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Will the Black Sea Blow Up?

Will the Black Sea Blow Up?

by Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi
July 4, 2013

The urgency with which Russian President, Vladimir Putin ordered his Black Sea fleet out from the harbour to conduct naval manoeuvres early morning, on 28 March 2013, sent a shudder down the spines of neighbours’ militaries.

The questions were numerous but the answers few. Did he mean to test the battle worthiness of his aging naval fleet harboured at Sevastopol? Why precisely, he felt the need to mobilise the fleet on arrival from South Africa? Were the manoeuvres aimed at sending message to Black Sea littorals and distant actors to know that Black Sea was crucial to Russian security with little margin for expanding intrusion? Was the zero-notice to other Black Sea navies was a curt reminder that Russia enjoyed the privilege of a dominant Black Sea power? Was it a politico-military facet of diplomacy to mark Russian disapproval about the US-Ukrainian naval exercises, conducted a week ago?

Whatever the interpretations, an impression was abundant that morning as if the Black Sea faced a repeat hysteria of being ‘blown up’. It occurred at least once during the last century when huge fire wall, about 500 m high and 2.4 km long, was observed on its surface by Russian navy on 11 September 1927, just after a massive earthquake struck Crimea. The phenomenon was amply covered in secret dispatches by Russian navy anchored at Sevastopol. A Russian scholar’s article of 1983 kicked of worrisome debate when he reported that huge fires were of exploding hydrogen sulphide (not true) that sits layered on Black Sea bed in massive quantities (true).

Black Sea Paradigm: Dimensions and Dichotomy
Russian fleet sallying out on the President’s order made amply manifest that Black Sea powers and some others beside are not on the same page of harmony and cooperation. Not only the Black Sea bed sizzles with possible volcanic eruptions but the littorals’ geopolitics of Black Sea is also primed with enormous latent tension that could blow up if not handled prudently. It would be pertinent to have a look at the dynamics and the pitfalls of the Black Sea obtaining narrative.

Black Sea has surface area of about 423,000 km2 and with the Sea of Azov to its North, if included; its total area is about 460,000 km2. Bosporus and Dardanelles straits connect it with Marmara Sea and Aegean Sea. Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria are the direct littorals that share Black Sea coastal line.

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The region has come to receive an added focus when some crucial developments are enveloping it. An analyst commented, “The driving force for cooperation in the post-Cold War era has been the need to move away from the disruptive influences of global ideological and military confrontation to the attractions of economic cooperation…” From all consideration, a historical arena, the expanding EU influence, dawn of Balkans stability, NATO thrust with ability to embrace added area of responsibility to the SE, simmering conflicts-like situation among the littorals and their neighbours have made it the subject of stressful diplomacy. Though opinions expressed by the leaders and states’ functionaries portray polite tones on the surface but behind every word, there is a deep mesh of snares, suspicions and dichotomous perceptions. When opening symposium proceedings, the first tell-all sentence Dr. Horst Mahr spoke, “The Black Sea region comes only into the spotlight of attendency if there is any crisis developing.”

Attempt by a distant patron, US, from the NATO platform in support of post-Soviets states’ privilege to pursue sovereign foreign policies turns Black Sea waters even murkier. Russia, a staunch exponent of regional cooperation categorically denounces any measure that would complicate the Black Sea geo-politics. As Russia sees Black Sea region in its exclusive geographical interpretation, US and EU tend to focus on wider Black Sea region to include Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and in fact connect it to Mediterranean. In the wake of new discoveries, energy politics in Eastern Mediterranean could lead to new twists, even reshaping or catapulting some traditional alliances. “The discovery in late 2010...revealed that the entire eastern Mediterranean is swimming in huge untapped oil and gas reserves. That discovery is having enormous political, geopolitical as well as economic consequences. It well may have potential military consequences too.”

Turkey, because of its geo-strategic advantage, by implications, and Russia because of its military power potentials are the two actors who predominate the scene immediately. While Turkey’s support for NATO expansion is mandatory, being an ally, its achieving sync with EU’s policy of wider regional cooperation for added peace and security also resonates with the EU’s charter, being its potential member-on-long-wait. However, Turkey is in comfortable position to deal with Russia amicably whose perception for regional cooperation in narrow sense and of others seeking wider roles make Black Sea an area of significant contention.

In broad sense the arguments hinge on the necessity to cooperate in Black Sea for ensuring breathing space for Balkans, Eastern Europe and ultimately for Central Europe against such threats like terrorism, drugs and human trafficking. Alive to the haunting history of empires, the proponents, mainly EU, possibly contend that thriving cooperation in Black Sea region would usher in an era of prosperity, subduing the historic sting of barbs which remain but no one acknowledges. US is emboldened by the legitimacy of its approach on the merit of international laws that permit sovereign states to traverse through international waters for extensive socio-economic and politico-military relations if mutually convenient to the parties. However, such an increased focus at the moment at least appears to impede the pace of regional cooperation. An observer opines, “The Black Sea area is characterized by the projection of power politics by major stakeholders such as the United States, Russia and the EU.”

Conflicting Elements
Russia perceives non-littorals meddling in Black Sea as unwarranted and beyond the measures of any economic cooperation. Above all, Russian concept of defence of Russian Federation begins from the territories of post-Soviet space from the West to the East/SE which she would grudgingly deny. Russia has relinquished territorial claims over its erstwhile satellites but seems provoked if any encroachment on its security paradigm is made. In other words, if Russia is denied recognition of such privilege by the West, it could resort to means necessary to re-assert its stance. Russo-Georgian conflict and persisting tension among Russia versus Moldova and Ukraine are small reminders to the international community. Some sources take the Russian obduracy back to the history. US Army Colonel asserts, “The BSF (Black Sea Fleet), headquartered in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on the Crimea, is Russia’s Sword of Damocles in the often volatile areas of southeast Europe and the Caucasus region. As Russia’s only year-round warm-water fleet, it is steeped in military history, tracing its roots to 1783, when Russia annexed the Crimea and established the port of Sevastopol.” But then, singling out an event in isolation when Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian Empires had been going through expansion and shrinkage phase concurrently would be unfair and test the journalistic neutrality of any opinion maker.

Several frozen conflicts in the region lend an edge to Russia in the pivots’ number to conduct power manoeuvres for denying space to others that Russia has clung to for centuries. Romania and Bulgaria, conspicuously lean to the West but have been cautious in showing any red rag to Russia that encourages the post-Soviets space countries to gravitate on the power hub, called Russia. In the given matrix of potential conflicts, Georgian and Ukrainian efforts to seek NATO’s security umbrella only adds some more layers to the regional fracturing dynamics. Russia would thus not miss any chance to establish that Black Sea is about to become NATO garrison, clinching Russian coast by the collars. An analyst also makes interesting comments, “The paradox of the situation is that in the West, Russia, in spite of being one of six Black Sea littoral states, is predominantly perceived of as an outside power. In truth, Russia has not only its finger but its whole arm in this regional “cake.” She further goes on to quote an old Soviet Cult Classic. “One’s own among strangers – a stranger among one’s own”. By no means, such perception would help any successful dialogue unless the actors’ ‘status’ is placed in correct perspective.

Hectic bilateral or multilateral diplomatic efforts by the actors are ample indications that they are well versed with the impending consequences if the security parameters remain vulnerable. From regional cooperation to the geopolitics of force-posturing, there are varied interpretations of several forms of regionalism that ultimately supplement the individual actors’ national interests. EU does not harbour such intention except the promotion of regional peace and stability but there are reasons to assume that Russia would not trust EU about the pretexts to advance into its security space.

However if EU pursues claimed neutrality that is ostensibly devoid of any political agenda despite the fact that its territories now hug the Black Sea with Romania and Bulgaria on its inventory, it stands better chance to make plausible breakthrough or at least keep Russia engaged as a part of solution and not as a part of the problem. In comparative terms, EU has hand on wheel (of crises) experience about the regions that too presented enormous challenges. It initiated the Northern Dimension, 1999, the Barcelona Process, 1995 and the Balkan Stability Pact, 1999, which substantiate EU’s track record for diluting, if not wiping off entirely post-WW-II trauma among the parties. However, some sceptics rule out emergence of such euphoria when they hypothesise not-so-secret energy agenda of the actors, particularly the ones which are non-littorals. When enormous volumes of hydro carbon reserves lie in Russia, Caucasus and Caspian, only sly observer would find the spectre of race to new found love for the Black Sea beaches as intriguing because of them. Next year Sochi Winter Olympics may be a symbolic coincidence.

The West finds Russian stance in Black Sea region from glitch-prone to inflexible. Perhaps to achieve added legitimacy, US have successfully linked the interests of entire Trans-Atlantic Community that Russia finds nothing more than coercive diplomacy as well as the lingering legacy of Cold War era. Russian intelligentsia frequently questions its role as a ‘myth or reality’. For Russia, talk of human rights, strengthening of democracies and enhancing regional security of Black Sea littorals by US are mere ploys, linked with wider array of global objectives. Russian strategists are not likely to fail the refuting logic that if Black Sea region had been relatively calm in absence of these slogans, the Community’s themes stir more fractured approaches than contributing anyway towards evolving a consensus Black Sea institutionalised solution model.

Some geo-political wizards also see Trans-Atlantic Community phenomenon creeping towards Black Sea as an attempt to dilute Russian fixation for ‘Near Abroad’ and ‘Back Yard’ that Russia caters for while charting out its course of strategic defence. A policy report suggests, “After 11 September 2001 the transatlantic security focus shifted from central and Eastern Europe to what has been dubbed the “Greater Middle East” and “Wider Black Sea” regions. The US reassessed its geostrategic interest in the area and added a military dimension to its strategy by enhancing the role of NATO.” Therefore, the community approach to the Black Sea region is based on military rollers and that is precisely the ingredient Black Sea would find hard to put up with.

Another question that Russia has for US is that Black Sea never needed over-kill capability among littorals, why is US keen to shift its forces pivot from Central Europe to Bulgaria and Romania while she has second powerful actor, Turkey, already on NATO’s page. It would be hard to find an answer particularly when US relocation of strategic pivots (Asia-Pacific is another) after withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, have become the subject of serious as well as scary debate. Traditionally as it is, all conflicts draw scrutiny from different angles but US has clear advantage over Russia and other dissenters because of larger reservoir of intellectual support, she maintains. Alexandros Petersen, backing US, does have fear from within but omits to applaud some members’ principled stand to the contrary. He comments “However, given the divergent world views of the US and states such as France, it is entirely possible, albeit highly undesirable, that there will be an impasse in NATO consensus on whatever endeavour the US proposes....”

Weighing the magnitude of approach variants that Russia has with US and EU, the diplomatic chronology of events during the last decade suggests that Russia is at ease with Turkey, somewhat suspicious but approachable by EU and less reconciled with US. EU’s persistent stance to seek regional cooperation, even in wider context is less frustrating for Russia and Turkey but when the coaxing comes from US, Russia appears least amenable just because US has not been able to maintain regional deception while Russia has carefully measured her intent. EU, though without military power potential, improved its index of credibility in the region when it brokered peace between Georgia and Russia successfully in 2008. Does Russia realise that EU, by brokering fragile peace, not only removed a dilemma for Georgia but also for Russia as it came under scathing attacks for launching offensive against a weaker neighbour though some maintain that Georgia had asked for it? Perhaps answer is affirmative.

The dynamic of actors’ desire to achieve harmony of views and cooperation are essentially important but has remained plagued by power politics to materialise. The Black Sea is a recognised entity with perceived navigation rights for all littorals. However the varied interpretation of the Black Sea region by the non-littoral actors makes it an issue, ripe for dissent. If the emphasis of majority of actors is on regional cooperation, how US conduct of naval exercises in concert with Ukraine navy, last March could bolster the chances of reconciliation. Russia views such manoeuvres as dire risk to her security. Joshua Kucera elaborated Russian perception, “The Monterey is equipped with the Aegis radar system, and as such would be part of the European missile defense shield that the U.S. wants to build around Russia. And so the visit, Russia says, is a wolf in sheep's clothing.” Thus any attempt to consolidate peace led by show of military arsenal, even followed by enormous trade troves would render those actors as the dancing porcupines.

When Russia and Turkey have maintained low profile and avoided projecting themselves as powerful actors unless provoked, the tradition must go on. Attempt by any of the powers, party to the dispute to police Black Sea affairs exclusively would mean it would blow up sooner than later. Russian proclivity to seek and allow naval space in the region to others is time tested when it has never demonstrated naval power preponderance even in Caspian Sea despite having a fleet at Astra Khan. If at all there have been some hostile naval episodes randomly, they were between Iran and Azerbaijan as Caspian Sea legal regime issue is yet to be resolved.

For the Black Sea, charting out of ‘Naval Protocol’ is a dire need. When the comprehensive initiative formulation is in progress, ground rules for all littorals’ navies must be laid down or updated in the light of existing provisions at priority to pre-empt any possibility of hostile manoeuvres which could lead to naval duels. In fact, a platform, BLACKSEAFOR, already exists that was institutionalised at Turkey’s initiative on 2 April 2001 and signed by all Black Sea coastal states’ representatives. On this occasion the “Special Representatives affirmed their conviction that cooperative action in the Black Sea aimed at preventing and eliminating the threat of terrorism, including illicit trafficking in the weapons of mass destruction should be undertaken with urgency”. In order to allow more oxygen to Black Sea, BLACKSEAFOR needs buffing further so that other than littorals’ navies and commercial ships, non-littorals’ naval forces components must be discouraged to operate in Black Sea for sustaining peace. Precedence exists when, “Turkey stopped the extension of NATO’s naval operation ‘Active Endeavor’ from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, based on the Montreux Convention of 1936 provisions.”

Achieving Black Sea synergy from Trans-Atlantic platform suits US but none other. EU with its ability to show clean slate of any political agenda is potentially well poised than US to lead from the front in engaging Russia and Turkey for delineating an instrument of cooperation. It is also in comfortable position to take care of Bulgarian, Romanian and Ukrainian reservations about Russia. Those if removed, would mean added diplomatic grace for them including Russia because that much political baggage would also go off their backs.

US attempt to relocate its military power potentials in Eastern Europe would scare even some of its NATO allies. Behind the scene, a Mediterranean power is being groomed to play an added role in Eastern Mediterranean, possibly with US backing. When the two strategic adjustments are ‘war gamed’, US designs no longer remain secret that embrace wider Black Sea region and Europe. On the other hand, Russia is not likely to ignore implicit as well as explicit thrust of these developments. Therefore, it may be unwise to expect that Russia and US are about to hit dialogue table any time soon to straighten out the Black Sea cooperation modalities.

If US genuinely want to see Black Sea prosperous and peaceful, it should at best trail EU which is in comfortable position, not only to engage Russia and Turkey but also to reach some plausible resolution strategy. The initiative/instrument thus maturing should be to the satisfaction of all littorals. However, there is considerable volume of Western scholarship which impresses upon US/EU to assert their status in Black Sea and eliminate the strategic imbalance that is in favour of Russia. Ronald HATTO and Odette TOMESCU afford such glimpse, “For Romania WBSR (Wider Black Sea Region) provides an opportunity to participate on the side of big Western powers and take revenge for years of isolation and Soviets submission.” In other words, psyche of revenge and turf war with dangerous consequences is likely to keep Black Sea embroiled for times to come.

Russia may well consider launching diplomatic offensive to allay Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Turkeys’ fears even if it has to make some concessions. Parallel exists when Russia is comfortable with its Central Asian neighbours even though, at time they sound rebellious but yet cooperate with Russia. Diversification of their foreign policies has rendered Russia an added score, by letting the world know that ‘big brother’ or ‘bully’ titles are for anyone but Russia. On the other hand, Turkey and EU must evolve result oriented strategy to see that Black Sea dialogues, even from some existing forum make needed headway. If Black Sea does not support the weight of global powers rivalries, it must be delinked and focused upon in absolute terms. Mega issues like reduction of WMDs, Middle East nuclear tangle, planting of Strategic Defence Initiative (Missile Shield Defence/Star War) and now Syrian crisis should be tackled separately step by step.

Finally it relates that while EU, Russia and Turkey are the crucial dialogue-actors, capable of achieving breakthrough, Russia and US have critical role for rendering the trio a level playing ground to obviate Black Sea drifting to the conflict. There are credible voices that both powers need to heed. Opening chapter of one such well argued ‘Working Paper’ asserts, “The positive changes achieved during the reset in Russian American relations, for all the emerging problems, made it possible to consider a transition to a new model for strategic interaction between Moscow and Washington in the 21st century. This approach to Russian-American relations should provide for the transition from “mutual assured destruction” to a positive system of security based on “mutual assured stability”. Thus, smooth transition from ‘MAD’ to ‘MAS’ is of vital importance among the two leading powers. In the Black Sea context, calculated haste to achieve the kind of contemplated transition would certainly make no waste as the world community would appreciate the urgency with which the issue is addressed.


Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi is a retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army. An author of a book and defence and conflicts analyst, he holds PhD degree in IR. Is prolific writer with research, evaluation and participatory experience.

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