Plugging into the World through the Black Sea

The recent NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum held in October rightly underlined the need for new ideas, skills and partnerships and for the development of viable security structures capable of rising to the modern challenges of our era—and these needs are indeed especially relevant when one considers the current geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Black Sea region. Historically a space for trade, the latter is increasingly becoming an arena for competition and rivalry aggravated by the complexity of conflicting interests along its shores and by a lack of meaningful multilateral arrangements capable of resulting in trade-offs and ensuring some sense of balance.

Interests Old & New: Shades & Shadows

The Black Sea region is of course unique in many respects, but most importantly it is a perfect example of new interactions between “old” powers rendered more complex by the "new normals" of our upended world. For Russia, the geostrategic significance of the Black Sea has remained unchanged since the Crimean War of 1853-1856. In today’s landscape, however, with NATO and the United States replacing individual European countries as Russia's main geopolitical competitors, the Black Sea has become even more important. This increase is also accentuated by Russia's perception of its neighbors as entry points for attempts to shape its informational space and internal policies. The Kremlin's modus operandi reflects all these concerns: while trying to prevent neighboring countries from escaping from its perceived sphere of influence (the Primakov Doctrine), Russia also aims to undermine their ability to build competitive and sustainable national states. In purely strategic terms, the ultimate purpose of these twin objectives is to maintain a "strategic depth" along Russia’s borders; at the operational level, however, Moscow’s actions rely upon a series of modern military tools that are primarily hybrid (asymmetric) in nature and designed to be used in “grey area” or low-intensity conflicts (the Gerasimov Doctrine).

NATO has long described the Black Sea region as "important for Euro-Atlantic security" (see, for example, the Bucharest Summit Declaration of 2008), but it was not until the Warsaw Summit in 2016 that NATO pledged to increase its presence in the region—a pledge which has since been reemphasized in various NATO and NATO-Georgia Commission statements. Indeed, the very latest statement by the North Atlantic Council in Batumi speaks of "new priorities for the coming period". Such a strongly articulated interest is hardly surprising: with Russia dropping a new Iron Curtain across the Black Sea, the region is increasingly becoming a new defensive perimeter running along the fault line between two normative worlds—that of democracy, and that of authoritarianism.

Effectively, we are witnessing (or certainly will witness) the reintroduction, in new forms, of Kennan’s policy of containing the USSR after the Second World War—but this analogy is, however, only partially true, given the challenges to the Alliance’s resilience posed by its many inner contradictions and its lack of practical means capable of reigning in asymmetrical modern warfare.

Strains Innate to Unlucky Geography

The Black Sea region and Tbilisi’s geopolitical course through it are marked by a series of specific features. To begin with, Georgia is an “in-between” state (a reality that speaks for itself). Coupled with the prevailing but mistaken view that the Alliance’s military focus should be on the Baltic rather than on the Black Sea, this seems to implicitly underscore the Alliance’s apparent vulnerability when the need arises to act near Georgia’s borders. Yet recent NATO statements and decisions, however, hopefully negate the apparent imbalance of interest in the Baltic at the expense of the Black Sea region.

An extra point of consideration is related to the nature of Black Sea itself: unrestricted and unimpeded access. In this respect, the long-standing issue of free passage through the Turkish Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles) and the extent of the limitations imposed by the Montreux Convention is compounded by Turkey’s attempts to find the right balance between its national and regional interests and NATO’s attempts to bolster the Alliance’s presence in the Black Sea. Coupled with developing a "special" relationship with Russia, Turkey's aims increasingly resemble walking on a tightrope. Next in line for the regional conundrum is Russia's attempt to reestablish a “closed-sea” doctrine in the Black Sea (incidents in the Sea of Azov are a testament to Moscow’s new objectives) while continuing to act as a besieged fortress and, most notably, acting with a feeling of impunity. By claiming de facto sovereignty over the Sea of Azov, future Russian moves may well imperil the wider Black Sea basin (and, by extension, the eastern Mediterranean). For the record, however, it must never be forgotten that of six littoral states along the shores of the Black Sea, three are now NATO members and two have officially stated their aspirations to join, effectively transforming the sea into a "NATO lake".

The core premise of this unlucky and perilous geographical location in which Russia and the West are increasingly locked in competition is that Georgia must pursue a highly sophisticated and rational policy. Our approach to circumstances on the ground should arguably be twofold: Tbilisi must continue to undertake robust domestic reforms while working with international partners to enhance our national security.

Hurdles, Puzzles, Outlooks

Rapid changes in the regional security environment, beyond the Black Sea region to the wider Middle East, impose upon Georgia a search for various options capable of enhancing its security design. These options may range from one extreme to another, but each should be gauged cautiously by studying its far-reaching consequences. To name but a few, a recent study by the RAND Corporation entitled "A Consensus Proposal for a Revised Regional Order in Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia" discusses a so-called "third way" for in-between states (countries located between Russia and the West) and proposes various mechanisms for easing existing regional tensions through the establishment of a new regional order. At the other end of the "options menu" is the possibility of Georgia signing a defense treaty with its key strategic partner, and in doing so bypassing the hurdle of the absence of unanimity regarding the question of NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and negating Moscow’s "veto rights".

When speaking about NATO in the Black Sea region and the idea of Georgian membership, one must bear in mind that, in addition to rifts between member states over the idea of the Alliance increasing its presence in Russia’s "near abroad", is the deterrent effect of brewing “ethnic” conflicts. Moscow is indeed perfectly aware of the inherent weakness posed by the multicultural nature of the Black Sea countries, and does its best to exploit the latter to further its geopolitical goal of preventing the Alliance from penetrating the region and coming closer to Russia’s borders. This policy of "divide, deter and dominate" maintains both Georgia and the West as hostages, and in any case the West has no clear-cut response capable of addressing the dilemma of the Senkaku Paradox. That said, the West must realize once and for all that supposedly “ethnic” conflicts are purely geopolitical and should formally welcome Georgia as a fully-fledged member, since offering Tbilisi "just enough partnership" merely increases Russian retribution.

New Unity, New Prospects

In the context of a new unity between free nations in the Black Sea region, the Alliance must focus on pursuing continued, meaningful and results-driven actions with those regional partners that share its vision. At the same time, NATO must be alert to every possible opportunity to make the region a platform for deconflicting and accommodating clashing interests. Might this be feasible in the long run by agreeing in principle on the Black Sea region's significance as a bridge between Europe, the Caspian and Central Asia? Perhaps, provided that the Euro-Atlantic Alliance manages to define a meaningful security concept stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and that countries in the region master the art of balancing conflicting interests.

By Victor Kipiani, Chair, GeoCase

14 November 2019 20:11