Dec 06, 2022

Geopolitical Shifts in the Black Sea Region

Russia’s war against Ukraine has increased the importance of the Black Sea. It is high time for the EU to develop an ambitious and comprehensive strategy.

Commercial vessels including vessels which are part of Black Sea grain deal wait to pass the Bosphorus strait off the shores of Yenikapi during a misty morning in Istanbul, Turkey, October 31, 2022.
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The greater region around the Black and Caspian Seas has up until now played a limited role as a corridor for trade, transport, and energy routes between Asia and Europe. However, with Russia's war against Ukraine and the blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, this region is gaining geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. Russia had already shifted the security balance in the Black Sea in its favor by annexing Crimea in 2014 and taking control of the Sea of Azov. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 turned the Black Sea into a flashpoint. It will preoccupy European politics for years to come.

The process of detaching Germany and other European Union member states from Russian natural gas and oil, as well as Western sanctions against Moscow, has increased the importance of the “middle corridor,” linking up Eastern Europe and China via the Caucasus and Central Asia. The southern route via Turkey is also gaining in importance for Russia as a way to circumvent Western sanctions. At the same time, Moscow is weakened by its war against Ukraine and is increasingly unable to control and shape conflicts in the South Caucasus, such as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan. All this means a return of geopolitics and geoeconomics and demands a new and upgraded security strategy by the EU and NATO.

Geostrategic Relevance

Limiting the geopolitical debate to the Black Sea alone obscures the relevance of this region in regard to a much broader strategic approach. Russia and Turkey are playing a central role in the shifting of geopolitical coordinates. Thus, from the Russian perspective, the Black Sea is a springboard for the projection of power and influence in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. The Black Sea gives access to key regions where there are important security challenges (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya) and significant energy resources (the Middle East, the Caspian Sea, and North Africa). Turkey is NATO’s most important Black Sea actor. Ankara sees itself as a bridge for trade between Asia and Europe. One of Turkey’s main goals is to become an energy hub from the Caspian region as well as from the Middle East to Europe. With the war in Ukraine, Turkey has become a key mediator between Ukraine and Russia.

From the EU’s perspective, the Black Sea has so far been primarily an area for trade, economic development, and the transit of raw materials. The focus of EU policy has been the Black Sea Synergy, which was launched as a regional cooperation platform with the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU in 2007. However, this bottom-up approach was never sufficient to actually become truly relevant in the wider geopolitical context. The EU member states’ lack of ambition to play a more relevant role in the region only added to the problem. With the Russian war of aggression, the central challenges in the Black Sea region have gained even more of a security aspect.

Securing transit routes as well as developing alternative sources and routes of natural gas due to Europe’s disentanglement from Russian gas have made Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea once again a focal point for European policy. After the failure of the Nabucco pipeline in 2013 and of the deep-sea port in Anaklia, Georgia, the EU and its member states must ask themselves why they continue to support infrastructure and reforms in the region without developing a strategic approach to tie and integrate it more closely to the EU.

Strategic Challenges

Russia’s war against Ukraine and its attempt to cut it off completely from its ports and transit possibilities in the Black Sea are making it more necessary for the EU and NATO as Europe’s crucial security partner to play a greater role in the Black Sea. Turkey is key in this regard, as demonstrated most recently by the grain export agreement negotiated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At the same time, Moscow is courting Ankara with energy projects and offers of economic cooperation. In Moscow's view, Turkey should become a key country for circumventing Western sanctions.

And it is already clear that Turkey is benefiting from the Western sanctions. Its exports to Russia increased by 86 percent in October, to a value of $1.15 billion. Imports more than doubled to $5.03 billion. Also, Turkey secured an estimated $10 billion investment by Russia in a nuclear power plant. It gets 50 percent of its gas from Russia; oil imports have grown 60 percent this year, at cut prices.

Russia is pursuing two key approaches that apply to the post-Soviet space and, by extension, to the Black Sea region: denial and coercion. First, post-Soviet states are denied access to Western institutions. Above all, the United States, NATO, and the EU are not supposed to be able to set the agenda in the areas of influence claimed by Russia. Second, states in the region are to be forced to accept Russia's dominance. Regarding Russia’s interventions in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), this approach has seen some success, but is reaching its limits with Moscow’s current war against Ukraine. Ukraine no longer accepts being part of a Russian area of influence, and the West is supporting it with weapons and sanctions to prevent Russia from subjugating and incorporating Ukraine by brute force. With regard to the goal of controlling the transit of energy from this region, this Russian policy has been less successful: Azerbaijan exports oil and gas to the EU via Georgia and Turkey.

Moscow has become more flexible with regard to strategic partnerships and regional cooperation in the Caspian region. In the 1990s, Azerbaijan was still committed to becoming integrated into transatlantic structures. After the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, however, it backed off and pursued the neutrality that Moscow demanded. This means that Baku seeks good relations with both Russia and the West without having to choose between the two. NATO and EU inaction in the Russian-Georgian war has made it clear to Azerbaijani leaders that the West will not provide security guarantees to countries in the region. As a result, Azerbaijan does not seek membership of NATO (or the EU), and Moscow, in return, allows Baku to engage in economic and limited security cooperation with third countries such as Turkey and Israel. Even Russian gas seems to be flowing to Europe via the Azerbaijani pipeline system. Ankara has become Baku’s most important partner and was instrumental in Azerbaijan's success in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 in terms of military supplies as well as intelligence.

At the same time, Russia has recognized Azerbaijan’s growing security weight and included the country in trilateral arrangements with Iran and Turkey. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has become an important link in the north-south corridor connecting Russia and Iran, and thus, on a larger scale, the Arctic with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, respectively. In mid-September 2022, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia concluded a memorandum of understanding for a north-south transit corridor to develop infrastructure and transport capacity on this route.

Energy as a Unifying Element

On energy, Russian policy has shifted from a blockade mentality on the partitioning of the Caspian Sea to pragmatic compromises. Here, it was primarily the United States that played a central role by supporting the construction of the Transcaucasian Oil Pipeline and the South Caucasus Gas Pipeline as well as securing energy infrastructure from this region to Europe in the 1990s. In return for third countries not being able to access the waters or station military infrastructure there, Moscow has agreed to divide the Caspian Sea into national sectors. In return for neighboring countries accepting Moscow’s military dominance, Russia has even largely abandoned its opposition to the construction of a trans-Caspian infrastructure.

As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing pressure on other post-Soviet states, countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have an interest in exporting more gas and oil to Europe, bypassing Russia, in order to find a better balance with Moscow. Therefore, the transit of oil and gas via the Caspian Sea, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea through the middle corridor could gain in importance. To what extent Russia will put pressure on the countries of Central Asia to prevent this diversification remains to be seen. In any case, Kazakhstan, which currently depends on the Russian pipeline system, has made it as difficult as possible to transport more gas to Europe: Pipelines and other delivery options have suffered repeated disruptions.

The principle that military infrastructure from third countries is not allowed in the Caspian region is something the Russian leadership also wants to enforce when it comes to the Black Sea. In this regard, close coordination with Turkey on security and economic issues is central for Moscow in order to limit the influence of the United States and NATO. Moscow has no problem with Turkey being a NATO member as long as it remains neutral with regard to Russian interests, as in the annexation of Crimea, or accepts Russian dominance with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh. But the weaker Moscow becomes as a consequence of its invasion of Ukraine, the stronger Ankara’s bargaining position in all these issues becomes.

However, the war against Ukraine has weakened Russia. Moscow has withdrawn some of its most professional troops from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and its “peacekeepers” in Nagorno-Karabakh and replaced them with conscripts. Russia's weak response to the September escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia shows that even a rather small country like Azerbaijan can use the situation to test how far it can go vis-à-vis Moscow. This can only happen in coordination with Ankara, and the Turkish leadership will try to gain more influence in the South Caucasus and thus on transit routes to Central Asia by continuing to support Baku. Armenia has more to lose, because its main security provider is Russia and its membership of the Moscow-led CSTO security organization has not brought any benefit independent of the Kremlin to the country.

Turkey has so far not supported Western sanctions against Russia. However, Erdoğan is keen to ensure that his country does not come under Western financial and banking sanctions itself. At the same time, Turkey's negotiating position with Russia has improved with regard to price discounts for Russian oil and gas, and Erdoğan is playing a key role in negotiations between Russia and the West and Ukraine in the Black Sea. On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in mid-September, Erdoğan made clear that he sees the possibility for negotiations with Moscow to end the war, but only after Russia returns all the occupied territories.

European Security and Geopolitics

Although the EU is an important market for energy resources from the region and a major player in economic development as well as civil conflict management, it is not an important player in relation to security. So far, the EU has neither shown the ambition nor created the institutional or material conditions to play a real role in the greater Black Sea and Caspian Sea region. This makes it all the more important to stop avoiding a strategic debate on the importance of the region for European security in the light of the war.

Brussels has attempted to improve the region’s connectivity with the EU with major infrastructure projects since the 1990s under the Trans-European Networks program. At the same time, major infrastructure projects such as the Nabucco gas pipeline have failed, and geo-economically important projects such as the deep-sea port of Anaklia on Georgia’s Black Sea coast have not received the necessary support.

This requires ambitious projects for the construction of infrastructure and transit capacities between the Caspian and Black Seas to Europe. Going forward, this also includes the development of an infrastructure for alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydrogen, which have enormous potential both in Turkey and in the South Caucasus. This would make countries like Turkey and Armenia less dependent on gas supplies from Russia, and allow Azerbaijan to diversify its economy away from oil and gas exports. Azerbaijan itself can supply only small amounts of additional gas to the European market in the short term. But Baku is ready to channel more gas from Central Asia through the South Caucasus Pipeline toward Europe.

Relevant funds from the EU and European financial institutions are flowing into individual countries in the region without these investments being combined with an overall strategy for the entire region. Russia’s weakness will lead to a further disintegration of the post-Soviet space, with new orders emerging in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. If the EU does not upgrade its policy toward these regions, other country will shape their future. In contrast to Central Asia, China has not yet prioritized the Black Sea region within its Belt and Road Initiative. Nonetheless, the EU will have to find answers to China’s growing economic influence there in the medium term. Individual initiatives such as Eastern Partnership, the Black Sea Synergy, the Central Asia Strategy, the Connectivity Strategy, and Trans-European Networks need an update should therefore be combined into an overall strategy for the greater Black and Caspian Sea region. In this context, the integration of states such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia into the EU is just as important as improving relations with Turkey as a key country in the region.      

Stefan Meister is head of the International Order and Democracy Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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