As NATO moves closer to its summit in Warsaw, the Black Sea is becoming the focus of attention. This should not come as a surprise given the politics of the neighbourhood.
The takeover of Crimea in March 2014 has nearly turned the Black Sea into a Russian lake. With the port of Sevastopol under its control, Moscow has a geographic advantage vis-a-vis all other littoral countries, including NATO members Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria. Its warships are a frequent sight as far south as Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Russia has been upgrading its capabilities, too. Its Black Sea fleet is to add 15-18 new ships, including six multi-purpose frigates. Crimea already hosts stockpiles of S-400 surface-to-air missiles with a range of up to 400km and Bastion anti-ship coastal battery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has authorised the deployment of Iskander ballistic missiles and TU-22M bombers (known as "Backfire"), which can deliver both conventional and nuclear strikes.
NATO planners, including US General Philip Breedlove, are fretting about Russia's ability to seal off the Black Sea - or achieve anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), to use defence jargon.
Patrolling the sea
NATO has not stood by idly. Starting from the spring of 2014, warships from the US and other allied nations patrol the sea on a rotational basis.
READ MORE: Russia's emerging naval presence in the Mediterranean
The annual Sea Breeze exercise involves Ukraine and Georgia, in addition to the Turkish, Bulgarian and Romanian navies. Yet the question the Warsaw Summit will address is whether NATO should establish a more permanent presence - and tip the power balance - in the region.
|Bulgarian and NATO navy ships take part in a Bulgarian-NATO military navy exercise in the Black sea, east of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia [Getty]
Anchoring the Alliance in the Black Sea is not a new idea. Romania has been pushing for it ever since it joined in 2004.
In January, Defence Minister Mihnea Motoc launched an initiative for a NATO task force. Bucharest is trying to convince sceptics, eg, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently warned against Western "sabre rattling".
Russia's bellicose rhetoric might strengthen Romania's case. Yevgeny Lukyanov, Deputy Head of the Russian Security Council, declared that Romania is a nuclear target for hosting NATO's Aegis Ashore ballistic missile system.
Romania has found an unlikely ally in Turkey. Previously, Ankara opposed the NATO-isation of Black Sea security eager to avoid confrontation with the Russians. That changed in mid-2015, even before Russian-Turkish relations went sour after the downed jet at the Syrian border.
Crimea effectively killed the vision of Black Sea as a Russian-Turkish condominium that Ankara policymakers entertained...
Crimea effectively killed the vision of the Black Sea as a Russian-Turkish condominium that Ankara policymakers entertained. Turkey welcomed NATO vessels, even if Russia upped the ante - for instance with jets buzzing a US destroyer.
Though the 1936 Montreux Convention limits the tonnage and the duration of stay of foreign warships, the Turkish government has all the incentives to police rules less stringently than it has the past. Turkey's changed posture is also visible in reinvigorated defence cooperation with Ukraine.
Missing part of the puzzle
Bulgaria is the missing part of the puzzle. On the one hand, it maintains close security ties with the US, hosting four joint facilities (airfields, logistics centres) since 2006.
In a recent speech at the European Parliament, outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev advocated a muscular approach to Russia.
READ MORE: Why the West must embrace Turkey, not push it away
Yet Prime Minister Boyko Borisov recently declared Bulgaria is staying out from the NATO force to prevent war with Russia.
His caution is conditioned by the forthcoming presidential elections in October, which could see the pro-Russia centre-left making headway. Borisov is hopeful he could re-start energy cooperation with Russia once the sanctions are relaxed.
Bulgaria's rebuff prompted a scandal in Bucharest, as it coincided with President Klaus Iohannis' visit to Sofia. Iohannis drew criticism for making the trip before securing Borisov's agreement. Yet Bulgarian opposition is not unqualified.
Sofia has pledged 400 ground troops to the land brigade hosted by Romania and vows to expand maritime security cooperation with Bucharest, especially in combating illegal migration and terrorism.
Bulgaria likely to bandwagon
Bulgaria is likely to quietly bandwagon should the rest of NATO endorse the Black Sea task force in Warsaw. It will be Plevneliev and the ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Nikolay Nenchev and Daniel Mitov, taking the responsibility.
Whatever decision the Warsaw Summit produces, the militarisation of Black Sea politics is a fact. At the same time, the Alliance may well switch from "hard" to "soft balancing", combining containment and dialogue.
Hit by economic recession and bogged down in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is gradually toning down its anti-Western rhetoric. Putin hopes to mellow the Western sanctions, cutting a deal on Syria and Ukraine. Things are moving on the Russian-Turkish front, too.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reaching out to the Kremlin, hoping to re-start economic ties. The looming detente is well timed. Allies have less ground to fear that they will be dragged into an unwanted confrontation with Russia by the Turks. That, in turn, bodes well for the plan to strengthen NATO's role in that Black Sea.
Dimitar Bechev is a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at Al Sharq Forum.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera