A military drone may not be the only thing the United States lacks in the Black Sea.

The dramatic encounter with Russian warplanes this week drew the world’s attention to the body of water that has been at the heart of the war in Ukraine.

But it also raised a key security question for Washington and its allies: Is there a clear strategy for a critical waterway that has long been central to the rivalry between Moscow and the West and could now become a major flashpoint?

Lawmakers and former military officials said the response is of particular concern as a deal to allow critical grain supplies to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports hangs in the balance and Russia’s fleet uses the area as a launching pad. for attacks against Ukrainian cities.

depths of conflict

Described by some as «a potential powder keg,» the Black Sea is slightly larger than California and has six countries on its shores: NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Georgia and Ukraine, which are considered partners in USA but not part. of the alliance

And then there is Russia.

At one point, the US helped the allies equalize their presence in the Black Sea and conducted exercises there, but the Biden administration withdrew US ships from the area as it appeared the Russians were preparing to invade Ukraine. Turkey is now preventing warships from entering the sea through the Bosphorus Strait, which it controls and can close in times of war.

That means the United States has no means of recovering the drone, which the United States said it shot down in the Black Sea on Tuesday after a Russian warplane collided with it.

“It signals the lack of a comprehensive approach to a region that is important not only to our allies and the countries that border the Black Sea, but also important to the security of the United States,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, DN. .H., told NBC News about the diminishing US military role in the area.

The United States does not have a ship in the area to recover the wreckage, and the only NATO ally that borders the Black Sea and has a robust enough navy to potentially approach the crash site is Turkey, which has tried to maintain a relatively friendly relationship with Moscow in its war with Ukraine.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that there probably wasn’t much debris to recover anyway. The drone had limped into an area where depths reach 5,000 feet, and the US military had made sure its databanks were wiped, he said.

Russia has blamed the United States for the confrontation, denying that its plane came into contact with the drone and accusing Washington of provocation by conducting surveillance near Russian airspace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made expanding Moscow’s presence a priority, annexing the Crimean Peninsula, the historic home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the basis of the Kremlin’s ability to project its power in the entire region, and has long meddled in neighboring countries such as Georgia.

Shaheen, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, and others said this week’s drone incident highlighted that the US needs to outline a plan for its Black Sea defense approach.

The drone encounter prompted Shaheen, who visited a NATO airbase in Romania last month, to resubmit a bill with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, that would require the Biden administration to come up with an interagency strategy. within 180 days to deepen the US economy and military ties with countries in the region.

“There has been a lot of bipartisan interest because, between the war in the Ukraine, this incident with the drones, what is happening with the shipping lanes, it is very clear how important the region is,” Shaheen said. “And most of the countries that border the Black Sea are our allies, and now it is important for us to show how we support our allies.”

The State Department and the National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.

A weak point in the water?

Former national security officials who have operated in the region said the level of US and NATO investment in the Black Sea does not match its strategic importance. They said that despite the NATO rhetoric, Western activity in the region began to slow after Moscow seized Crimea.

Glen Grant, a former British officer who has worked as a military trainer and consultant for Ukraine and Bulgaria, said the Black Sea is a particularly weak spot for NATO’s eastern flank.

“There is no NATO on that side due to the weakness of Bulgaria and Romania and the intransigence of Turkey,” he said. «That’s why you don’t have a NATO presence in the Black Sea.»

A NATO official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, stressed that the Black Sea region is of «strategic importance» to the alliance, noting that its members had strengthened NATO’s presence in response to the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin in 2014 and on a large scale. invasion of Ukraine last year.

The official said NATO has led larger air surveillance missions out of Romania and Bulgaria, placed more air defense and anti-missile systems in Romania and Turkey, and stationed new battle groups in the region.

Steven Horrell, a former US naval intelligence officer who studies the region for the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank, said Turkey, which serves as NATO’s southern bulwark and has one of the most powerful armies in the alliance, «has to be central» to any strategy regarding the Black Sea.

The United States must find a way to make it a more reliable partner, as Washington also develops closer ties with countries like Romania and Bulgaria, he said.

There seemed to be some movement towards more cooperation, at least, when the presidents of Romania and Bulgaria met in Sofia and signed a pact to boost ties on Wednesday.

“We have to trust the three NATO allies [Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey] and the Black Sea states to lead,” Horrell said. “It has been a challenge for all three to come together in one voice in the same way that, for example, the Baltic States have done.”

The foreign ministries of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey did not respond to requests for comment.