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A nation must think before it acts.
“You are absent from the Black Sea. The Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake. We have a duty as countries that border the Black Sea. If we don’t take action, history will not forgive us.”
— President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (10 May 2016)
“The hands of the clock cannot be set back so far now as to permit the Turk to regain his lost possessions.”
— The New York Times, 22 July 1913.
Międzymorze is an interwar geopolitical vision conceptualized by the Polish leader Józef Piłsudski (and later adopted by Wladyslaw Sikorski). It is commonly rendered into Latin as Intermarium or “between the seas.” The “seas” in Piłsudski’s formulation are the endpoints of a figurative triangle, which he labeled “ABC” for Adriatyk-Bałtyk-Morze Czarne or “Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea”. Fast forward to today, twelve Central and Eastern European countries that belong to the European Union (and except Austria, to NATO) in September 2015 formed the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea (ABB) Initiative to strengthen political and economic cooperation.
The NATO member-states of the Balkan Peninsula comprise the ABC triangle’s oft-ignored base, a nonetheless important part of the sub-NATO intermarium. Janko Bekić and Marina Funduk of the Zagreb-based Institute for Development and International Relations wrote in February 2016, “Should it gain momentum, one of the most pressing issues of the [ABB’s] political leaders involved will be to assure their constituencies, as well as outside observers, that, unlike its predecessor, the Intermarium of the 21st century is not directed at anyone...”
Good luck with that. Consider this terse commentary on the pro-Kremlin website Russia Insider:
“This Intermarium allows NATO to form three separate fronts against Russian interests, targeting it from the Arctic/Baltic, Eastern Europe, and the Black Sea. As an incidental strategic touch, however, it is the Black Sea Bloc, the weakest and least integrated of the three, that could ultimately destabilize Russian interests the most. This is because it threatens two important Russian-affiliated outposts, Transnistria and the security of Balkan Stream’s central peninsula corridor through Macedonia.”
Dominated by different hegemonic powers throughout history, the Black Sea basin has been called the backyard of the Ottoman Empire, as an extension of the Soviet zone of influence, as the frontier of Europe, and as an extension of the Mediterranean world. Today it is the locus of three power blocs—Russia, the European Union, and NATO—and potential fourth as an increasingly assertive Turkey leverages its traditional balancer role in the region. Ashore, landlocked Moldova—sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, and the uneasy home to two autonomous enclaves, Russia-dominated Transdniestria and ethnic Turkic Gagauzia—in many ways exemplifies the region’s volatile geopolitical climate. As Özgür Özdamar concluded in 2010, “After two decades of political and economic transition, the Black Sea region seems as unstable and insecure as before. In fact, the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ proved to be ‘not frozen’ and pose the risk of turning into both interstate and intrastate wars.”
“Washington Swimming in the Black Sea”
The British naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett never tired of saying that the real point of sea power is not so much what happens at sea, but how that influences the outcome of events on land. His maxim rings as true today as it did a century ago.
“The Black Sea should be turned into a sea of stability.” So declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a recent Balkan Countries Chiefs of Defense Conference in Istanbul. He went on to say Turkey and the Balkan countries “share a common history, geography and destiny.”
Russia for its part sees “Washington swimming in the Black Sea.” Russian commentator Mikhail Nenashev warned a heightened NATO presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea could serve as a dangerous stimulus for Turkish aggression:
“If we’re speaking about the Mediterranean-Black Sea region, [strengthening NATO’s eastern flank] will encourage more brazenly aggressive behavior by the current Turkish leadership. We remember how the rogue regime in Georgia attacked Ossetia [in 2008], which happened because the Americans had made clear with their presence in the Black Sea presence that they understood and supported these actions.”
He stressed to Russia’s state-operated news portal RIA Novosti “that expanding NATO’s presence in the Black Sea would be contrary to the spirit of the Montreux Convention, even if its formal constraints were met by increasing the rotation of the alliance ships operating there.” That consideration highlights the geopolitical importance of Romania, which as a Black Sea littoral state is not limited by the Montreux Convention. It and the rest of the “Black Sea bloc”—Turkey and Bulgaria, along with NATO aspirants Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia—are emerging as a geo-pivotal cornerstone of NATO’s response to Russia’s increasingly assertive Black Sea anti-access/aerial strategy.
That strategy is described as “carving ‘bubbles’ of military power that reach beyond [Russia’s] borders and interfere with NATO forces’ ability to operate on their own doorsteps and even within their own borders.” One possibility is suggested in a recent Center for European Policy Analysis report:
“In early March 2015, Putin suggested that Moscow deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea. The Iskander tactical ballistic missile (either in conventional or nuclear form) has a 400-kilometer range and could reach the entire southern part of Ukraine…a large part of Moldova, the entire Romanian coastline, and a significant portion of the Turkish Black Sea coast. In effect, Moscow is developing capabilities to sequester the Baltic and the Black seas behind its air, air defense, naval, cyber and nuclear forces, and deter enemies from entering those seas to try and counter Russia’s offensives.”
The Black Sea Region
Yet Russia perceives its strategic position worsening. In mid-May, Turkey and Ukraine signed a four-year military cooperation plan that provides, according to the Ukrainian General Staff, for “the implementation of practical measures of cooperation in the military sphere, which on the one hand will allow us to strengthen our ties with our southern neighbor, and on the other, to focus efforts on achieving our ultimate goal—APU readiness for NATO membership in 2020.” In late April Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced in Bucharest during a joint press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis that Ukraine “supports Romania’s initiative to create a joint NATO fleet in the Black Sea” and is “willing to join immediately after the initiative is approved by the Alliance.” According to Mr. Poroskhenko, “BLACKSEAFOR and the Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures are no longer effective amid Russia’s aggressive action.”
“There is nothing to join,” said Russia’s permanent NATO representative Alexander Grushko, who dismissed Mr. Poroshenko’s statement as “a typical example of racing ahead of the locomotive.” On the broader question Ambassador Grushko claimed that strengthening NATO’s Black Sea presence “undermines the Montreux Convention regime” and is “yet another attempt to draw a line of confrontation under the pretext of a mythical renewed ‘Russian threat’.” The Russian news portal Ukraina.ru went further, alleging “NATO is trying to contain Russia by increasing its Black Sea presence.”
Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos held a joint press conference in early May with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during which Mr. Ciolos supported the idea of a joint Black Sea naval force with Romania’s regional allies Turkey and Bulgaria. “Discussions were well advanced” about conducting a joint exercise before the July NATO summit in Warsaw, Mr. Ciolos said. Ambassador Grushko earlier warned that “if Bucharest’s calls for the creation of such a fleet become a reality, it will be another deliberate step towards increased tensions and weakened stability in the Black Sea region.”
NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow made approving references to “closer integration of naval forces and operations” in the Black Sea by NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania as the Alliance prepares to weigh its options at a July summit in Warsaw. “We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities,” he said. There is little doubt about Ambassador Vershbow’s intent: he told a November 2015 Berlin Security Conference that “by ensuring effective deterrence against a revisionist Russia, we will have a more solid basis on which to engage Moscow—to bring it back into compliance with international law and, in time, begin to rebuild the trust and partnership that Russia has destroyed.”
The Russian government sees matters differently. Its Sputnik mouthpiece last year accused NATO of forming “regional blocs…in order to assist with the creation of an anti-Russian ‘cordon sanitaire’, a.k.a. the New Iron Curtain.” The Eastern Balkans is pivotal to this strategy, alleges Andrew Korybko (this time commenting in Sputnik):
“Rounding out the US’ New Iron Curtain is Romania, which is seen as the keystone for NATO’s naval strategy in the Black Sea. During the interwar period, the country controlled Moldova, which it shares close cultural and linguistic connections with, and there’s been talk since 1991 of repeating this scenario. […] Bucharest is also important because of its Black Sea coast, which makes it immune from the 1936 Montreux Convention that limits out-of-regional naval forces in the area.”
None of this as helped by the expanded presence of American armed forces in the region. United States and Moldovan armed forces conducted a joint maneuver codenamed “Dragon Pioneer 2016” from 3-20 May, during which United States Army combat engineers assisted in rebuilding a 1.6km access road to a monastery near Ţigăneşti (the project is funded by a California-based NGO called “Spirit of America”). As part of Dragon Pioneer, a small (20 person) United States contingent participated in Victory Day celebrations on 9 May in the Moldovan capital Chișinău. The American contingent’s presence was loudly condemned as an “invasion” by the leader of the country’s pro-Russia Socialist party, Igor Dodon.
Who is the Black Sea’s Real Master Today?
“Where Peter did not succeed in his time, there succeeded his descendants, including my great-grandfather
and my grandfather…Not in vain did they shed blood of the fields of numerous battles.”
— Valentin Kataev The Cemetery at Skuliani (1975)
“And now before the vernal earth of this freed land, its liberators, departing for the Black Sea,
pause, helmets off, to whisper deeply, ‘Blessed places! Now they are forever ours’.”
— Konstantin Paustovskiy, “A Crimean Spring” (1944)
The Black Sea forms roughly the southern and the eastern boundaries of Europe with the Middle East and Asia. European opinion on the exact location of that imaginary line is a matter of perspective: at one extreme, German diplomat Max von Thielmann wrote in 1872 that “Europe ceases at the Place du Théâtre,” referring to the opera house in modern-day Tbilisi, Georgia. Mr. Putin sees it otherwise. His likely answer is the northern part of the Black Sea has been Russian since at least the end of the Russo-Turkish War in 1774. And he undoubtedly concurs with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s c.2006 observation that “pushing the Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol [was] an outrageous affront to Russian history of 19th and 20th centuries.”
The American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s emphasis on sea power led him in 1902 to coin (or so he thought) the term “Middle East”—an region described by Sir Valentine Ignatius Chirol as “those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India”—which Mahan himself demarcated as extending east from Arabia across Persia and Afghanistan to the borders of modern Pakistan. The Balkan Peninsula belonged to what Mahan called “the Near East,” a region he centered on modern Turkey, and into which he incorporated western Anatolia (which at the time had a large Greek-speaking population) and the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Balkan Peninsula
The “near” in “Near East” denoted the region’s proximity to Europe (something explicit in earlier terms like “the Near East of Europe”). Over time, western European governments came to see the Balkans as formally part of Europe. From about 1895 onward, “Near East” was a common reference to Ottoman political space inside Europe. The Balkans eventually solidified it place in Europe in the 1920s after Anatolia lost almost all of its Greek population and became part of the new Muslim Turkish Republic.
The European construction of “the Near East” largely originated from German scholarship. So notes Ottoman scholar and historian Huseyin Yilmaz, who wrote that it “pointed to a less definite geographical space while implying a marked civilizational contrast.” In the context of the late 19th century discussion of “the Eastern Question” use of the term was “integral to the process of purifying Europe from cultural contamination by enlightening or driving out its Asiatic elements.”
Russia’s geopolitical perspective is different. Without sea power, no country can have “a decisive voice in world affairs.” So wrote the authors of an influential 2014 article published in the Russian Defense Ministry journal Voyennaya mysl’ (“Military Thought”). The decline of Russia’s navy “during the political and economic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s cost it dearly.”
“First and foremost, it caused other nations, especially Russia’s neighbors and rivals on the high seas, to reconsider their attitude toward the country. Russia found itself deserted by many former allies and friends.”
Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s legacy as a Soviet era naval leader and strategist to some suggests comparisons with Mahan. With Russia forbidden to have a Black Sea fleet after its defeat in the Crimean War in 1853 until 1871, when the ban was finally lifted, Admiral Gorshkov wrote that “for over a century of the fight for outlets to the southern seas, the relative weakness of the Russian fleet was one of the most important causes of the failure to achieve this goal.” He continued:
“For over a hundred years, the most important axial line of the policy of Russia in the south was the constant endeavor to achieve a free outlet to the Mediterranean. This promised not only major commercial-economic advantages but the strengthening of its influence in the Balkan and Asia Minor peninsulas. And while the Black Sea straits were in the hands of a long-since weakened Turkey, such a task could be considered within the reach of Russia only if other powers kept out of the struggle.”
Russian contemporary objectives were summarized by the Center for European Policy Analysis:
“Moscow’s long-term goal is to contain and roll back NATO so that the Black Sea becomes a predominantly Russian domain or one divided between Russia and Turkey, but where Ankara acquiesces to Kremlin empire-building in its former Tsarist and Soviet dominions.”
Turkey’s Uncertain Role
Turkey’s acquiescence is by no means assured, however. Asked “who, then, is the real master of the Black Sea?” a retired Russian admiral answered simply “Turkey.”
Stephen Blank wrote several months ago that “Ankara and Moscow still harbor great skepticism about Washington’s role here,” something which he argued “creates an enduring regional imbalance and inhibits realization of other littoral states’ security.” It also “underscores the threats to the Balkan states from a combination of Russian military pressure, energy leverage, use of Russian money to corrupt public institutions and the media, intelligence penetration, cyber strikes, and exploitation of ethnic rivalries.”
The direction of Turkish diplomacy is uncertain after the recent resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who doubled as the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). On 19 May the AKP named Binali Yildirim, the current Transport Minister, to replace Mr. Davutoğlu.
Mr. Davutoğlu elaborated his view of Turkey’s place in his 2001 book Strategic Depth. He claimed Turkey’s unique culture, history, and geographic position made it one of a small group of what he called “central powers”. Thus Turkey cannot be content with a merely regional role in, for example, the Balkans, because it is a central, not a regional power. This perspective is unlikely to change with Mr. Davutoğlu’s departure. Alexander Murinson describes it as Turkey at “the epicenter of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the center of Eurasia in general, and is the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific.” Thus as Mr. Davutoğlu argued in Strategic Depth:
“Turkey should not be dependent upon any one actor and should actively seek ways to balance its relationships and alliances so that it can maintain optimal independence and leverage on the global and regional stage”
Guided by its policy of “strategic depth” and eschewing Kemalist isolation, Turkey is actively seeking to engage with regional actors. One of those is Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. Its 160,000 inhabitants are mostly Orthodox Christians of Turkic origin who migrated there after Bessarabia became part of the Tsarist Empire in 1812. Gagauzia in 1994 was granted limited autonomy under the Moldovan constitution. It recently flexed its autonomy in a February 2014 referendum, in which 98 percent of voters opposed Moldova’s planned accession to the European Union and opted instead to join a Russia-led customs union. According to Turkey’s ambassador to Moldova, Mehmet Selim Kartal:
“Turkey has given the greatest assistance to Gagauzia, which no one else can do so because the Gagauz are also Turks. If the Gagauz people want to retain their cultural identity they can only do so through good relations with Turkey.”
Gagauzia is perhaps most important for its proximity to Moldova’s breakaway Transdniestria region—the self-declared the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic—the official Moldovan name for which is “the Transdniestria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status.”
Moldova’s Transdniestria & Gagauzia Autonomous Territorial Units
The Moldovan government demands “Russia must withdraw all troops and military equipment from Transdniestria, in line with international commitments.” In March, Moldovan Deputy Foreign and European Integration Lilian Darie insisted Russian “peacekeepers” in the Transdniestrian “security zone” be replaced with civilian observers “under the auspices of international organizations,” The European Union expressed its “concern” about “the very slow progress in solving the Transdniestrian problem.” Moldovan Defense Minister Anatol Shalaru said that the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria was blocking his country’s accession to NATO. “If the Russian army was not in our territory, Moldova’s accession to NATO would not be a problem,” he asserted. In April, Gagauzia’s governor (known as the Başkan), Irena Vlah, said her government must participate in any such negotiations. “I have always insisted that Başkan of Gagauzia be included in the Moldovan delegation to the negotiations on Transdniestria,” said Mrs. Vlah in an interview with the Moldovan news portal Unimedia.
In mid-May, the OSCE Special Representative to the Transdniestrian conflict settlement talks, the German diplomat Cord Meier-Klodt, offered to resume the so-called “5+2” negotiations in early June in Berlin. At the same time, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Russian troops in Transdniestria were holding in live-fire exercises, which included “the organization of ‘security zones’ for civilian evacuees in the event of armed conflict,” and “methods of radiation and chemical weapons defense and electronic warfare.” Russian officials insist Russia can only withdraw forces from Transdniestria through Ukraine, something made impossible by Ukraine’s May 2015 renouncement of a transit agreement. “I cannot imagine anyone taking responsibility for taking several trainloads of this deadly cargo [Soviet-era ordinance stockpiled in Transdniestria] through Ukraine, where there are such dramatic events occurring,” said Ambassador At-Large Sergey Gubarev, referring to the situation in eastern Ukraine. He added in a Russia Today television interview, “What’s happening lately along the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldova-Ukraine border cannot but cause concern” and “goes beyond the rational.” The Transdniestrian government in February 2016 declared its military policy “combines the provisions of a consistent adherence to peace with determination to protect the public interest and guarantee the military security of the state,” giving “priority [to] diplomatic, legal and other non-military measures in resolving interstate disputes and conflicts.”
“Hello Bucharest, we have a problem! I recommend you don’t cross the Prut!”
The political climate in Transdniestria and Gagauzia is complicated by persistent hints of revanchist Romanian territorial ambitions to the entirety of Moldova. Calling for “the reunification of Bessarabia and Romania,” the Democratic Forum of Romanians in Moldova leader, the poet Nicholas Dabija, claimed the union of Moldova with Romania “is inevitable, because that is the will of God.” He said “Romania is ready to forgive all Russia’s political sins if it supports the unification of Moldova and Romania.”
While Romanian president (2004-2014) Traian Băsescu declared in 2013 “the next important project for Romania, after joining NATO and the European Union, must be unification with Moldova,” some like former Romanian national security advisor Iulian Fota warn, “of all the threats to Romanian national security, Moldova could be the most direct…Moldova’s fate never depended upon Romania alone. It has always been subject relations between the major powers, especially between Russia and western Europe.”
While Transdniestria looks to the east politically, economic interests are beginning to point in the opposite direction. The June 2014 association agreement between the European Union and Moldova allows Transdniestria tariff-free export rights to the EU on par with other Moldovan exporters (the agreement expired in January 2016 but the EU appears to have allowed it to continue). Transdniestrian exports to the EU now dwarf those to the Eurasian Economic Union (comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia). In the first calendar quarter of 2016, well over half (58%) Transdniestrian exports went to the EU while only 6 percent went to the EEU. This represents a significant change from 2015,when 27 percent of reported Transdniestrian exports went to the EU.
A Specter of Navalism: The United States Builds a Robust Black Sea Presence
“[A] young people with too innocent a belief in force and too little appreciation of the finer methods, and they do not yet know that force alone has never been able to maintain what force has won.”
— Otto von Bismarck
Julian Corbett cites Bismarck in his essay “A Specter of Navalism” written in 1915, the year Imperial Germany commenced unrestricted submarine warfare against allied shipping with the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Falaba. Chancellor Bismarck’s point when he wrote those lines to a Leipzig university professor in June 1914 was, writes an anonymous commentator in The Catholic World, “to form a public opinion which will hold in check the influence of the military element.”
President Obama in September 2009 announced the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) for missile defense, the second phase of which involves siting a land-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor site in Romania (pursuant to the September 2011 U.S.-Romanian Ballistic Missile Defense Agreement, which allows the United States to build, maintain, and operate the land-based BMD site in Romania). The so-called “Aegis Ashore”—described as “a land-based capability of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System”—deployed in Romania (and scheduled for 2018 deployment in Poland) was forcefully denounced by the Russian government as a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (IMF) Treaty that banned American and Russian tactical nuclear missiles from Europe. “We still view the destructive actions of the United States and its allies in the area of missile defense as a direct threat to global and regional security,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who added that the Aegis Ashore launch pad was “practically identical” to a system used aboard Aegis warships that is capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Ebru Canan-Sokullu and others write of the Black Sea as a “grey area of confrontation in the managed rivalry between Turkey and Russia.” That grey zone darkens as the Black Sea becomes more crowded, and as it does, its place as a buffer zone between Russia and its rivals (real or perceived) is reduced. This in and of itself poses risks: mutatis mutandis, it is an easier matter for the United States to change the strategic balance in the Black Sea region than it is to manage that changed balance, as Chancellor Bismarck cautioned. Russia and Turkey are perhaps more experienced in managing these rivalries than other actors now active in the Black Sea region. Burcu Gültekin Punsmann wrote, “in the 1990s, Moscow and Ankara were extremely cautious so as to prevent a spillover of their tension in the Caucasus to the rest of their bilateral relations, as tensions did not involve Russia and Turkey themselves so much, as the countries situated between them.”
A March 2016 essay by Alexey Fenenko warned “a limited armed conflict between Russia and NATO”—one that “Washington hardly views…as a head-on collision with Russia, but rather as a U.S. military intervention”—”has become more probable than during the Cold War.”
“After 1991 the U.S. used force against countries it declared pariah states to test a model of war as punishment for certain regimes. As the risk of conflict grew, the Russian leadership became increasingly suspicious that Russia would be the ultimate target of this tactic. Moscow had to flex muscles to force Washington into looking for compromises. This molded a pattern for indirect but fierce confrontation between the two countries…”
“Moscow’s main task [in the conflict in Ukraine] was to stop Ukraine’s drift towards NATO which threatened Russia’s positions in the post-Soviet space and could have caused it to lose its military presence in the Black Sea. In response, Russia incorporated Crimea and took some other steps. The United States retaliated economically in cooperation with its European allies. Throughout the conflict the U.S. discussed basically two main measures: lethal weapon supplies to Ukraine and deployment of NATO infrastructure in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.”
His warning brings to mind John Lukacs several decades-old observation about “the rather remarkable sensitivity which Russia has always manifested toward any threat in either the Baltic or the Black Seas.” Cautioning, “Russia is fully aware of the danger of limited war against her,” Dr. Lukacs continued:
“The Russian ‘fear of the sea’ has continued to exist…Neither should the awed cliches regarding the Russian land-mass becloud our vision from strategic possibilities. The distance between the Baltic and the Black Sea is none too great. Between Memel and Odessa it is less than 750 miles. This is the relatively narrowest ‘waistline’ of Russia. It is the traditional Russian-European frontier.”
From this he surmised, “A Russia campaign, with a necessarily limited objective, based predominantly upon naval and tactical air superiority in the Baltic and the Black Sea…could be expected to reach a successful conclusion.”
Dr. Fenenko perhaps encapsulates the Russian perspective on the Black Sea grey zone: “Judging from the Russian leaders’ statements, the prevailing opinion in Moscow is that the United States is completely unaware of the cost of confrontation with Russia.” What is perhaps truer, to paraphrase Chancellor Bismarck, is that the United States is not fully aware of the cost to maintain what American force is capable of “winning” in the Black Sea.
Romania was my master key for the Balkans,” writes Robert Kaplan, who argues for the country’s strategic place today:
“Putin knows that NATO’s northern flank around the Baltic Sea is much stronger than its southern flank around the Black Sea. He knows that a Russian move in the Baltic States or Poland would trigger a NATO response much more quickly than a Russian move in Moldova and Ukraine. Thus, Romania becomes the southeastern flank of the Western alliance: a position not unusual for Romania given its long history.”
Romania’s strategic location in a larger geopolitical context is not in dispute. The question, though, is to what vital American national interest(s) is that geostrategic location relevant? The answer too often comes back as a foreign policy shibboleth—”the Black Sea lies at a strategic crossroads of geography and culture”—or some non-responsive statement of fact—”We now have three NATO Allies bordering the Black Sea…Two European Union members are Black Sea littoral states.” Those quotes are from a senior State Department official speaking in 2008 on “U.S. Perspectives on the Black Sea Region.” She left unanswered what American interests are at stake.
Edwin J. Feulner defines a vital American interest as “something that could concretely affect the security or economic future of America and our citizens.” Barry Posen’s definition is more pointed: “vital interests were the things you were willing to have your soldiers die for and kill for…Vital interests affect the safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and power position of the United States…” The bipartisan 1997 Commission on America’s National Interest said that “Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation.”
Here is how the same State Department senior official framed American interests in the region:
“The Black Sea region is of considerable strategic importance to the United States. […] U.S. interests in the Black Sea are focused on advancing democratic and market reforms; on strengthening economic ties, energy diversity and a cleaner, more sustainable environment to preserve the Black Sea’s natural beauty and resources; and improving security throughout the region. At its foundation, it follows from the same goals we have worked so hard to achieve in Europe for the past fifty years: peace, democracy, and prosperity.”
These are at best discretionary interests. Nothing in its “expansive, vague assertion about vital interests” suggests anything at the level of the strategic, let along the vital.
In 1947—a comparably more turbulent time than this, to be sure—George Kennan advised President Truman to distinguish between vital and peripheral interests. For Kennan, interests were the proper standard by which to evaluate threats, not the other way around, arguing that threats had no meaning except in reference to interests.
Efforts today to contend that Russia threatens vital American interests in the Black Sea region err in the same way NSC-68 erred in the 1950s. Paraphrasing John Lewis Gaddis, it makes the simple presence of a Russian threat sufficient cause to deem the interest threatened vital. The consequence of this approach is to “transfer to the Russians control over what United States interests [are] at any given point. To define interests in terms of threats is, after all, to make interests a function of threats—interests will then expand or contract as threats do.”
The United States has interests at stake in the Black Sea region, to be sure. And there is no doubt Russia is a menace to some of those interests. Some are important—vocal reaffirmation of our Article 5 commitment is one—but none today is vital. Failing to heed George Kennan’s warning, the United States increasingly defines its regional interests in terms of threats and so allows Russia to control what our interests are.
The United States today is opting for a policy vis-à-vis Russia based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, one that threatens to cross a dangerous tipping point between its architects’ contempt for Mr. Putin’s regime and vital American interests. American strength is intended for use as a means to a larger end, not as an end in itself. Again paraphrasing Dr. Gaddis, we risk of allowing the process of containing Russian ambitions in the Black Sea to overwhelm in importance the objectives that process was supposed to attain.
The INF Treaty may end up a casualty of this approach, taking with it the last vestiges of arms control. In early May, the United States missile defense base near the Romanian town of Deveselu (in Caracal, some 180 kilometers south of Bucharest) became operational. It is the second stage of the project to create a regional anti-missile shield; the first included deploying a radar system in Turkey and Aegis-equipped naval vessels n the eastern Mediterranean. Russia claims Deveselu is a patent violation of the INF Treaty (which the United States has accused Russia of violating serially). It is home to the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile system, a land-based version of the radar tracking system installed on United States naval warships. The site is not without symbolic value: redesignated “Naval Support Facility Deveselu” in October 2014, it sits on an existing Romanian airbase the Soviet Union built in 1952.
The United States insists Deveselu is directed at the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles—the same ones exempted from the recent nuclear memorandum of understanding. Not so, says Russia. Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the State Duma’s defense committee and former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. “In reality it’s focused on our strategic nuclear forces. For us, it’s a direct threat.” He continued:
“They [Romania] have put themselves directly on the firing line. It’s not just one hundred or two hundred or three hundred percent directed against us—it’s one thousand percent. Not at Iran, but at Russia and its nuclear deterrent capability. I believe we can overcome this system and we will strengthen our defense capabilities in a deliberate manner. In particular, we’re closing the Arctic area where our positioning system associated with the detection and interception is located…”
While some call Romania “an aircraft carrier for the United States,” there is no reasonable scenario under which Deveselu poses a threat to Russian strategic forces. That being said, authoritative appraisals like George Friedman’s question whether it is largely a political gesture rather than a military initiative, since so far as Iran is concerned, “it is unclear why a country with relatively few missiles would launch a strike at all, and totally unclear why their target would be Europe.” Some suggest Russia’s recent test of its new RS-24 missile was intended to send a message. “The message is,” said Stefan Meister of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “we are ready for anything.”
Perhaps Deveselu is the least problematic among several alternatives. Given calls for the United States to reduce its profile within NATO, consider this one suggested by Jakub Grygiel:
“[S]tates in Central and Northern Europe have to develop their own capabilities and doctrines that, while anchored in the wider alliance, must be able to inflict clear and immediate costs on the potential aggressor, Russia. And to do so, NATO’s frontline states would be best served by acquiring the capacity to strike targets inside Russia.”
And Chancellor Bismarck’s warning reverberates: is the United States fully aware of the cost to maintain what American force is “winning” in the Black Sea?
The translation of all source material is by the author unless noted otherwise. The title phrase “by love, money or violence” is from Otto von Bismarck’s essay “The Future Policy of Russia,” in which he wrote of Imperial Russia’s aspiration to “close the Black Sea and to win over the [Ottoman] Sultan for this purpose by love, by money, or by violence.” See: Bismarck (1898). Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman. Being the Reflections and Reminiscences of Otto Prince von Bismarck, volume II. A.J. Butlet, trans. (London: Smith, Elder & Co.) 293.
 There have been similar efforts before. In July 1994, a “League of Parties of Intermarium Countries” was founded in Kyiv consisting of pro-independence parties from six countries (Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine). Three congresses took place in 1995 (Poland), 1996 (Belarus) and 1997 (Kyiv) but the initiative eventually ended as a result of political changes in the constituent countries. See: “The Intermarium: A Century-Old Security Doctrine Revived.” Eurasia.ro [published online 18 February 2016]. https://eurasia.ro/?p=58565. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 An upper triangle contained within the larger ABC one corresponds roughly to the Vyšehrad group of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (plus Croatia). Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (2012). Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and the Baltic Seas. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers) 3. In a NATO context, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are also part of the Intermarium.
 Janko Bekić & Marina Funduk (2016). “The Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative as the revival of ‘Intermarium’.” IRMO Brioef -2/2016. https://www.irmo.hr/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/IRMO-Brief-2-2016.pdf. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 Andrew Korybko (2015). “NATO Strategy: Use Small European Countries as Proxies for War with Russia.” Russia Insider [published online 8 June 2015]. https://russia-insider.com/en/politics/natos-black-sea-bloc-gets-busy-i/ri7754. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 Mitat Çelikpala (2010). “Escalating rivalries and diverging interests: prospects for stability and security in the Black Sea region.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies.
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 Özgür Özdamar (2010). “Security and military balance in the Black Sea region.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 10:3, 357. 20in%20the%20Black%20Sea%20Region.pdf. Last accessed 20 May 2016.
 Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, with an introduction of Eric Grove, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), first published 1911, 67.
 “Erdoğan: Karadeniz adeta Rusya’nın bir gölü haline dönüşüyor.” Sputnik [published online in Turkish 11 May 2016]. https://tr.sputniknews.com/politika/20160511/1022683225/erdogan-karadeniz-rusya-nato.html#ixzz48wHPsLfa. Last accessed 17 May 2016. The second quote is from the Erdoğan government’s official English language report of his remarks, which is available at: https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/43924/suriyede-tum-kirmizi-cizgilerin-asilmasina-ragmen-bir-adim-atilmadi.html. Last accessed 17 May 2016.
 Eric Draitser (2015). “Battlefield: Black Sea.” New Eastern Outlook [published online 14 May 2015]. https://journal-neo.org/2015/05/14/battlefield-black-sea/. Last accessed 18 May 2016. A biography of Mr. Draitser published on the RT.com website states: “Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City and the founder of StopImperialism.com. He is a regular contributor to RT, Counterpunch, New Eastern Outlook, Press TV, and many other news outlets.” [https://www.rt.com/op-edge/authors/eric-draitser/. Last accessed 18 May 2016] The RT.com website belongs to RT (formerly Russia Today), a Russian government-owned network that runs cable and satellite television channels.
 “Eksperty: usileniye vostochnogo flanga NATO mozhet razvyazat’ ruki Turtsii.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 11 February 2016]. https://ria.ru/world/20160211/1372907003.html. Last accessed 17 May 2016. Mr. Nenashev is a retired Russian Navy Captain First Rank and chairman of the All-Russia Fleet Support Movement.
 The reference is to the Montreux Convention of 1936, which among other things imposes limits on the transit of capital ships and submarines (a maximum aggregate tonnage of 45,000 tons, with any one vessel no heavier than 15,000 tons.) through the “straits zone,” which includes the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus (see map). These limitations effectively preclude the transit of naval vessels of non-Black Sea countries (i.e., all countries except Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia) through the straits unless otherwise exempted under Article 17, which permits any naval vessel to pay a courtesy visit of limited duration (i.e., not more than 21 consecutive days) at the invitation of the Turkish government. Non-Black Sea countries must also give Turkey a 15-day notice before sending warships through the straits.
 “Moscow’s military game in the Black Sea rings Nato alarm bells.” Financial Times [published 14-15 May 2016] 3.
 Center for European Policy Analysis (2016). “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe,” 11. Black Sea Strategic Report No. 1 (February 2016), 5. https://cepa.org/files/?id_plik=2096. Last accessed 19 May 2016.
 “Chernomorskiy soyuz: Ukraina i Turtsiya podpisali ambitsioznyy plan voyennogo sotrudnichestva.” Obozrevatel’.ua [published online in Russian 16 May 2016]. https://obozrevatel.com/politics/53802-chernomorskij-soyuz-ukraina-i-turtsiya-podpisali-ambitsioznyij-plan-voennogo-sotrudnichestva.htm?utm_content=buffer398d1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer. Last accessed 18 May 2016. “APU” is the transliterated acronym of Administratsiya Prezydenta Ukrayiny or “Administration of the President of Ukraine,” which equate generally to the Office of the President in the United States.
 President Poroshenko’s announcement appeared in Moldovan news portals under the headline “Romania and Ukraine will establish a joint fleet in the Black Sea.” See: “România şi Ucraina vor crea o flotă comună în Marea Neagră.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 21 April 2016]. https://www.publika.md/romania-si-ucraina-vor-crea-o-flota-comuna-in-marea-neagra_2601581.html. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 “Ukrayina ta Rumuniya khochutʹ stvoryty chornomorsʹku flotyliyu pid provodom NATO—Poroshenko.” UNIAN [published online in Ukrainian 21 April 2016]. https://www.unian.ua/politics/1326004-ukrajina-ta-rumuniya-hochut-stvoriti-chornomorsku-flotiliyu-pid-provodom-nato-poroshenko.html. Last accessed 18 May 2016. BLACKSEAFOR is an acronym for the Black Sea Naval Force aka Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group. It was formed on Turkey’s initiative in early 2001 by the six Black sea littoral countries (Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia). Its purpose was to carry out regular joint exercises with the aim of improving the interoperability of the various navies. The exercises generally focused on search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, mine counter measures, WMD defense, and peace support operations. BLACKSEAFOR has been in limbo since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.
 Russian Mission to NATO Facebook posting dated 22 April 2016. https://www.facebook.com/RussiansatNATO/posts/1184025281616254:0. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 “NATO khochet vzyat’ pod kontrol’ Chernoye more.” Ukraina.ru [published online in Russian 23 April 2016]. https://ukraina.ru/news/20160423/1016217307.html. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
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 Russian Mission to NATO Facebook posting dated 22 April 2016, op cit.
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 Opening remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Berlin Security Conference 2015 (17 November 2015). https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_124808.htm. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 The Russia government-owned Rossiya Segodnya launch Sputnik in November 2014 as its unified media portal, replacing both RIA Novosti (it former international news agency, now a domestic one only) and Voice of Russia (its former international radio broadcasting service).
 ” NATO’s Next Step: Regional Blocs and the New Iron Curtain.” Sputnik [published online 17 April 2015]. https://sputniknews.com/columnists/20150417/1021017441.html#ixzz491jqYPKP. Last accessed 18 May 2016.
 “Moldau: Ein Manöver und seine Kollateralschäden.” Deutsche Welle [published online in German 6 May 2015]. https://www.dw.com/de/moldau-ein-manöver-und-seine-kollateralschäden/a-19239507. Last accessed 17 May 2016. Pro-European Moldovans celebrate 9 May as “Europe Day” while pro-Russian Moldovans celebrate “Victory Day of the Soviet Army” in World War Two.
 The subtitle is borrowed from an article written by Aleksandr Bushev & Sergy Ilchenko (2010). “Kto segodnya nastoyashchiy khozyain Chernogo morya?” Svobodnaya Pressa [published online in Russian 26 February 2010]. https://svpressa.ru/society/article/21715/. Last accessed 20 May 2016.
 The Ukrainian journalist Olena Makarenko wrote in March, ” They’re calling it the ‘Crimean Spring’…the several celebratory events that are being held in occupied Crimea and in Russia from March 15 to March 18…to commemorate what most of the world recognizes as a criminal referendum which took place in Crimea on 16 March 2014.” See: “Two years after Russia’s takeover, no Crimean spring.” Euromaidan Press [published online 16 Match 2016]. https://euromaidanpress.com/2016/03/16/two-years-after-russias-occupation-is-life-for-civilians-possible-in-crimea/. Last accessed 20 May 2016.
 Max von Thielmann (1875). Journey in the Caucasus, Persia, and Turkey in Asia, Charles Heneage, trans. (London: John Murray) 1:222. Quoted in Charles King (2008). “The Wider Black Sea Region in the Twenty-First Century.” In The Wider Black Sea Region in the 21st Century: Strategic, Economic and Energy Perspectives, Daniel Hamilton & Gerhard Mangott, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Center for Transatlantic Relations, The Johns Hopkins University/Austrian Institute for International Affairs) 1.
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 Alfred Thayer Mahan (1902). “The Persian Gulf and International Relations.” National Review (September 1902). Mahan’s essay was reproduced that same year in his book Retrospect & Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political (Boston: Little, Brown), 209-254. The American historian Clayton R. Kopps attributes the first term “Middle East” to a British Army officer, General Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, who used it in a 1900 article “The Problem of the Middle East,” in which he analyzed problems involving the defense of India in connection with Persia and Afghanistan. [Kopps (1976). “Captain Mahan, General Gordon, and the Origins of the Term ‘Middle East’.” Middle Eastern Studies, 12:1, 95-98.
 Chirol, a smetimes British diplomat and historian, was at the time Tehran correspondent of the Times of London. He used Mahan’s term “Middle East” in his 1903 book, The Middle East Question; or Some Political Problems of Indian Defence (London: J. Murray) 5. The full sentence reads: “In these pregnant sentences Lord Curzon defined, with the authority belonging alike to his intimate knowledge of Asiatic countries and peoples and to the high office he holds under the Crown, the question with which British statesmanship is confronted in what Captain Mahan has aptly christened ‘The Middle East,’ that is to say, in those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India, and which are consequently bound up with the problems of Indian political as well as military defence.” [sic]
 Gustav Lebrecht Flügel (1867; 2013). Geschichte der Araber bis aufden Sturz des Chalifats von Bagdad (Leipzig: W. Baensch; London: Forgotten Books.) 143.
 Huseyin Yilmaz (2011). “The Eastern Question and the Ottoman Empire: The Genesis of the Near and Middle East in the Nineteenth Century.” In Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat & Michael Ezekiel Gasper, eds. (2011). Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press) 20, 27.
 Zachary Lockman (2004).Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 97-98.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 27.
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 Sergey G. Gorshkov (1979). The Sea Power of the State. (Oxford: Pergamon Press) 82. The Asia Minor peninsula is synonymous with the Anatolian peninsula, or the land area of modern Turkey east of the he Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.
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 In Romanian, Unitatea teritorială autonomă cu statut juridic special Transnistria.
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 “U RF poyasnyly nemozhlyvistʹ vyvezty zbroyu z Prydnistrov’ya sytuatsiyeyu na Donbasi.” Novyny Ukrayiny [published online in Ukrainian 7 April 2016]. https://www.rbc.ua/ukr/news/rf-obyasnili-nevozmozhnost-vyvezti-oruzhie-1460018144.html. Last accessed 17 May 2016. There is a substantial quantity of Soviet-era ordinance stockpiled in Transdniestria, mostly in the northern village of Kolbasna. Russia committed in November 1999 to remove all stockpiled weapons by the end of 2001 and all equipment by the end of 2002.
 “Moscova se plânge de acțiunile Ucrainei la granița cu Transnistria.” Pagina de Rusia.ro [published online in Romanian 7 April 2016]. https://www.paginaderusia.ro/moscova-se-plange-de-actiunile-ucrainei-la-granita-cu-transnistria/. Last accessed 17 May 2016.
 “Pridnestrov’ye prinyalo novuyu voyennuyu doktrinu.” REGNUM [published online 20 February 2016]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2083374.html. Last accessed 17 May 2016.
 From a January 2016 editorial written by former Romanian national security advisor Iulian Fota. See: Fota (2016). “Sa nu trecem Prutul! Ne trebuie o Romanie mai buna, nu una mai mare.” Ziare.com [published online in Romanian 26 January 2016]. https://www.ziare.com/europa/moldova/sa-nu-trecem-prutul-ne-trebuie-o-romanie-mai-buna-nu-una-mai-mare-1405661. Last accessed 20 May 2016. The Prut River forms Romania’s eastern border with Moldova and Ukraine.
 “«Rumyny» predlagayut Ukraine chuzhoye Pridnestrov’ye i «otpuskayut grekhi» Rossii.” REGNUM [published online in Russian 27 March 2016]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2105967.html. Last accessed 17 May 2016.
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 “Moldova: Separatist Transnistria Region Reorienting Trade from Russia to EU.” Eurasianet.org [published online 4 May 2016]. https://www.eurasianet.org/node/78636. Last accessed 17 May 2016.
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 The Commission on America’s National Interest identified a hierarchy of United States national interests that went (in descending order of importance) “vital interests,” “extremely important interests,” “important interests,” and “less important or secondary interests.”
 Ibid., 2.
 John Lewis Gaddis (1982). Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. (New York: Oxford University Press) 32-33.
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 According to a 2015 RAND study:
“The interceptors in Redzikowo also do not possess any capability against Russian ICBMs. Even under an unrealistic and ideal condition of zero time delay, the most powerful interceptor deployed at Redzikowo under the restructured EPAA plan, the SM-3 IIA, will be able to intercept ICBMs from only two Russian sites, Kozelsk and Tatishchevo, heading toward Washington, D.C. However, if the ICBMs from either of those sites were heading to San Francisco on the West Coast of the United States, then the SM-3 IIA interceptors have no potential to intercept. “Aegis ships located in the North Sea and the Barents Sea equipped with SM-3 IIA missiles will be able to intercept Russian ICBMs only under an unrealistic zero time delay. The velocities needed for such interceptors under realistic time delays to reach Russian ICBMs launched from a number of sites inside Russia are higher than the maximum 4.5 km/s attainable by the SM-3 IIA interceptors under the restructured EPAA system.” See: RAND (2015). “The United States’ European Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense System: Defending Against Iranian Missile Threats Without Diluting the Russian Deterrent.” https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR957.html. Last accessed 23 May 2016.
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