Over the past decade, the situation in the Black Sea has developed under the influence of geopolitical changes and new trends in world politics, as well as under the influence of the internal political situation in individual countries of the region. Black Sea states become members of various organizations, new pipeline projects are implemented in the region, and this consequently creates the basis for interstate relations. Active policies are pursued in the region by various outside actors that seek to establish themselves in the Black Sea as a dominant force.
The new geopolitical structure of the Black Sea region was announced back in the 90s of the last century, when the first pipeline projects were proposed for the supply of energy resources from East to West. Starting from that time, the Black Sea region was gradually beginning to occupy a central place in the West, and is making efforts to protect and promote its interests in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The geopolitical and economic situation in the Black Sea region has become much more complicated after 2014. In time, this coincided and was mostly affected by crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russian Federation.
Therefore in 2014-2019, the situation in the Black Sea region sharply worsened. Tensions in the Black Sea region are influenced by the confrontational course of official Kremlin; by the tendency for the separation of states according to political preferences which became firmly entrenched and influenced the failure of multilateral projects; as well as by the involvement of Western countries which have an intention to increase their influence in the region. Thus, these and other factors are tightening the knot of geopolitical problems that have accumulated in the Black Sea region.
Therefore, in the presentation is necessary to elaborate on the geopolitical realities of the Black Sea region in the period starting after the Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For that purpose It would be possible to divide the research into several parts: the first part would be dedicated to the overall importance of the Black Sea region from the geopolitical point of view, after that It will be named the most important and influential players which are involved in the region and what interests they pursue, in the third part of the presentation will be focused on the geopolitical importance of Crimea for Russian Federation and the region itself, and after that It will be finally presented the information on how the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea region changed after the Crimea annexation.
Role of the Black Sea Region in the regional and global context
The Black Sea is located geographically at the intersection of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East, which leads to a difficult political, diplomatic, economic and military situation. Turning to the classics of geopolitical theories, we can note that many of them (even those who did not focus on this particular region) mention the Black Sea and the countries adjacent to it in their concepts as important territory for world interactions of the past and present.
Considered one of the founders of geopolitical concepts, J.H. Mackinder writes in his works that “the heartland is the northern and inner part of Euro-Asia. It extends south from the Arctic coast to the middle deserts, and the wide isthmus between the Baltic and Black Seas forms its western limits. ” (Makkinder, 2006/2007) Therefore, even if this territory itself is not included in the "heartland", then, according to the author, it forms part of the "gate" that provides the protection and defense function.
Another author, who included part of the Black Sea region in the composition of the important for the whole world zone, which he called “Rimland”, is the famous American representative of geopolitical concepts N. Spykman. Defining this space, he writes: “Rimland (periphery) of the Eurasian continental massif should be considered as an intermediate region located ... between the core land and the extreme seas. It serves as an extensive buffer zone of conflict between naval and land forces. Looking in both directions, it should function “amphibiously” and protect itself on land and sea. ” (Spykman, 1969) Including Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, etc., this zone is the area of confrontation between the great world powers and ultimately determines the fate of Eurasia and the whole world.
The above statements are somehow widely, but reliably made it possible to demonstrate that the Black Sea region and its countries were not only indirectly, but also directly interpreted by the famous authors as extremely significant areas of geopolitical world interaction. Moreover, the fact that the context of such a review was not only territorial, but also “defensive” and resource-based, also finds confirmation in the cited works.
The region is an important source of oil and natural gas and could potentially become a bridge between resource-rich Central Asia and the global energy market. Thus, the different interests of countries in the Black Sea region constantly clash with each other and fight, but not with conventional weapons, but primarily with the help of economic pressure and sanctions, as well as EU and US countries, in order to gain a dominant position. The most important element in this war of two geopolitical concepts - maritime and continental powers - is energy.
This direct connection of the significance of the region, its resources and place in the security system allows us to move on to considering modern concepts, for which it is also characteristic. It should be noted that the famous authors cited in the text are obviously not the only representatives of geopolitical theories that included the Black Sea region in one way or another in their concepts. However, the very fact of such inclusion and fame of these authors serves as a demonstration of conceptual significance, which it obviously possessed.
Modern views of the late XX - early XXI century confirm this. According to analysts, there are three main groups of influence pursuing their policies in the Black Sea - these are NATO, Europe (more precisely the EU) and Russia. Although there are other actors involved, these “great three” are the most prominent ones and therefore It should be analyzed their interests in the region throughout the next part of the research
Influential players involved in the region
The wide Black Sea region is represented by a large number of countries, namely: Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania (all three states - Turkey since 1952, Bulgaria and Romania since 2004 - are NATO members with full rights in the organization, and also are members of the EU: Bulgaria and Romania since 2007, and Turkey is a candidate for EU membership); Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – the so-called EU’s Eastern Neighborhood countries (with Ukraine and Georgia having signed an Association Agreement with the EU and also both countries proclaiming their inspiration to join NATO).
Over the past two decades, the Black Sea region has gone through difficult times, numerous wars, border changes, ethnic conflicts, political and economic crises. All the major players in the international arena - the USA, the EU, Russia - pursue the same goal of expanding and strengthening their influence and ensuring an economic presence in the region, although they use various geostrategic means.
Therefore, two major geopolitical axes can be distinguished: on the one hand the North-South axis (Russia - Armenia - Iran), and on the other, the East-West axis, which includes Caspian Sea energy resources flowing through the Caucasus and the Black Sea to Western Europe. Both axes that intersect in Azerbaijan are called upon to make the region the foundation of fundamental security. These two axes became apparent especially after 2000, when, after becoming President of Russia, Vladimir Putin began the process of revival of Russian power.
Located in close proximity to the European Union and being a kind of security pivot emerging in the geopolitical and geostrategic realities of the Greater Middle East, the Black Sea region is of strategic importance for the EU. The region’s historical process has not ended; it still needs to eliminate the legacy of the Cold War and establish stability and democracy in Europe. This process began initially in Central Europe, in the Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe, and then included the Black Sea region. The turning point that led to a change in the attitude of Western states in this area was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In this context, the Black Sea region, due to its geographical position relative to the Middle East, has become the center of attention of the West. For example, in the resolution of the European Parliament you can find the statement that “the Black Sea region is a strategic bridge connecting Europe with the Caspian Sea basin, Central Asia and the Middle East, and further, with Southeast Asia and China, and is characterized by its close ties and tremendous potential, but also diversity and rivalry." (Nikiforov, 2000) Thus, all the conceptual components of the significance of the Black Sea are preserved and find expression in the EU foreign policy clauses.
The views formed in the USA can be the demonstrated trough the beliefs in the necessity of enlargement NATO eastward. In general the significance of the Black Sea for Western strategy puts forward two categories of justifications: strategic and moral. From the standpoint of the strategy, there are a number of components that make the region so important: The first component is associated with the completion of work to consolidate peace and stability in Europe itself. The second component is related to counteracting the most dangerous threat to the future of Euro-Atlantic security, expiring from outside the continent - the Greater Middle East. An auxiliary, but nevertheless important strategic premise is related to Europe’s access to energy sources. The moral justifications differ little from the first group of peace and security and can be formulated as moral obligations to cope with the destructive results of half a century of separation and communism and make the eastern half of Europe as reliable, democratic and safe as the western half of the continent. The main thing here is the recognition of the important and sometimes paramount role of the Black Sea region in promoting American and European geopolitical strategies, due to: the location of the region, its role in the security system and the resources, if not of the Black Sea itself, then those that are transported through it.
Speaking about Russian concepts, it is not difficult to guess that ideas about the Black Sea region can be found in the works of various authors. For this research it should be taken the works and ideas of the “farther of modern Russian geopolitical thought” – Alexander Dugin. For him, the Black Sea region is a fairly integrated and important aggregate for Russian geopolitics. One of the brightest and far from the only confirming statements may be this:
“The absolute imperative of Russian geopolitics on the Black Sea coast is the total and unlimited control of Moscow over its entire length from Ukrainian to Abkhaz territories. You can arbitrarily split up this entire zone on an ethnocultural basis, providing ethnic and confessional autonomy to Crimean Russians, Tatars, Cossacks, Abkhazians, Georgians, etc., but all this only with absolute control of Moscow over the military and political situation. These sectors should be radically divorced from the thalassocratic influence of both coming from the west and from Turkey (or even Greece). The northern coast of the Black Sea should be exclusively Eurasian and centrally subordinate to Moscow. ” (Dugin, 2000)
Thus, without even referring in general to the work “Fundamentals of Geopolitics”, which contains a significant number of references to both the Black Sea and countries belonging to its region, we can conclude that the importance that A. G. Dugin attaches to the Black Sea is primarily with relation to the field of Russian security and geopolitics.
However, you should not think that the entire Black Sea region comes down to the relations of these three main players. Brzezinski considers Turkey as one significant subject, in his opinion, “Turkey and Iran are primarily important geopolitical centers. Turkey stabilizes the Black Sea region, controls access from it to the Mediterranean Sea, balances Russia in the Caucasus, still remains an antidote to Muslim fundamentalism and serves as NATO’s southern anchor.” (Brzezinski, 1998) In addition, the author claims that “Russia's loss of its dominant position in the Baltic Sea was repeated in the Black Sea, not only due to Ukraine’s independence, but also because the newly independent states of the Caucasus - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - have strengthened the opportunities of Turkey to restore once lost influence in this region.” (Brzezinski, 1998) Thus, three more countries of the Black Sea region are included by Brzezinski in the logic of geopolitical constructions and are defined as their immediate participants.
Geopolitical significance of Crimea and consequences of its annexation to the Black Sea region
Geopolitical significance of Crimea and consequences of its annexation to the Black Sea region
The geopolitical significance of the Crimean peninsula Was associated with the struggle of two great forces in the Black Sea region - the Russian and Ottoman empires. The acquisition of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Empire and its loss by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century (1783) are two key historical moments. It was during that period that the transformation of the Russian Empire into a great global power.
Describing, like previous authors, the fundamental importance of Eurasia for world processes, Brzezinski wrote about the special role of the Black Sea territories and the countries adjacent to it, primarily such as Ukraine. One of the important ideas he described in The Great Chessboard is the statement that “if Moscow regains control of Ukraine with its 52 millionth population and large resources, as well as access to the Black Sea, then Russia will automatically again receive funds to turn into a powerful imperial state, spread in Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe, transforming Poland into a geopolitical center on the eastern borders of a united Europe. ” (Brzezinski, 1998) Thus, it is precisely these countries of the Black Sea region (Russia and Ukraine) that recognize the special significance and ability to influence far beyond the borders of their internal territories.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the situation in the Black Sea changed dramatically. The peninsula has become the main base for the implementation of Russian interests in the south-eastern flank of NATO.
First of all, today, in the Crimea alone, about 28,000 Russian troops are deployed. Over the past ten years, the country's military budget has almost doubled. The Russian side is trying to crush a small fleet of Ukraine, which has access to the Sea of Azov. But equipping the Black Sea Fleet with new submarines and frigates with winged long-range missiles "Caliber", Russia openly demonstrates the strength before NATO member countries.
The status of the Black Sea itself has not changed due to the annexation of Crimea; the political and economic security situation around it has changed. The Black Sea is still an “international reservoir”, however, in the new conditions, certain corrections appear. For example, the flight conditions of aircraft over the Black Sea are changing. The territory of Crimea is closed for flights by international aviation, which actually causes direct damage to many airlines in the world. The order of call to the Black Sea ports located in the Crimea has also changed. In fact, they are under sanctions, which mean that the effectiveness and order of their work is changing.
Because of Russian imperialistic policy, the security situation in the Black Sea has worsened significantly. Crimea become a large military base for Russian Federation.
In contrast to the Mediterranean or Baltic seas, the Black Sea region has never been homogeneous in historical and cultural terms. During the Cold War, there was a border between East and West. Today, the interests of three major players intersect here: Russia, Turkey and the West. At the same time, this is not about harmonizing relations, but about dividing the Black Sea into zones of influence. And this may well be the starting point for conflicts.
By: Nika Chitadze
Professor of the International Black Sea University
Director of the Center for International Studies
Invited Professor of the European University and Caucasus International University
President of the George C. Marshall Alumni Union, Georgia – International and Security Research Center