Navigating Geopolitical Currents: Evolving Policies in the Black Sea Region Amidst the Russo-Ukrainian War

By Marharyta Hlybchenko

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Key Takeaways

  • Deterioration of security in the region: Russian full-scale invasion, attacks on Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure, and an increase in NATO’s military mobility affected the security in the region.
  • Bulgarian political crisis: Bulgaria is one of the most influenced countries by Russia in the EU. The full-scale invasion became one of the reasons for the country’s 2022-2023 political crisis. Only 34% of Bulgarians perceive Russia as a threat.
  • Türkiye’s mediation game: Türkiye, which is in a prolonged economic crisis now, prioritizes its economic stability and growth. Türkiye simultaneously provides weapons to Ukraine and continues unrestricted trade with Russia. It uses its unique geographical position between NATO and Asia and control of the Black Sea straits in balancing between West and Russia.
  • Romania on the Western side: Russian influence on Romania has been among the lowest in the region. The energy crisis in Europe increases the relevance of the idea of an energy hub in Romania. The public confidence in NATO partnership is steadily growing.

Located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, the Black Sea region is one of the most promising trade zones. The littoral states include Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Türkiye, Georgia, and the Russian Federation.

The region is quite fragmented due to historical tensions over territories and cultural distinctions. The fact of being divided between two hostile blocks during the Cold War left a trace on countries’ political orientation, and even today the competing interests of NATO and Russia influence each country’s identity to varying degrees.

Because the region lacks cohesion, littoral states face these and many other challenges separately, in their own way. Therefore, when the full-scale invasion began, the political elites found themselves at a crossroads, urged to clarify their positions on a range of issues. And among them, the relationship with Russia and its presence in the region gained the main focus. In this article, we analyze how the domestic policies of Türkiye, Bulgaria, and Romania have changed and what are the prospects of their foreign policies regarding recent developments.

Regional Dynamics and Security in the Black Sea Region

Region’s economic ties can be characterized by the prevalence of bilateral treaties as they provide more space for agreement in terms of differences in economic and political models. This approach weakens effective interaction within initiatives, which encompasses the whole region (mainly Black Sea Economic Cooperation – BSEC).  Besides, the EU membership of several regional countries increases market competition.  

However, despite seeming reluctance to deepen regional ties, the shared sea binds all countries, underscoring their dependence on the Black Sea security. Needless to say, a full-scale invasion launched by Russia marked the deterioration of regional safety. Attacks on Ukraine affected freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, strained the capacity of grain export, and made it possible to see explosions and missile work near the NATO borders. In particular, a recent series of Russian drone attacks on Ukrainian grain elevators and ports is taking place dangerously close to Romania. Furthermore, the act of blowing up the Kakhovka Dam by Russian forces in southern Ukraine raised concerns about the potential disregard for environmental consequences in the pursuit of military objectives in the affected region.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the war on the region. The reduction in the number of available Ukrainian ports and the ban on access to EU ports for Russian vessels led to the decline of the maritime industry. In contrast, the importance of other regional states grew amid the success of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the EU’s diversification of energy imports, emphasizing the vitality of the Black Sea as a transit corridor. The desire to devise new trade routes bypassing Russia has given impetus to the trend of increasing trade flows between Europe and Asia. Moreover, the increase in NATO’s military mobility in the Black Sea contributes to the militarization of the region and tensions between the states (e.g., Russia’s damage to the American MQ-9 Reaper drone). Despite the fact that all the states of the region are under the influence of the consequences of the war, the internal politics of each country demonstrates a unique reaction to large-scale geopolitical changes due to its background of interaction with Russia.

From East to West: Tracing Bulgaria’s Political Journey Amidst Russian Influence

Bulgaria is one of the EU countries most influenced by Russia. A number of reasons caused such a tough situation. Bulgaria relied deeply on gas and oil imports from Russia (in 2022, 77% of the imported gas was Russian). This fact, like in many cases of other countries, determined Russia’s successful political penetration in Sofia. Bulgaria is one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, and Russia’s influence can be spotted in the judicial and other branches of government. Besides, the historical attachment of Bulgaria to Russia is one of the strongest within the former Eastern Bloc. During the Cold War, Bulgaria was one of the most trusted allies of the Soviet Union.
The war in Ukraine has actualized the issue of excessive Russian influence and contributed to the deterioration of domestic political stability, climaxing in the political crisis of 2022-2023. The aggravating volatility, resulting from the failure to form a government, was fueled, among other matters, by conflicting views on the extent of support to be provided for Ukraine and views on how to deal with Russia. The gravity of the situation was emphasized by the fact that Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic. Finally, after the fifth attempt, the two leading parties in elections GERB-SDS and We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria reached an agreement, though instead of a coalition the rotation of governments was established.

Borys Boyko, leader of the political party GERB

If the government had not been formed again, the likelihood of Russia-friendly forces joining the ruling coalition would have increased. The entry of such parties would mean the complication of arms export to Ukraine. There have already been precedents of pro-Russian parties obstructing the decision-making beneficial for Ukraine. In particular, the decision of Bulgaria to send military aid to Ukraine secretly, not openly, was also provoked by the presence of pro-Russian forces in the coalition.

As a result of the last election, European-oriented forces have assumed power. However, the last turbulent year of political struggle didn’t pass without a trace for voters. The inability of GERB-SDS and We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (whose programs are similar and both pro-western) to form a government due to interparty squabbles has already led to certain disappointment in the people. Political uncertainty obstructed the decision-making process necessary to mitigate the domestic economic crisis. Amid the inability of pro-western parties to cooperate, the ratings of the openly pro-Putin party “Renaissance” grew. The crisis even reached the point when the “Renaissance” rose to third place during the last election poll (compared to a 2% rating in the 2021 general election).

Against this background, public opinion towards Ukraine and the West has deteriorated. Almost half of the respondents (49%) in 2023 stated that sanctions against Russia are ineffective, while only 44% put the blame on Russia for waging the war (compared to 50% in 2022). The support for NATO membership has always been low when compared to other Central and Eastern Europe. Today, polls show that only 34% of Bulgarians perceive Russia as a threat.

It’s important to note that the latest political crisis in Bulgaria is far from being exclusively a confrontation between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces. One of the characteristic features of Bulgarian politics after the end of the Cold War became “fluctuation” between the West and Russia. Borys Boyko, three times Prime Minister of Bulgaria, was following the politics of compromising between pro-EU and pro-Russian attitudes. Some time should pass to see whether the new government will also stick to such a policy, considering the results of the latest surveys.

Kirill Petkov and Asen Vaskov, leaders of the political party
We Continue the Change

Nevertheless, the victory of pro-European parties is a breakthrough and is paying off. By now, recent political changes in Bulgaria had a positive effect on aiding Ukraine. In fact, Sofia’s recent decision to send arms directly to Ukraine is the first official case of arms export since 2022. Therefore, the prospects of new government decisions are promising for Kyiv.

To sum up, the newly found modus vivendi decreases the impact of pro-Russian parties in the government, though it does not mean its leveling.

Türkiye’s Delicate Balancing Act: A Mediation Game for the Sake of National Interests

The position of Türkiye on the Russo-Ukrainian war remains twofold: while continuing unrestricted trade with Russia, Türkiye provides Ukraine with important arms. Since the beginning of the invasion, President Erdoğan has stated multiple times about a positive relationship between Türkiye and Russia and that he does not intend to take sides in this conflict. The declared attitude of “satisfying the needs of all parties involved” is caused by the peculiarities of the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

The war in Ukraine coincided with the prolonged economic crisis in Türkiye. Against the background of the economic crisis, the Turkish authorities try to find the most beneficial way to maintain the level of support among the people. According to a survey conducted on the eve of the presidential elections, Turkish people are more concerned over economic turmoil than war in Ukraine. Therefore, the leaders of Türkiye deem it desirable to prioritize economic stability and growth. Apparently, cutting off economic ties with Russia (the biggest importer for Ankara) while being dependent on imported Russian oil and gas is not the way to improve the domestic situation. Besides, Türkiye fully understands its unique position between NATO and Asia, its distance from the Arab world, and the value of controlling the main straits of the Black Sea, as it provides the possibility for Ankara to follow its own path in-between. Undoubtedly, such an approach toward foreign policy influences public opinion in Türkiye. Erdoğan’s previous hostile rhetoric towards the West led to the increase of sentiments towards Russia among common people. In a 2023 poll concerning the attitude towards Russia, 14% said that Russia is ally while the biggest share of Turkish people (55%) viewed Moscow as a necessary partner. On top of that, although the perception of the United States as a threat was gradually decreasing (42% in 2022 compared to 64% in 2019), more people were hostile to the US than to Russia in 2022 (42% against 30,5%).

Having fewer disputes with Moscow and occasionally dissenting with the West, Ankara seems to be a perfect match to fulfill the role of broker in what Russia calls “West-Russia confrontation”. However, to safeguard its balancing position, Türkiye should prove its appropriateness to perform awaited tasks. Such an approach to foreign policy requires tangible results of mediation efforts. Hence, Turkiye’s notable achievements in mediation, exemplified by the successful organization of the Grain Deal Initiative and a fruitful exchange of prisoners of war, stand as vital pillars of its foreign policy strategy. Erdoğan’s “special relationship” with Putin is another essential aspect of the strategy, as it enables the use of geopolitical advantages for Türkiye. Thus, Erdoğan’s “special relationship” with Putin is essential for the state’s foreign policy, enabling the use of its geopolitical advantages. That’s why when Russia declared its exit from the Grain Deal, it dealt the blow to Ankara.

As for the prospects, Türkiye is likely to continue its ambiguous politics, especially since the West is not pressing that hard on its officials regarding the imposition of sanctions. One of the most possible reasons why its politics might change is the tightening of the West’s position.

Unhealed Wounds: Romania’s Stalwart Support for Ukraine’s Integrity

Despite disputes over Ukrainian-Romanian state borders, the climax of which fell on the first decade of the 21st century, Romania supported Ukraine’s integrity and officially refused Russian suggestion to divide Ukraine. Relations between Moscow and Bucharest are darkened by the loss of the Bessarabia region during the World War II and its attachment to the Soviet Union. The issue has not been resolved with Moldova’s declaration of independence. In fact, the fight for influence continued with only one exception: Russia uses forces to impose its order in Moldova. Although occasionally the unification of Moldova and Romania emerges as an idea in Romanian political rhetoric, no action has been taken to set it in motion.

Not only is this due to Romania’s compliance with the appropriate behavior associated with membership in the EU, but also because such a union may lead to a new conflict with Russia. After Transnistria, supported by Russians, made a formal declaration of sovereignty from Moldova, the potential of this frozen conflict hangs over Romania like a sword of Damocles. Fragmented multinational Moldova can be easy prey for Russians to extend its influence even further, bringing instability to the region.

Russia’s influence in Romania has been among the lowest in the region. Moscow lacks typical instruments to impose its order: Russian ethnic minorities are not numerous, and corruption and related pro-Russian political parties are not dominant issues of the domestic agenda. What’s more important, Romania is one of the most independent states in terms of gas import. The energy crisis in Europe encouraged the increase of exploration of energy resources in the EU countries, and the idea of Romania becoming an energy hub is gaining relevance. After all, it is Romania that exports gas to Moldova to decrease Chișinău’s overreliance on Russia’s resources.

Romania sees NATO as the best guarantor of its integrity. Recent polls show that public confidence in NATO partnership is steadily growing (89% in 2023).

Since the 1990s, having chosen the course for rapprochement with NATO, Romania has been following the lead to democracy and transatlantic unity. Russia’s invasion only caused further deepening of these relations. On the occasion of 25 years of strategic partnership between Romania and the US, diplomats of both sides appreciated its effects as highly beneficial. Bucharest’s recent joining G7 joint declaration of support for Ukraine is a direct consequence of this trend.  Hence, Romania’s support for Ukraine will continue to be one of the strongest.


By waging war, Russia attracted the attention of the world to the region, the extent of which was previously unimaginable. Before the war, the region was not viewed as strategic, even for NATO. Hostilities against Ukraine led to NATO adopting a course for strengthening military presence in the region – something Russia claimed to be opposed to before waging the war.

Changes in the attitude towards Russia and its own security matters have been occurring in all countries of the region. In most cases, Russian influence gradually decreases, though surveys show that the threat is far from being fully eliminated.

With the ultimate election results, Bulgaria’s new government seems to be ready to continue fighting against corruption while paying enough attention to the opposition. Türkiye’s balanced politics is part of its way of using geopolitical features and therefore is less likely to change considerably. Among the analyzed countries, Romania is the most hostile towards Russia. Russia’s attempts to obtain larger control over Chișinău pose a threat to Bucharest. But the more Russia tries to change the balance of power in the region, the more Romania is getting closer to NATO.

The war in Ukraine pushed littoral states to revise their attitude towards foreign policy and domestic matters. The Black Sea continues to open opportunities for regional states, whether it be Grain Initiative route or Gas Fields. In times of turmoil, states have become more adaptive, but they are still not fully ready for a radical change. Therefore, the war has not led to a grand geopolitical shift in regional politics: the conflict stimulated a deepening of the chosen policies as a first reaction, the results of which we have yet to see.

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