

Geopolitical pressure is mounting on the government in Ankara. "The remilitarization of the Black Sea region is counter to Turkish interests," says Professor Mustafa Aydın, of Kadir Has University in Istanbul, his office looking out over the Golden Horn. "The massive build-up, especially on the western flank with NATO bases from Poland to Romania and into Greece, but not in Turkey, is generating significant amounts of mistrust among us."

Back to the Cold War

Erdoğan’s overall positive role in the Ukraine conflict, says the political scientists, contrasts with the "negative Western view of his other policies. They praise him little because they are afraid he might immediately demand something in return." Turkey is reeling under an inflation rate of over 50 percent, a consequence of the low interest rates decreed by the president. Almost a third of the Turkey's population now lives below the country's poverty line.

Erdoğan's re-election in May is considered anything but a slam dunk. Even in the area where the president was born, the impoverished Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa, people are increasingly souring on their leader. Whether it’s the walnut vendor on the corner or the childhood friend in the shade of the Sinan Paşa Mosque, pretty much everybody is complaining about both the runaway inflation and the president’s hubris.

Might there be a change in power on the eve of the Republic's 100th birthday? It would be yet another major shift since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. "February 24, 2022, marks the end of the dream of peaceful cooperation on the Black Sea," says Professor Aydın. "Now, we really are seeing a return of the Cold War." Russia, he notes, may not be as strong as many had thought, but it is still strong enough to start conflicts.

A Ukrainian freighter full of grain for Africa sailing past Istanbul

A Ukrainian freighter full of grain for Africa sailing past Istanbul

Foto: Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL
A joint committee including representatives from the UN, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey boards a freighter carrying grain from Ukraine.

A joint committee including representatives from the UN, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey boards a freighter carrying grain from Ukraine.

Foto: Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

The closest representatives of the two warring parties come to each other these days is in the waters off of Istanbul – either in the Black Sea or in the Sea of Marmara. Those encounters take place on board the ships carrying controllers from the Joint Coordination Center as they head out to inspect freighters full of Ukrainian grain. For the sake of convenience, Russian is spoken.

The Kremlin emissaries on this morning are dressed in sleek overalls and aviator sunglasses. Each movement betrays their sense of superiority. Two Ukrainian inspectors are huddled together by the railing a couple of steps away. "We try to stay away from the Russians as much as we can," says one.

Representatives from Turkey and the United Nations are also on board, all there to ensure that corn and wheat can pass through the Bosporus, but weapons cannot. On this morning, on board the Ukrainian freighter Kafkametler, which began its journey from Chornomorsk, there is no cause for concern. The ship, with its 2,413 tons of cargo, is allowed to pass, its freight invoice is validated.

Russians and Ukrainians, representatives from two countries at war, on a joint mission. To see them sitting there close together in the cabin of the Turkish captain is almost comforting. A small ray of light in these dark times.

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