European Affairs

The Black Sea Zone: Connective Tissue or Confrontational Fracture?     Print Email
Ronald D. Asmus

Ronald D. AsmusA neglected zone of geo-political flux is “the wider Black Sea,” a region joining Europe to the Middle East. The area covered by this term comprises the sea’s littoral states—Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia and Russia —together with neighboring nations, notably Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece and Moldova. Located between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that entered NATO and the European Union after 1991, this extended Black Sea region is an epicenter of some core challenges for the Euro-Atlantic community in the broader Middle East. Its future hangs in the strategic balance. It could become “connective tissue” extending democratic transformation and offering opportunities for cooperation to key partners, including Russia. Or it might turn into a dysfunctional zone of confrontation and conflicts.


Growing recognition of the region’s importance stems from the recent coalescence of three factors. First, following the so-called “big bang” wave of enlargement in 2004 and the Rose revolution in Georgia and the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the issue has emerged of whether or not theWest should strive for a possible third wave of Euro-Atlantic enlargement, including countries from Ukraine to Georgia. A move along these lines would be very bold, again redrawing the map of Europe while anchoring Western values deep into Eurasia as well as in the wider Black Sea region. While the recent setback to political and economic reform in Ukraine has tempered it, this vision— and the question of its timeliness—remains on the strategic agenda.

A second new factor is the wider Middle East and the threats emanating from there. Since September 11, 2001, the region has to be seen through a new prism. What once seemed distant and peripheral, now seems closer and central to Europe. In this sense, the wider Black Sea region is the linchpin between core Europe and the wider Middle East. This highlights the need to anchor this region to the West and ensure its stability as part of a broader strategy of shoring up the southern rim of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The third factor is energy security. The wider Black Sea region is a key transit route for energy—natural gas, in particular— from the Caspian to European markets. This region will only grow in importance as a transit route in the years ahead as Europe seeks to diversify suppliers and mitigate the consequences of Russia’s monopolistic energy position. Russia will continue to be Europe’s main energy supplier, but if the EU is to avoid an unhealthy degree of dependence on Russian supplies, Europeans will have to turn to the wider Black Sea region for alternative pipelines and energy corridors.

If these three factors push us to recognize the need for a new strategy, there are also three main hurdles that have prevented such a strategy from taking shape. The first hurdle lies in the region itself and its weaknesses. These countries are weaker and less well-known than their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. They suffer from a set of frozen conflicts that inhibit reform at home, absorb energies and resources and make Western leaders and policymakers think twice about embracing them lest they, too, be drawn into these conflicts. Even the most avid supporters of anchoring these countries to the West acknowledge that the path is steeper and stonier than it was for Central and Eastern Europe.

The second hurdle lies in the current weakness of the West. Politically and economically, both sides of the Atlantic are looking inward at the moment. EU enlargement fatigue has become a real political force in many member states. If the enlargement argument was difficult in the 1990s with Central and Eastern Europe, it is qualitatively harder today after the failed constitutional referendum in France and in the Netherlands and the re-emergence of the debate about the EU’s “absorption capacity.” Instead of a sense of solidarity with these countries, we now see calls for the EU to close the door on enlargement once and for all.

The third hurdle is Russia—specifically Moscow’s drift back to authoritarianism coupled with its growing energy clout. There is widespread recognition in the West that our policies of the past decade vis-à-vis Moscow have failed to achieve our own objectives and need to be re-thought. Yet the debate on how to do so has not yet taken place and there is little consensus on how to do so. This confusion and lack of consensus on what to do about Russia sets the backdrop for the reticence and lack of clarity on how to deal with Moscow on issues in the wider Black Sea region.

Given this backdrop, is it realistic to think that the U.S. and Europe could come up with a common Euro-Atlantic strategy for the wider Black Sea region? Such a strategy would have to make the case for why this region needs to be anchored to the West while fudging the issue of whether the long-term goal is simply a much closer relationship or actual membership in the EU. NATO would have to take the lead in creating that Western perspective and anchor.

In addition, there is a need to build the political coalition across the Atlantic that will work to create such an outreach strategy in the EU and NATO a top priority. In the 1990s a core U.S.-German understanding existed on what needed to be done. Today, Germany is again a key European actor in designing a future strategy toward the wider Black Sea region. German support for such a strategy is necessary but not sufficient. That core group of forward-leaning countries would ideally include the United Kingdom as well and, eventually, France. Many Central and Eastern European countries are likely to be open to such a strategy, especially countries like Bulgaria and Romania, which border on the Black Sea. Equally important, Turkey would have to play a major role in any such group and campaign.

Clearly, NATO must be a key element in any Euro-Atlantic strategic overture on a wider Black Sea zone. The open conflicts and deeper security issues in the region need to be addressed. Their resolution would help support reform and democratic transformation. In this sense, the region provides a textbook case for the classic theory of NATO enlargement, with its premise that extending a security umbrella and filling a security vacuum can help consolidate positive democratic change in a region. If this was true for Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, it is potentially even more valid for these countries today.

There is a tremendous appetite in the region for a greater EU role, too. Enlargement fatigue notwithstanding, very real pressures are at work that seem likely to push the EU over time toward more engagement. Energy security issues are moving to the fore. The Middle East is becoming more important. The need to try to resolve the region’s frozen conflicts before they go hot again is being recognized. At the end of the day, the region is simply too close to the EU’s own borders, is too important in terms of energy security and has too many problems (and too many European aspirations) for the EU to ignore. For the near future, the emphasis, therefore, has to be on stepping up practical EU assistance and support while steering clear of the larger debates that are only likely to paralyze the EU.

The final building block is a strategy to deal with Russia. The key to a future Western strategy is to continue reminding ourselves of a proven mantra: building security and stability on Russia’s borders through democratic integration and collective security is not anti-Russian. On the contrary, it is designed to build the kind of stability in the region from which Moscow, too, will eventually benefit. This is true even if Moscow today does not necessarily view this prospect in these terms. The core problem we face is that Russia today still defines positive democratic transformation in the wider Black Sea region as anti-Russian and inimical to its national interest. As in the 1990s, it will be, therefore, necessary for the West to decide for itself which Russian interests in the region it considers to be legitimate and which we do not, and therefore, will not take into account. And, we have to work hard to pull Moscow over to our way of thinking.

A strategy to resolve the regions frozen conflicts must be at the heart of a new Euro-Atlantic strategy for the region. Part of that re-think centers on the role of Russia. Another centers on whether regional leaders have the political will and legitimacy to build public support in their constituencies for the often-painful decisions required to resolve these conflicts. For too long, Western diplomacy implicitly assumed that our goal should be to get the authoritarian leaders of the region to reach a diplomatic settlement, then have the outside world affirmsuch a deal and, if needed, help impose a solution. The risks and shortcomings of such an approach are becoming clear. In its place, there are new attempts under way to pursue alternative strategies, seeking to use democracy, demilitarization and decriminalization as the key to transforming these conflicts and making them more amenable to resolution.

This overall strategy for the region would require a decade of sustained political and diplomatic effort to consolidate (in some cases, initiate) democratic reform there; resolve existing frozen conflicts in a peaceful fashion; and place the countries of the region on a positive historical trajectory by more firmly anchoring them in the Euro-Atlantic community. Is it worth it? This author’s answer is yes. The stakes for the West in the region are high and the costs of renewed instability potentially too great for us not to try.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.