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A nation must think before it acts.
When Americans think about the world, they divide it into discrete regions: Europe, spanning from Norway to Greece; the Middle East, stretching from Morocco to Iran; and the Asia-Pacific, covering Japan through Indonesia, or sometimes even to India. This mental map of the world is profoundly powerful and entirely imaginary. Powerful, because where we place countries affects how we treat them. Imaginary, because our mental geographies are not the only way of seeing the world. Often, they are not even the best way.
No region of the world is more divided in Americans’ mental map than the Black Sea. We place the countries that surround the Black Sea coast into three different categories. Romania and Bulgaria are in Europe, members of NATO and the European Union. Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia are the former Soviet Union; for better or for worse, they are still defined by the historical legacy of Soviet rule. And Turkey, embroiled by Kurdish insurgency and at war in Syria and Iraq, is increasingly seen as one of the main powers of the Middle East.
There is much sense, of course, in this tripartite division of the region, since it accurately describes at least some of these countries’ current domestic politics and international orientation. But thinking only in terms of Europe, the Middle East, and the former USSR misses many, perhaps most, of the dynamics that unite the region. Only several hundred miles separate Turkey’s great Black Sea port of Trabzon from Tiraspol, the border city serving as capital of Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region. Burgas, Bulgaria’s biggest port and an oil-refining hub, is a one-day sail from Georgia’s Batumi, formerly the greatest oil port of Tsarist Russia. Sochi, the host of Russia’s 2014 winter Olympics, is located due north of Rize, the home province of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The geography of the Black Sea matters not only because the region is increasingly at the center of the United States’ foreign policy, but we continue to wrongly see the region as divided into unconnected chunks. Beyond geographic proximity and historical connections, however, there are three main reasons to look at the Black Sea as a coherent region, rather than merely as a medium-sized body of water: security, energy, and European and Eurasian integration. Each of these themes is shared across the Black Sea region. Unless we recognize the interconnections—and treat the Black Sea as a whole—we cannot fully understand the region. Why the Black Sea? We may see it as a body of water that separates Europe from Asia, or that divides the Middle East from the former USSR. But all sides of the Black Sea’s shores share many of the factors driving political and economic change in the region.
Take security. A ring of smoldering conflicts surrounds the Black Sea. In Moldova, a 25-year-old frozen conflict divides the country into two pieces. Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia, and the Donbass region remains occupied by Russian-backed separatist forces. Russia’s main supply route to its forces in Syria runs through the Black Sea via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Caucasus, ongoing conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and between Georgia and the breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia continue to attract the interest of outside powers, Russia chief among them.
All of these conflicts—frozen to various degrees—are usually seen as the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, remnants of the retreating Russian Empire. This is true, but it misses their Black Sea context. It is not a coincidence that all the ongoing post-Soviet conflicts (including, it is worth noting, Russia’s ongoing struggle to pacify and integrate its own North Caucasus) occur around the Black Sea.
Why is this case? Primarily because the Black Sea area is where Russia and the West failed to agree on post-Cold War “rules of the game.” In Central Asia, the West never seriously expected to wield dominant influence or to transform local governance. The civil war in Tajikistan, therefore, was resolved in the 1990s along Russian lines, with relatively little Western input. Similarly, Moscow has recognized the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—as part of the European system, and disagreements between these countries’ ethnic majorities and Russian-speaking minorities have been managed along the West’s preferred methods.
Russia and the West never agreed about the Black Sea. Are Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in Russia’s sphere of control, or are they on track to join Western institutions? Such disagreement exists, largely because in the 1990s, neither the West nor Russia seriously imagined that these countries would want or could be prepared to join Western institutions. (In the 1990s, the debate was whether Poland would join NATO.) At the same time, Turkey had long sought to join the European Union, but was held at bay by Western European voters who feared a wave of Turkish immigrants. This confusion added an additional level of geopolitical complication. Lacking a clear set of rules, the Black Sea region’s existing conflicts continued to smolder. The wars in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 were sparked by local disputes, but they only occurred because of this larger disagreement about how the Black Sea region should be governed.
Today, the situation is as confused as a decade ago, but far more tense. Both Russia and Ukraine are building up their military power in the Black Sea. NATO has stationed additional forces in Romania and has considered adding to its naval presence. Over the past year, Turkey and Russia have swung between tentative friendship and near-open conflict. Ankara relies on NATO defense commitments even as it seeks to maintain its privileged position in the Black Sea itself. And Russia’s expansion of its military role in Syria adds to the importance the Kremlin attaches to Black Sea naval supply routes. The Black Sea is more militarized and less stable than at any point since the Cold War’s end—and perhaps since the late 1940s.
The question of security and insecurity in the Black Sea overlaps with other areas of conflict and cooperation. One key and contested theme is energy. A significant share of Russia’s gas exports run via the Black Sea region, primarily through Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, says it wants to cut off gas transit through Ukraine, a move in part designed to place pressure on Kyiv’s Western-oriented government. To make such a switch possible, Russia is looking to build new gas pipelines: some further north, but some also located in the Black Sea region. For years, Russia promoted the South Stream pipeline, which would have shipped gas via an underwater pipeline intersecting the Black Sea from Russia to Bulgaria, and then on to other European countries. Despite some support for the project in Bulgaria and elsewhere, it was scrapped in 2014 under pressure from Western leaders who wanted to punish Russia for annexing Crimea.
Since the cancellation of South Stream, the Kremlin has turned its attention to a new pipeline, Turk Stream. This pipeline would also bypass Ukraine via an underwater, trans-Black Sea link, distributing gas from Russia via Turkey and onward to European customers. This pipeline, too, is partly a geopolitical game. Russia froze the project after tensions with Turkey spiked in late 2015, only to restart it when ties improved in 2016. Many experts, however, consider the project economically unjustified given low energy prices and ample existing pipeline capacity. It remains unclear if the pipeline will be built.
Other countries also view the Black Sea as a strategic energy corridor. Just as the Kremlin seeks to bypass Ukraine by using other Black Sea routes, so too do Western governments look to the Black Sea as a route for transporting energy from the gas-rich Caspian Sea region to Western markets. Already, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline transports oil from Azerbaijani oil fields to global markets, bypassing Russia.
Potentially more significant are efforts to construct gas pipelines originating in Azerbaijan or even Turkmenistan, transiting through Turkey and supplying gas to Western consumers. The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), for example, is intended to give Azerbaijan a means of breaking Russia’s monopoly on gas exports from the former USSR to the West. If Iranian gas ever reaches Europe, it too will transit the Black Sea. So long as Europe relies on natural gas for energy, the Black Sea will remain a crucial energy transit corridor.
Energy is not Europe’s only interest in the Black Sea. The region is one of three areas of instability positioned along Europe’s southern border. Coupled with the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon, Israel) and the countries of North Africa, political and economic chaos in the Black Sea risks spilling into the European Union. The threat of instability along its border is a major reason why the European Union involves itself so much in the Black Sea region. Indeed, except for the Balkans, all potential members of the European Union ring the Black Sea, including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and (for true optimists) Turkey.
The European Union has already signed Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. These agreements do not guarantee these countries future membership in the European Union, but they do provide wide access to European markets as well as aid and technical assistance. Moldovan and Georgian citizens have received the right to travel to the European Union without needing to apply for a visa, a right that Ukrainians may receive in 2017.
Major political groups in each of these countries describe accession to the European Union as a long-term goal. Amid Brexit and a continent-wide populist backlash, further EU expansion looks unlikely in the short term. But it is worth remembering that in 1989, as communist regimes crumbled across Central and Eastern Europe, the idea that Poland or Romania would join the European Union also seemed like a long-term prospect at best. As it happened, the long term came sooner than many expected.
Turkey has been a candidate for EU accession since before the Cold War ended, yet its membership, while still in theory under negotiation, looks unlikely. Unlike tiny Moldova and Georgia, Turkey’s population is the size of Germany’s, so its accession would drastically shift the balance of power within Europe. It would also likely lead to a flood of unwelcome economic migrants to wealthier European countries. That means full EU membership is unlikely, even if current political disagreements between Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other European leaders are overcome. Nonetheless, geographic and economic realities mean that ties between Turkey and Europe are likely to persist. The migration deal struck earlier this year by Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a good example for why cooperation between Turkey and the European Union will continue.
For this reason, Europe’s foreign policy is likely to remain focused on the Black Sea for some time to come. Yet, the Black Sea is also one of two regions that Russia hopes will participate in its own Eurasian Union. Armenia has already signed up, and Russia is pushing hard for Moldova to join. Moscow would also like Ukraine to join its Eurasian project, though this looks unlikely given how strongly Ukrainian public opinion turned against Moscow thanks to the war in the Donbass.
Even if Europe and Russia manage to agree on Ukraine—a prospect that does not look likely—the broader question of Europe’s relations with the other countries of the Black Sea is unlikely to go away. The door to European Union membership formally remains open, particularly for Moldova, a small country on the EU’s border. And the EU has no model for stabilizing European countries on its border that does not involve expanding its own institutions. The Association Agreement that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia signed with the European Union is unlikely to be the final step of their integration with Europe.
Rarely has a region figured so prominently in American foreign policy without our even realizing it. We treat Turkey as separate from Ukraine, Romania as wholly distinct from Georgia, and Russia as an aggressive “lone wolf” in the region. These are different countries, of course, with diverse historical traditions and political structures. But from security to energy to the future of Europe, the Black Sea operates as a united region far more than Americans usually realize. We underestimate regional connections and fail to understand the linkages that drive regional politics.
The Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Black Sea Initiative, launching this month, will cover these issues in depth. Each month, we will publish an essay on a key Black Sea region issue, looking both at how specific Black Sea countries view the region and examining themes that cut across national borders. These essays will be written by top American and European analysts and by leading experts from the Black Sea region. Our aim is to show that from energy to economics, from security to geopolitics, the region’s relevance is far broader than most people realize. The future of Europe and Eurasia is being contested in the Black Sea.