Nikolas Gvosdev suggests we should pay more attention to the Black Sea in this article in War on the Rocks. According to him, Russia has managed to draw everybody’s attention to the Baltic area while quietly building up in the Black Sea:
Over the past several years, the Kremlin has mastered the Baltic feint: By engaging in aerial and maritime provocations in a region highly monitored by the West, Russia is able to entrench its position in the Black Sea without notice. While most U.S. strategists worry about the Suwalki Gap on the Polish-Lithuanian border as a potential Russian invasion route into Central Europe, it is Russia’s buildup in the Black Sea that should concern policymakers. By using the Black Sea as a springboard, Russia can project power beyond its immediate surroundings — into the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean — and strengthen its reemergence as a great power.
I’d say that if you are a superpower, you should have the multi-tasking capacity to pay attention in both the Baltic and the Black Sea regions. But Gvosdev’s point is worthy of consideration.
Russia currently accepts the Baltic region as a more or less settled issue. They don’t expect a war in the North, and I see no indications that they are preparing an annexation of the Baltic countries. They make a lot of noise, and the rhetoric is definitely more heated than just five years ago. But essentially they seem satisfied with the status quo as far as borders are concerned. That does not mean that NATO can relax. It just means that for the time being the deterrence is working.
The Black Sea is different. Russia is involved in two ongoing wars and several more or less frozen conflicts in the region. The South is the achilles heel of both NATO and the EU where internal tensions threaten the cohesion of the Western organizations. The fertile ground for Russian destabilizing information operations is not in the Baltic countries but in the Balkans.
So geopolitically the Black Sea region is a much more contested space than the Baltic region. It makes sense for Russia to prioritize its military units in that area. It shows where Russia expects to be involved in the next armed conflicts – the Black Sea area and around the Mediterranean. And of course it is a signal to the West not to get any ideas about a military solution to the disagreement over Crimea.
But things can change quickly, and military forces are mobile. Let’s not get complacent about the Baltic region. If NATO breaks down, we will see a much more assertive Russian military posture very quickly.