Welcome to Chain Reaction, coming to you from Tbilisi, Georgia, where we just wrapped up a two-day conference on security in the Black Sea Region. The Black Sea Region looms increasingly large as the locus of great power, military, political, and economic competition. Russia’s chosen the region as a focal point of its challenge to the Western security order, as its 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine made clear. Geopolitically, the region is where the West, Russia, and the wider Middle East come into contact. As countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia seek EU membership, Russia looks to destabilize them. Turkey aims to retain its good standing with NATO, preserve its ties with Russia, and assert its interests in the Syrian Civil War. The region also holds considerable importance as an economic and energy transit zone, with the West, Russia, and China watching transportation and energy infrastructure projects there.
Finally, Black Sea states struggle to build political, economic, and social resilience in the face of Russian attempts to destabilize them and subvert their sovereignty. The goal of this conference is to advance understanding among regional and Western scholars and policymakers on the challenges and opportunities in the Black Sea Region. To discuss the conference and its major themes, I am joined by a team of six people who represent the diverse talent FPRI brings to the table.
“The Black Sea Region looms increasingly large as the locus of great power, military, political, and economic competition.”
Maia Otarashvili is the Director of FPRI’s Eurasia Program and the intellectual driving force behind this conference, which brought together some twenty-five experts from thirteen countries.
Aaron Schwartzbaum is a 2023 Templeton Fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI and founder of FPRI’s Bear Market Brief. He works with the Bear Market Brief team as an advisor, columnist, and podcast host.
Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia Fellow in the Eurasia Program at FPRI and the founder of the London-based political risk firm Enmetena Advisory. He is also the author of Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict between Russia and the West.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of Orbis, FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs, and a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He is also a professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Ambassador Batu Kutelia is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He is the former Georgian ambassador to the US and the former head of Georgia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.
Ambassador Vasil Dato Sikharulidze is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He is the former Georgian ambassador to the US and former Georgian Minister of Defense.
Maia, Aaron, Max, Nick, Batu, and Dato, thanks for joining me today on Chain Reaction. We wrapped up two days of intense discussions here in Tbilisi a few minutes ago. Each of you played a key role in those conversations, so I would like to ask each of you to give your impressions on the insights you gained here. Maia, you were involved in the panel on NATO’s role in the region. What did we learn?
Thank you, Bob. This panel was compelling and insightful. We had four great speakers, and you were one of them. As we are currently in Tbilisi, much of the discussion focused on NATO enlargement and the question of Ukraine and Georgia’s membership, from which we gained quite a few insights. Whether or not a NATO partnership without membership is valuable and helpful or whether it puts these states in harm’s way, it was a fascinating conversation. I will note a phrase from our panelist Rick’s comments, “The consolation prizes in the absence of a full membership offer,” as an interesting way to abbreviate the gray in between. But at the end of the day, although each panelist brought something unique to the discussion, it seemed everyone agreed that the picture was black and white. You have a membership to NATO or no membership, with no membership meaning no security guarantees. And at the end of the day, those are what Ukraine and Georgia are looking for, as well as any other potential new NATO member. So, then, the conversation is about, “Okay, whatever comes before membership, is it useful? Is it helpful? Where does it leave these countries?”
And I mentioned this as I was moderating; it is a frustrating conversation that is more of a philosophical discussion than anything else. It did not seem like there are any real solutions on the table to fixing this situation.
During the panel, Nick shared a comment that I found helpful. “Politicians are promiscuous in their language.” He was talking about the serious consequences of politicized language, which was very useful. Especially because of where we are, looking at this audience in Georgia and Tbilisi, looking them in the eyes and saying things like, “Ukraine will not get a membership offer in Vilnius,” created some difficult moments. Still, they were really important moments to have.
“Whatever comes before membership, is it useful? Is it helpful? Where does it leave these countries?”
Another topic that came up was whether NATO should have more transparent and honest conversations about refusing membership to countries that pose a security liability for NATO—and addressing the notion that if that is the case, why not speak about that more openly and not lead on potential member states? Unfortunately, we had more problems than solutions in this discussion. But that is why we are here, and that is why the conversation continues. There is still hope that there can be some incremental solutions.
And I encourage our audience members to check out the recordings of these panels for more of the conversation. Rick offered some interesting adjustments, and Nick’s remarks about restructuring partnerships to benefit NATO and the partners a little bit more were a couple of particularly compelling points. So I recommend checking out the actual recording of the event for a fuller picture.
Thanks, Maia. We talked a lot on the panel about the fact that some of the diplomatic niceties, some of the encouraging language from Western politicians, run into the hard reality of lack of a security guarantee. Also, the discussion explored the gray zone between partnership status with NATO and membership in NATO and how to bridge that gap. We also discussed that now there is a precedent for members getting in without a MAP or a Membership Action Plan. One of my key takeaways was that the diplomatic niceties and the language run into the hard security realities on the ground. This contention leaves partners, like Ukraine and Georgia, with few good options between 2008, when the initial Bucharest Summit Declaration came out, when Georgia and Ukraine were on the path to membership, and now in 2023, where neither seems to have a realistic pathway to quick membership.
“There is NATO fatigue in Georgia, and there is Georgia fatigue in NATO.”
We should take this unique context into account because of where we are sitting. There are a couple of key takeaways. The hard pill to swallow here is that we believe that Ukraine will not receive a membership offer in Vilnius in just two weeks. That is a big one. Another one is that Georgia is nowhere near becoming a member or being offered membership by NATO anytime soon. Now, you can agree or disagree on whether or not NATO should enlarge and whether or not these countries deserve to be in NATO. But where we are sitting, these countries have been fighting and going after NATO membership with everything they have for years. So the hard conclusion we came upon here was the wait would continue for a while. I am pleased that there was not much awe, outrage, or gasping from the audience to that point, but it implies, as you said in the conversation, there is NATO fatigue in Georgia. And to go with it, there is a Georgia fatigue in NATO. The audience’s lack of panic indicated that people were not surprised. However, concerning Ukraine, it is still challenging to reckon that the summit in Vilnius may make little difference.
You are exactly right. Among Georgians paying attention, nothing is expected to be granted to Georgia in Vilnius. In fact, the prime minister did not receive an invitation to the summit. We talked a bit about the broken Georgia-Ukraine tandem, which has existed since 2008. Whatever Ukraine gets in Vilnius will probably not be a hard membership offer. But Ukraine has separated itself from Georgia on the path to NATO membership, and that separation may be permanent. So thank you so much, Maia.
Thank you, Bob.
Our next panel was on the EU’s role in the region. And I will turn it over to Aaron Schwartzbaum. Aaron, what did we learn about how Brussels sees the Black Sea region and how the region sees Brussels?
This was a great conference to be a part of. I enjoyed moderating this panel because we heard a plethora of different, if not viewpoints, angles on the EU and its role. Our discussion ranged from a prescriptive diagnosis of how the EU can improve its regional standing and emerge as a more credible actor to the Georgian viewpoint on membership in the institution. One point a panelist dove in on is that while some of the discussion focused on the interplay of EU versus NATO, to the minds of many Georgians, you cannot have membership in this broader European community without security guarantees from NATO. A lot of comparing and contrasting between the organizations and what it might mean to be part of one versus part of another happened in this panel. And another point of debate was the notion that the average Georgian might prefer having visa access, and economic opportunities, versus security guarantees that may, outside of a war, be much more complicated for an average citizen, which makes a lot of intuitive sense.
“There has been a growing realization politically that while the ideas focus is a foundational part of EU identity, politics sometimes requires strategy and military force.”
We also focused on the geopolitical aspect and the view in Brussels, similar to the NATO fatigue Maia mentioned, finding that there may also be some EU expansion fatigue. Alleviating this fatigue requires the necessary overlap of a political will, financial resources, and an expansion agreement. The idea parallels neatly with some of the considerations of NATO that Maia mentioned. There is also a remaining question about managing what one panelist called a “de facto war zone” in the Black Sea Region and the complications that arise trying to expand an international organization into a region with this characterization. The other important angle discussed was the Georgian government’s current view of the EU after having been in accession limbo for a long time. And I see this as a similar fatigue. It parallels a different, sensible purpose than NATO, but the struggles and relevant pieces here are parallel.
We heard a lot of discussion about the EU as a strategic actor. What does that mean? What are we talking about when we say that?
So I think this relates to the geopolitical conjuncture we are at in the world now, where the EU had been a very idealistic, ideas-based organization, a shared community of democracy. But, especially in light of what is happening in Ukraine, there has been a growing realization politically that while the ideas focus is a foundational part of EU identity, politics sometimes requires strategy and military force. This realization has caused a return to the EU to feature more traditional statecraft as a block.
That EU strategic actor discussion parallels what we discussed in the NATO panel. That there are hard security realities in this Black Sea region that both states and organizations that are in the region or that want to act in the region must take into account. I have been hearing about EU defense capabilities for 20 years now, something the US has, on the one hand, welcomed as long as it does not take away from NATO. But the summary from the first two panels is that both organizations are trying to deal with geostrategic, geopolitical, and hard security realities on the ground. Neither realistically has a way forward or has figured this out. And especially in this area, the Black Sea Region, where on the NATO side, you have three NATO members, two NATO aspirants, and Russia, NATO’s greatest adversary, existing as the Black Sea littoral states. So thank you so much, Aaron, for your comments. Max, to you, you were involved in the panel on energy security and transit. Tell us a little bit about what we learned. You do this for a living, so you are qualified to summarize its panel for us.
“Both organizations are trying to deal with geostrategic, geopolitical, and hard security realities on the ground. Neither realistically has a way forward or has figured this out.”
Well, I will let others judge it on the qualifications, but it was certainly a fascinating panel. The Black Sea Region provides a crucial point for understanding the energy security issues that Europe has faced over the last year and how we saw those through the global gas price crisis spread globally. We also saw some potential solutions, alleviations, and risks which will affect Europe’s gas problems. In particular, concerning Azerbaijan’s agreement to supply an additional 5 billion cubic meters of gas over the coming years, per year, to the European Union.
And so we also talked a lot in this panel about the Black Sea Region as an energy corridor. How realistic is that?
Well, there are certain limitations to it. There has long been this hope of the Black Sea as an energy corridor, and we discussed and debated how realistic it is and how feasible it may be for Turkmenistan to join that supply route. The European Union Southern Gas Corridor runs from Azerbaijan via Georgia, where we are here today, through Turkey, and onto Greece, Albania, and Italy. There are still a lot of geopolitical challenges with this corridor. One, in terms of Russia’s threats to the Caspian Sea security. The potential for Iranian involvement with the continued US sanctions on Iran, which could provide an alternative land route, is not that likely. And then, of course, we discussed the security risks in the Black Sea Region. Firstly, in the ongoing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we were happy that there had been some progress in negotiations over the last six months, but things certainly remain on tenterhooks regarding Ukraine’s position in that future because one of the still significant transit routes into Europe for natural gas is still Russian gas that is piped via Ukraine.
Russia had long sought to replace this via the Nord Stream route and now via what is known as TurkStream, where they are still pumping gas, but which has limitations on its infrastructure going in. There is still so much more to discuss here and one point we did not touch on was the recent developments in Bulgaria with their government. But that will be very important to that route and is something that a lot of us panelists will be looking to discuss going forward. With the potential for Ukraine’s strategy, it does not want to continue to service this Russian gas transit when the contract ends in 2024. The Ukrainian government is looking to position their gas hub facilities as a storage battery for the European Union, which is essential because Europe lacks the necessary gas storage capacity to mitigate potential future price spikes.
What stood out for me in this panel, and this is not news to anybody who follows this issue, is the extent to which Russia views energy, its transit, and energy infrastructure in geostrategic terms as a tool, be it security, diplomatic, or economic. The Western viewpoint is in terms of economic viability. There was all this discussion about why the West does not build pipelines to lock up some Central Asian gas and lock Russia out. Of course, the answer from the panel was, “It is not economically viable.”
Yeah. It is the fundamental difference in the view. In the West, these gas projects rely primarily on private company financing. And even then, this region has played a key role. Because of the construction of the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic pipelines that opened in 2020, bringing more Azerbaijani gas to Europe was achieved not through predominantly Western government’s financial support. It was achieved through the support of the Turkish, Georgian, and Azeri governments through their willingness to invest money there. Also, Russia has a long history of weaponizing these gas supplies. We spoke briefly about how 2006 was the first big gas crisis that already impacted Europe, with Russia looking to pressure Ukraine to demand lower transit fees. And that came simultaneously in the aftermath of the initial Orange Revolution. So in Russia’s view and Russia’s action, it has always tied one with the other. And there is a belated realization. We discussed what is known as the zeitenwende in Germany, the epochal change in the approach to Russia, and the need to do it. However, also that there are still real limitations there. Europe, in particular, and the United States in support, has a long way to go to understand these things, not just as short-term economic projects but as long-term geostrategic ones.
All right. So thanks, Max. And since you are sitting here with a copy of your new book Economic War, I will mention that Max has a new book called Economic War. So look for it wherever your books are sold.
Dato, we will move to you. You were involved in a couple of panels, one on strategic connectivity and one on building resilience. Could you give us your impressions of those discussions on strategic connectivity and building resilience in regional states?
Vasil Dato Sikharulidze:
Well, the first discussion was about strategic connectivity. It was the continuation of this previous panel that was discussing energy. For years and decades, we have been discussing the importance of this South Trans-Caucasian, Trans-Caspian Corridor, the importance of connecting a larger region mass with Europe through the South Caucasus that bypasses Russia. And it was all about not only energy but also transportation, digital informational connection, and some other projects that we see more and more. Like last week, we saw that Germany is signing a clean hydrogen project with Kazakhstan, producing green hydrogen in Kazakhstan and transporting it to Germany. So the importance of this corridor was determined by largely using this energy infrastructure and transportation infrastructure in Russia to exercise its political pressure on Central Asian and South Caucasian states.
The importance of it has become more vivid after last year after Russia launched this full-scale attack or relaunched a full-scale attack on Ukraine. No one doubts the importance of this. But for this, we were advocating for a holistic approach, which includes not only the development of infrastructure, which is an essential component but also providing security to the regions by promoting Georgia’s NATO membership and strengthening democracy and democratic credentials. And, of course, focusing on Georgia. If Georgia wants to become an essential component of this transportation route and for strategic connectivity, it needs to make significant progress toward strengthening democracy, upgrading its infrastructure, and promoting good governance.
“The resilience is a key factor, and we focused mostly on different components of the hybrid war that Russia is fighting against its immediate neighborhood and beyond.”
We did not get into it in the panel discussion, but a question that’s been floating around in my head for the last two days is Georgia’s role as a regional transit country and a nation important to strategic connectivity between Central Asia, Caspian Basin, and then on into Europe, to what extent is that dependent upon the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict not being resolved? In other words, if that conflict is resolved, does Georgia become the town the interstate bypassed? In other words, do the connectivity links then go through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey and bypass Georgia? And what could Georgia do to prevent that? You mentioned strengthening its infrastructure and its democratic credentials. Are there other things Georgia can be doing to position itself?
Vasil Dato Sikharulidze:
Largely, of course, Georgia’s role always has been one way and now, it is changing. With the current government, Georgia’s democratic credentials have been affected. But for years, Georgia was living as an exemplary state for democratic reforms and good governance. So I think that this is exactly the niche that Georgia should maintain. And, of course, we see that, more or less, I do not know if there are some worrisome developments. But, also, there is some positive development with regard to resolving the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. And I have no doubts about it that what is good for Azerbaijan and what is good for Armenia, and I definitely believe that resolving this within the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, resolving this conflict is good for Azerbaijan and good for Armenia. And what is good for Armenia and good for Azerbaijan is good for Georgia. They are so interconnected that we must also be interconnected. In this regard, I hope for the better that there are promising developments vis-a-vis Nagorno-Karabakh.
You also moderated the panel on building resilience in Black Sea Regional states, what did we learn there?
Vasil Dato Sikharulidze:
The resilience is a key factor, and we focused mostly on different components of the hybrid war that Russia is fighting against its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Certainly, its elements, such as propaganda, disinformation, corruption, or corrupt practices, influence decision-making processes beyond their borders. This propaganda that also serves their strategic objectives largely is not less dangerous than military hardware. Sometimes, they can do pretty serious harm to countries, not only to emerging democracies but also to well-established democracies. In this panel, we recognized the importance of, one way or another, standing up against these kinds of influences. Speakers spoke about the importance and need for a better-coordinated strategy to withstand this Russian influence and Russian push with these components of hybrid war.
You made a key point there. And I guess this can wrap up the discussion of this panel nicely, that Russia’s hybrid activities, information warfare, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda can be as dangerous to regional states as its military power. Speaking of Russian military power, that brings us to the last panel, one we just wrapped up about an hour ago here, and that is on the war in Ukraine and its effect on regional security. Nick, you were involved in that panel. Can you summarize that discussion for us?
Well, it is the keystone panel because of all the previous panels’ discussions about security arrangements, security guarantees, and economic development; the wild card is, what Russia’s future position will be in this region. The outcome of the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine will matter greatly. We structured this panel around getting answers to a set of questions that will help us make some judgment calls. First and foremost is the assessment, will the war end with a stalemate? Will Russia be defeated? What will the level of Russian defeat be, in terms of being pushed back, being completely expelled from Ukraine, or a defeat that then leads to fundamental change inside of Russia? Or will Russia solidify its position in a war of attrition, and who will break first? That then raises the question of Western support. Ukraine’s ability to even the odds in the fight against Russia has significantly depended on a unified Western response. Not just simply political support but concrete military support and concrete economic support. How long will that continue? Will Western resolve be shaken if there are nuclear dimensions to the conflict? If there is, whether it is a strategic nuclear weapon, a tactical nuclear weapon, or a nuclear accident, will that change the extent of Western support? Will the West have to increase its involvement? And that can run the gamut, everything from more direct military involvement to really rethinking the types of arrangements it is going to give to Ukraine.
“One of the problems we have had is this doom and irrational optimism cycle that we go through. Where Russia is unstoppable, then Russia’s about to collapse, and Ukraine is going to win this quickly, or no, Ukraine is not.”
And, of course, one of this conference’s themes has been trying to read the tea leaves of the Vilnius summit; what is NATO particularly prepared to do and offer? What will individual NATO members be prepared to do if the alliance is unwilling to move collectively? Finally, what may be the $64,000 question, is the future of the Russian political system. Is it just simply that the system can endure; it will replicate itself? How long will Vladimir Putin have himself to stay in office? Particularly after the recent Wagner march to justice coup, whatever we want to call it. But, also, is it a question simply of leadership transition or systemic transition?
What was interesting about the panel is even when the panelists did not agree and had different assessments, is that there was, I would say, a very sober assessment. One of the problems we have had, and Aaron was on this panel with us, is this doom and irrational optimism cycle that we go through. Where Russia is unstoppable, then Russia’s about to collapse, and Ukraine is going to win this quickly, or no, Ukraine is not. With everyone’s caveating that the future is uncertain, this panel tried to get at the need to be prepared. Olena stressed the point; this could go on for a long time. This war is not something that might wrap up quickly or neatly. Of course, that need for preparation intersects with elections, noting that the US presidential election and other elections in the West may impact how all this plays out and the region as a whole. One of the things to note is that Russia’s tools and power are not merely nuclear and conventional military. It has other tools. And that has an impact if you are trying to create new institutions and structures in the Black Sea Region. Is Russia going to interfere with those, and are they incentivized to interfere with those? All of this ties together that the resolution of the Ukraine conflict will be critical to the future of the Black Sea Region.
Thank you, Nick. One of the most interesting parts of this whole discussion on Ukraine was the last question we tackled; can the Russian system survive the strain? The Wagner insurrection is the most recent indication that it is under stress. We had some disagreement, with one of the panelists saying, “Yes, it probably can,” and several in the middle. Batu, you had a very definitive answer to this question, claiming that the collapse of the Russian system was inevitable. Can you walk us through your logic and explain why the system’s collapse is inevitable and whether Ukraine might be the catalyst that causes the collapse or if it will survive Ukraine and collapse under its weight in some future time?
Thank you very much, Bob. Yes, it was a very engaging, interesting, and in-depth discussion over these two days. We started with NATO and ended up with the Russia panel. It looked 360 degrees because these two issues will determine how European security and global security will work, whether we will have a rules-based order or an order based on the power projection or spheres of influence, et cetera.
“Putin’s latest decision to invade Ukraine accelerated this process of Russian collapse and revealed components of the ugly nature of the authoritarian system. Ukrainians’ brave resistance that did not allow Russia to achieve quick success also identified gaps within the Russian system.”
Therefore, my argument for Russia, which is on an accelerated path to collapse, relies on two components. One is Russia’s history, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russia made the wrong choice to stay an authoritarian country with different alterations and different types of appetites on the way. But, this trajectory also indicates that every step Russia and Russian leadership made was a catastrophe, including the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the interference in democratic elections in the US and European countries. All of this resulted in a catastrophe revealing that Russia has huge internal problems of either maintaining or creating a new identity as a normal state. Therefore, it swings towards a more authoritarian identity.
Putin’s latest decision to invade Ukraine accelerated this process of Russian collapse and revealed components of the ugly nature of the authoritarian system. Ukrainians’ brave resistance that did not allow Russia to achieve quick success also identified gaps within the Russian system. Now, we see an avalanche and an acceleration of the collapsing state, where other symptoms are indicators of its weakness, what is happening inside Russia, the Wagner saga, and many others. It was quite a good panel discussion looking into the problems Russia’s political system faces.
The final message is to stay tuned, watch this channel, and watch what happens in Russia. The war in Ukraine may be the crucible for the Russian state, and it may or may not pass successfully. We conclude with that point, Maia, Aaron, Max, Nick, Batu, and Dato; thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for your time and your insights.
Thanks for tuning into Chain Reaction, a podcast of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, examining the political, security, economic, and social trends shaping Europe and Eurasia. Throughout the year, we are talking with experts about developments in Russia’s war in Ukraine, the new European Security Order, the past, present, and future of the Baltic States, Russia’s political economy, and great power competition in the region. Note that the views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of FPRI. I am your host, Dr. Robert Hamilton, Head of Eurasia Research at FPRI. Visit us at fpri.org for more on today’s topic and many others in the world of foreign policy and national security. Thanks for listening. See you soon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.