Strong hegemonic interests in the Black Sea Region
“If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened” [i] Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, rightly observed concerning Putin’s “thuggish tactics” in the Crimean Peninsula. Brzezinski further went on to argue that Russia, without Ukraine under its sphere of influence and its Black Sea access at Sevastopol, ceases to be an empire[ii]. Interplay of interests and balancing patterns between actors, redolent of long forgotten Cold-War zero-sum calculations, can be identified in the Black Sea Region (BSR). Is the Black Sea a Russian or a European “Lake” or is it more of a regional condominium? In all earnestness, the worries of a new soft cold war with Russia and a possible proxy regional war over the Crimean Peninsula are taking center stage on the current international security agenda.
Is there a need for a more realist-oriented EU foreign policy and focused geostrategic vision in the BSR? Realpolitik or not, it is the time to engage Russia more substantively now that it exhibits a clear interventionist tactic in the Crimean Peninsula. Although the security developments in the Crimean Peninsula over this past weekend should not have come as a big surprise, the West seems to have forgotten the 2008 Russian invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By using essentially the same western legitimation logic of the responsibility to protect and self-determination rhetoric for Russian minorities in the East and South of Ukraine, Moscow has managed to turn around the table and justify its interventions in Crimea through an alleged human-rights protection agenda.
Russia is displaying unequal power relations with its neighboring countries and antagonising most of its neighbors and rivals through “hard” security policies, i.e. the Georgian 2008 war and now the Crimean invasion. Russia is actually the most important regional power in the Black Sea and it follows its own agenda in the BSR. Seeing itself as the rightful hegemon in its own territorial backyard, Russia’s interest is to protect and expand the Russian sphere of influence by preventing the emergence of “unfriendly” regimes in its neighborhood – “unfriendly” here meaning pro-Western and democratic ones. Russia’s “return to the region” is an added instability factor, due to its drift back to authoritarianism and its energy leverage potential. Neighboring governments have to deal with the consequences of the power disparity between them and the Russian power colossus. The EU’s policies, Brussels’ empty rhetoric over Ukraine, and the vague punitive measures adopted by Brussels towards Russia failed to achieve concrete objectives, more coercive measures being needed so as to credibly deter further Russian expansionism in the region.
Carrots such as the measures issued by the EU Foreign Affairs Council on March 3rd can only be credible deterrents for Russia if they are accompanied by sticks and a united European Union strategic vision in its eastern neighborhood. The declaration of the FAC[iii] can be labeled as a strong rhetorical condemnation of Ukraine’s violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty, but at the end of the day it remains another example of the EU talking-shop attempting to reach the lowest common denominator between differing member states’ positions. What is particularly interesting is the avoidance to use the word “invasion” for the Crimean Peninsula, the EU opting instead for the more benign and risk-averse phrasing of “clear violation” when Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were at stake[iv]. Yet, the word “invasion” is also problematic, when considering that Russia already has significant naval and ground troops in the Crimean Peninsula and Sevastopol.
Is this an instance of EU weak foreign policy verbiage or an attempt by the EU, following the lead of German of Chancellor Angela Merkel, to bring back Putin to the negotiating table and try to build face-saving win-win scenarios for all parties involved? The EU should own up to its normative power in the eastern neighborhood and become ready to move beyond encouraging “de-escalation” and promoting constructive dialogues with Russia to propose substantive and immediate sanctions. Such measures could range from imposing a visa ban and diplomatic restrictions, promoting multilateral peace-inducing mechanisms, establishing assets freezes for the Russian political elite, to a full-fledged stop of business as usual[v] in terms of economic agreements. On the Ukrainian side, the EU should support local politicians and normalise the political landscape through an increased presence, while at the same time emphasise the creation of a coalition government that includes minority representatives from the south and the east.
A coherent strategy is needed to deal with Russia, because building security and stability on Russia’s borders through democratic integration and collective security in the Black Sea region is seen as a threat by Moscow. Russia sees the further implication from either the EU or NATO in the region as a clear challenge to its regional hegemony. As far as regional security is concerned, in Putin’s view, Russian “peacekeeping forces” in the region are more than able to handle the situations of conflict, with the Russian Black Sea Fleet at its disposal in Sevastopol as a peace-maintaining force and an instrument of human-rights protection according to the Kremlin. In light of Russia’s new assertiveness in the Black Sea neighborhood, there is indeed the need for a new foreign policy paradigm for the EU to manage its relation with Russia. The main challenge is to forge more unity and cohesiveness when dealing with Russia in the case of the EU member states, the old contradictory policies of either “soft containment” or “balance of threat” being outdated in the current geopolitical configuration of the BSR. Actually, Russia has always profited from this divide et impera strategy with EU member states, trespassing Brussels for Paris, Berlin, and Rome, taunting its partners with its Gazprom energy colossus, and antagonising its old Central and East European critics.
The Crimean security crisis sure looks different from Warsaw and Bucharest than from Paris, London or even Brussels. As some European countries choose for a policy of Russian appeasement, such as Germany and Italy, in the hope to establish deeper economic and energy ties and friendly political dialogue, the evidence of progress remains small. Greece and Cyprus have also had a privileged relation to Russia both in terms of energy economics and geopolitical terms, with Russia investing heavily in Cyprus and supporting Greece in energy deals. By contrast, Poland and Lithuania have been stark critics of the new Russian revisionism, suspecting it to be playing the security game of a new cold war against the EU. The meagre trust that Russia has gained since the end of the Cold War with eastern European countries has now been blown to smithereens, Russia’s credibility as a reliable international partner decreasing dramatically. Small powers are watching and waiting to take cues from both the EU and the United States, the Crimean conflict spelling potential dangerous fall-outs in the Middle East with both Iran and Syria observing the West’s watered down strategic reaction.
The EU needs to own-up to its civilising mission
The Black Sea Region has become one of the epicenters of EU and US security and stability focus interest. The region is crucial to the European Union principally because of its location at the juncture of Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East and the transit route for oil and gas. This region is facing challenges that range from “frozen” conflicts, armament trafficking, drugs, insufficient border patrol problems, human beings traficking, political and financial corruption, to authoritarian-oriented regimes. One of the most stressing strategic issues that the US and the EU have to face is how to address a re-assertive Russian role in the area. Actually, the West today lacks a coherent and meaningful strategy towards this region as demonstrated by the weak response to the Crimean security crisis. Efforts are being scattered in unilateral/bilateral/sectoral policies in the region, the EU’s implication is weak and “synergetic” to the extent that is merely reacting in a declaratory manner. As well, the US is both concentrating more on its domestic economic agenda and following its economic interest to secure Caspian energy deals. Finally, local sub-regional organisations, while reflecting the interests of regional leaders (Russia, Turkey), lack the political will and resources to address the problems of the region.
Consequently, there is a clear necessity for a concentrated regional policy approach in the Black Sea Region, combining the efforts of both the EU and the US and stressing regional cooperation and the promotion of security and stability in the region. Energy security is of utmost importance because the Black Sea region is a transit route for energy from the Caspian to EU markets. The EU, from this perspective, should seek to diversify suppliers and search for alternative scenarios to Russia’s monopolistic energy leverage. Both the EU and the US display a certain weakness, politically and economically looking inward: the EU due to the economic crisis and the enlargement fatigue that hinders EU’s “absorption capacity” and the US because of domestic economic challenges and suffering from over-stretched military resources in the Middle East. It should be seen whether regional leaders have the political will and legitimacy to construct a higher level of public support for transition to democracy and solvability of these conflicts, the cases of Poland or Turkey as potential regional contenders being of note.
The EU needs a more unified voice when dealing with Russia at its periphery and a double-folded engagement, both capacity-building and conflict management in the case of Ukraine, with the Crimean conflict as a clear security threat at its eastern borders. It remains to be seen how much bargaining power the EU has in the BSR so as to promote a peaceful resolution of the Crimean conflict and the promotion of stability and democracy in its periphery. Especially when geostrategic realities become more important and the old games of the Cold War become reinterpreted in gas wars and battles over spheres of influence. It has been constantly claimed that the EU’s processes of democratisation are part of its normative power objectives, but the EU has shown little success is the absence of strong bargaining power, namely the potential promise of future EU membership. When EU geostrategic interests are concerned, the Black Sea Region has been a case of the EU discursive commitment to transformation, only followed by feeble status-quo diplomacy. This basically led to failed attempts to control the instability at its borders. Also, the Russian so-called peacekeeping forces that supposedly broker ceasefires when Russian minorities are at risk, like in the case of the Crimean conflict, must be addressed by the European Union.
The EU’s policies towards Russia failed to achieve concrete objectives. The prospect of the Black Sea region’s “assimilation” under the EU aegis depends highly on Russia willingness to compromise its regional hegemonic position. But as the Crimean conflict demonstrates, Moscow is not willing to compromise when its sphere of influence is being threatened. A coherent strategy is needed to deal with Russia, because building security and stability on Russia’s borders through democratic integration and collective security in the Black Sea region is seen as threat by Moscow. The main challenge the BSR is facing in terms of the potential spillover of the protracted conflicts has to do with weak statehood, unresolved sovereignty issues, and national-identity matters. The general priority for the EU in the eastern neighborhood is the strengthening of independent nation-states rather than the molding of potential EU member states.
Nevertheless, the technocratic/administrative solution offered by the EU’s sectoral approach with the European Neighborhood Policy, the Black Sea Synergy or for that matter the Eastern Partnership, does not strengthen the domestic democratic governance of states such as Ukraine. On the contrary, it perpetuates a pragmatic trade-oriented weak institutional setting, isolated from societal interaction and participation. The fundamental question remains what is more convenient for the EU: a so called long-hand trusteeship in its periphery so as to ensure stability or challenging Russia in the eastern periphery by fostering value-based and prescriptive actions, in the line with substantive democratic changes. One thing is certain, the Crimean conflict deserved a more committed strategy from Western actors than what was witnessed these past few days. Ukraine is in high need of a concentrated effort from the international community to transgress the current security, stability, and dire economic challenges it faces.