We have witnessed such examples of military action in recent times in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The Black Sea basin, unlike other areas of conflict, allows less frequent interventions from external forces because of its relative isolation. The remarks and ambitions expressed by the US and the EU over the basin out of political considerations raise suspicions in Turkey and Russia. The Black Sea basin is attracting the growing attention of global actors because of international trade, its service and probable contribution to energy lines and transportation routes through the Caucasus region, the significance for Russian geopolitics as well as military and commercial ports. The use of Black Sea ports by Russia for energy transportation to Western countries and its service for the transportation of the natural gas reserves of Asian and Caucasus states to European markets are some other factors to cite that make the basin extremely important.
The Black Sea is the most reasonable and shortest route for countries in the Caucasus region to extend the trans-gas network between Azerbaijan and Georgia to Western markets. Current energy hubs in the region, transportation lines and future technological investments will make the region even more important. The independence of the countries in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union has created an area of interaction between the eastern and western shores of the Black Sea and contributed to regional trade. The ports at Sevastopol, Crimea, Konstanz, Varna, Poti, Batumi, Sohum and Trabzon are part of the energy-trans area and included in the current area of interaction that also covers naval fleets. The most recent crisis in this area broke out in 2008 when Russia held a military operation in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia, opening the role of the Black Sea to discussion. A probable conflict between Russia and the US over the Black Sea is possible considering that Russia has to draft a new doctrine vis-à-vis the newly independent states.
Missile shield radar stationed in Kürecik
Even though the shift of the missile shield project from Central Europe to Romania by the United States is attributed to the nearby countries, the missile shield radar stationed in Kürecik, Turkey, a Black Sea littoral state, points to the importance of the region. To this end, joint initiatives are also stationed in countries where civil society has not been properly rooted such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, and NATO has asked to hold military exercises. The creation of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM = Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) is the outcome of such initiatives by the White House. This organization, established in 1997, seeks to consolidate the presence of NATO in the Black Sea and to restrict the sphere of influence of Russia. The hope is that this organization takes the Caucasus closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Within the framework of the recent policies of the US and NATO in the Black Sea, the demand for the expansion of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor (OAE) from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea region attracted a reaction from and opposition by Russia and Turkey.
On the other hand, the Black Sea Cooperation Task Group created in 2001 and the Black Sea initiative launched in 2004 support this move by NATO. It should also be noted that the US was vetoed in 2005 by Russia when it wanted to join the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) as an observer state. During the same years, the media reported that Turkey did not approve of an American demand for a base in Trabzon. It is apparent that American initiatives and efforts to be involved in the Black Sea will remain limited because the Montreux Convention as well as the new military doctrine of Russia do not allow the US to create an outpost in the region. However, in response to the harsh measures and sanctions due to the violation of sovereignty in these two countries in this probable conflict zone, the US and NATO will remain low profile.
The region is also important because of the eagerness of NATO in the Caucasus and its closeness to the centers of crisis in Ossetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and the Balkans. On the other hand, it is apparent that the EU has since 2007 been particularly ambitious about becoming more influential in this region. This attitude of the EU, which has been extending support in the fields of economy, transport and energy cooperation in the region, proves the presence of the adoption of policies inconsistent with the Eastern Partnership Strategy with Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Breaking point in Black Sea security: War in Ossetia
In 2008, at a time when the Olympiads, a symbol of peace, were being held in Beijing, Russia tacitly attacked South Ossetia, which surprised the entire world community. Russian historical tradition shows that it is no secret Russia holds its attacks at times of crisis. While the parties have reached an agreement relying on tacit diplomacy in this environment of crisis in the Caucasus, they resorted to violent responses in the aftermath. Even though Russia has adopted a policy under which it sought global recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state, the policy failed, and it observed the repercussions of the new military doctrine that it implemented during the war. While it was seen as revenge for Kosovo by Russia, the message that the Ossetia case carried for the West was also evident for the energy line. The operation halted the Georgian leg of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
New energy lines have expanded the geopolitics of the region, also enabling the different actors to move from the Caucasus to the Black Sea. In this way, the West-East direction centers in the Black Sea were viewed as an outpost in which Russia would interfere whenever it deems necessary and pro-Russian regimes were supported. Future important geostrategic locations in the Black Sea region include Sevastopol, Crimea, Konstanz and Trabzon. Russia is aware that Konstanz has become an important center for NATO moves and activities as well as commercial activities; new centers like Sevastopol and Crimea are new spots proper for Russian expansionism. The disagreement between Russia and Ukraine enables this; on the other hand, its closeness to energy lines also facilitates the implementation of Russian policies in this region. The identity and past experience of Crimea should also be taken into consideration as major factors.
For Trabzon, another strategic city in the new era, American policies rather than Russian policies may become more relevant. An American base in this city, similar to the one in Adana in Turkey, will change the balance of power in the region, and it may also serve as insurance for Caucasian and gas line security. Even though those scenarios seem possible, it is unlikely that such an option is viable given the sensitive nature of the people in the region.
It should also be noted that, in recent years, the Sinop Nuclear Power Plant Project and Turkey’s natural gas exploration initiatives will make the Black Sea an important center of deterrence. For Turkey, which is insistent on nuclear activities, a move to the centers of crisis in the region is a possibility owing to long coastlines and an aerial fleet.
In consideration of all these new centers of crisis, it is possible to argue that the power and influence of the US will remain in the region in limited proportions; but its aid to allies in the region is important. The region, which is important in terms of energy lines, gas security and strategic location, will become one of the new centers of crisis where the Caucasus and Eastern Europe meet. The region, which remains closed to interaction due to its “closed-basin” structure, may trigger the start of a new era for US policies in Turkish-Russian relations.
*Emrah Usta is a US Foreign Policy analyst and a fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at İstanbul Süleyman Şah University (SAHSAM) in Turkey. He can be followed on Twitter: @StrategcAnalyst