[by Gabby Ongies]
The Black Sea is roughly 168,500 square miles (436,400 square kilometers), and is nestled between southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. It is an inland sea bordered by six countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Turkey. Because it is connected to the Aegean Sea, and, through the Bosporus Straits, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles, to the Mediterranean, (U Delaware) access to the Black Sea means access to Western Europe and its sea trading routes and also provides a strategic naval position. The Black Sea is also fed by the Danube, Dniester, Dnieper, Southern Bug and Ingul rivers, as well as many smaller rivers and streams, and these waterways also provide access to mainland Europe (Jaoshlivi 13-14). It is this access to not only Europe, but essentially the Atlantic Ocean, that makes control and access of the Black Sea important to Russia.
Catherine the Great gained control over the entire northern coastal region of the Black Sea in the Treaty of Niš that ended Russia’s second war with the Ottoman Empire (King 161). In addition to gaining lands in the area, Russia gained free passage for her commercial ships to and from the Mediterranean, which greatly expanded Russia’s ability to trade via sea routes. Such access to sea trading routes enabled Russia to trade more efficiently than it had before, since Russia no longer had to rely upon transporting goods through the mountains and into Europe (King 163). Among the cities that arose along the newly acquired coast was Odessa, which became an important asset to Russia.
Odessa became a major trading port, as well as a cultural center and administrative hub, for Russia, and there was a strong presence of Austrian and British merchant vessels in the port, allowing for extensive trade between Russia and the two empires. Odessa also enabled Russia to ship wheat to major ports such as Livorno, Genoa, and Marseilles, and after the British corn laws, i.e. tariffs on foreign grains, were repealed, Russia’s wheat export increased dramatically. As sea trade between Russia and the rest of Europe increased, Russia exported more and more goods through the Black Sea – by 1853, over one third of all Russian exports made their way through the Black Sea. Trade connected Russia with the rest of Europe on a larger scale, expanded Russia’s economic might, and added to Russia’s political power (King 167).
Establishing trade routes via the Black Sea was not the only motivation for attaining lands on the sea’s edge; having a strategic military position was also a major priority. Sevastopol, located on the southwest coast of the Crimean peninsula, became a naval arsenal for Russia. Geographically, it is a prime choice, with a narrow, easily defendable entrance to the harbor and the facility for ships to anchor close to shore without running aground. With extra fortifications, such as gun emplacements, Sevastopol became incredibly important to Russia’s military might in the south.
The Black Sea remains an important center of trade for Russia in the modern age. Oil tankers travel out of the port of Novorossiysk to the Mediterranean and Asia, and the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline that connects the Russian system to Turkey runs under the Black Sea for 246 miles (Gelb). Russia’s oil and natural gas exports are a major section of the economy; Russia’s GDP rose from around $200 billion in 1999 to $1.7 trillion in 2007. However, this focus on oil and natural gas is also dangerous for the economy because Russia depends on high crude oil and natural gas prices to run its economy, and when the markets drop, the economy suffers. But, since Russia is also the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union, it effectively gives Russia a substantial bargaining tool in foreign affairs with Europe (Paillard 65-84).
Russia also continues to maintain a Black Sea Naval Fleet, and to use Sevastopol, although it is now located in Ukraine. In 2010, Russia announced plans to build another base in Abkhazia, in part to decrease the fleet’s vulnerability, as well as to protect Abkhazia from Georgian aggression (Pravda). The Black Sea still serves as a key military location because it provides Russia with easy access to the countries that border the Black Sea, and the fleet helps Russia maintain this access. Although it is no longer at the scale it was during the Cold War, the fleet continues to uphold Russian presence in the Black Sea Region. However, with plans to modernize the fleet, Russia’s power and presence in the Black Sea region could grow within the next decade.
- Bernard A. Gelb, Congressional Research Service, “Russian Oil and Gas Challenges.” Last modified January 03, 2006. Accessed February 15, 2012. http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/58988.pdf
- Shalva Jaoshlivi, European Environmental Agency, “The Rivers of the Black Sea.” Last modified 2002. Accessed February 15, 2012. 13-14 http://library.coastweb.info/764/1/black_sea.pdf
- Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 161, 163, 164, 167.
- Christope-Alexandre Paillard. “Rethinking Russia: Russia and Europe’s Mutual Energy Dependence.” Journal of International Affairs. 63. No. 02 (Spring/Summer 2012) 65-84.http://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/russia-and-europe’s-mutual-energy-dependence (accessedFebruary 15, 2012).
- “Russia Expands Military Presence on the Black Sea.” Pravda, February 18, 2010. http://english.pravda.ru/russia/politics/18-02-2010/112281-russia_black_sea-0/ (accessed February 15, 2012).
- University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, “A Black Sea Journey: Geography.” Last modified 2003. Accessed February 15, 2012. http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/blacksea/geography/index.html.