The European Union, by expanding its boundaries to the Black Sea Region after Romania and Bulgaria joined, has become a Black Sea power. The Black Sea Region represents a key turning point for the EU’s security and has become of immediate and direct geopolitical interest. Nevertheless, the EU’s policy outputs in its Eastern periphery and in the Black Sea Region, i.e. the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the Black Sea Synergy, and the Eastern Partnership follow an exclusionary pattern and construct the regional identity as a buffer zone for the EU. The Black Sea Synergy[i] was put forward as the EU’s holistic attempt to propose a comprehensive “synergy” (not strategy) for the region and to extend its normative influence in the Eastern periphery.
The main interest was to keep the region in a state of limbo, without advancing towards substantial Europeanisation while at the same time preventing the intense Russification of the post-Soviet states. The borderline between Russia and the EU is characterised by an acute state of “in-between-ness”, with both players plus the United States being active in their shared vicinity and exerting their influence in states such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given the prominent list of regional players, the Black Sea Region is primarily of a geo-strategic nature. In this area converge several strategic interests, including those of the EU, the United States, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, the Eastern Balkans, and the Caucasus.
For over a decade, the Black Sea area has been characterised by various attempts to systematise and upgrade its regional cooperation. Regional cooperation has hesitantly emerged, as in the case of fuzzy and elusive regional cooperation models such as the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)[ii], the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM), Community of Democratic Choice (CDC), the Black Sea Forum for Partnership and Dialogue – a Romanian-sponsored initiative, the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (BLACKSEAFOR), and the Operation Black Sea Harmony (OBSH). The problems faced by these regional organisations are multiple, falling easily in the category of divided, declaratory and overlapping regional cooperation patterns.
Moreover, these organisations have become vehicles for certain regional powers such as Russia and Turkey to assert their hegemonic interests under a legitimising institutional umbrella. BSEC has proved to be a more efficient confidence-building forum for discussion of common interests. Over the years, however, the deficiencies of this institution have become increasingly patent, with over-bureaucratisation and some tense bilateral relationships among the main causes behind BSEC’s poor performance. In other words, the regionalization of the Black Sea Region should presuppose building important two-way accommodating bridges between the major players in the Black Sea Region, combining a unique mixture of bottom-up mechanisms of regional dialogue with top-down international initiatives as main driving forces of the cooperation process.
While the EU has shown a remarkable proclivity in encouraging the regionalisation of both the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas, by either taking an equal part in the bottom-up regionalisation of the Northern Dimension or determining the top-down regionalisation in the Barcelona Process, in the case of the Black Sea Region the EU only recently expressed its intention to address the Black Sea regionally. Black Sea actors have also been more preoccupied by tangible security issues that challenge vital national and economic interests. Several factors, such as the low level of interest of Black Sea countries for regional affairs, tense bilateral relations between some of them, and Russia’s revisionist policies in the region, can account for low levels of regionalism. Nevertheless, the recent developments in Ukraine are difficult to ignore and they have put the region back on the EU’s geopolitical agenda.
This is especially clear in the case of the EU, whose geostrategic interest in the region has grown and will continue to grow after signing the political chapters in the Association Agreement[iii] with Ukraine on the 21st of March. Strategically, the move by the EU to push ahead the Agreement before the Ukrainian parliamentary and presidential elections is sound, biding Ukraine to a “close and lasting relationship that is based on common values”[iv]. Conversely, the EU has taken up the responsibility to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence in view of Russia’s of annexation of Crimea. In an “unprecedented”[v] two-day visit that started on the 25th of March by Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle and high raking Commission representatives, the EU continued the talks on the Association Agreement and attempted to counter Russia’s short-term hard power play in Ukraine with a long-term, soft-power approach[vi].
The Black Sea Region has emerged as a key issue for recasting a new balance of power between Russia and the West. The geopolitical “grand chessboard” in the Black Sea area is being reordered, with the Euro-Atlantic community on the one side and Russia on the other seeking to reconfigure their overlapping spheres of influence in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis.
This was made particularly clear by the G7 leaders’ decision taken on March 24 in The Hague to hold their own Summit in Brussels instead of Sochi. Thus, a significant decision was made to officially sideline Russia for the first time since it joined the G8 in 1998 for the annual summits of “industrialised democracies”[vii]. The decisive move comes after the Russian annexation of Crimea and after the results of the illegitimate Crimean referendum from March 16, with over 96% of voters out of an 80% turnout supporting the decision to join with Russia.
As an aftereffect, Ukraine has ordered the withdrawal of military troops from Crimea, all military units stationed in the Peninsula being now under Russian control, with the Russian Defense Ministry declaring that only 2000 out of 18000 Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea chose to leave[viii]. On the Russian side, the G7 decision was expectedly played down, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declaring that: “If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don’t cling to this format. We don’t believe it will be a big problem if it doesn’t convene”[ix]. Russia’s move to annex Crimea is a strategic decision made irrespective of international backlashes and with a view to consolidating popular support at home. The Eastern borderline is being reconfigured and the EU has no say in the matter.
The G7 decision marks a first united response that includes four major European powers (France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom), but it still remains to be seen whether the European Union and other EU countries will decide to take a tougher stance because of their energy (oil and gas) and economic dependencies on Russia. There are some discussions concerning a potential arms embargo against Russia, but the EU leaders still remain at odds concerning such a measure, with Swedish, British, Estonian, and some Eastern European voices supporting such a decision, while Germany and France still remaining skeptical. The decision to impose such a “far-reaching measure” by the EU will predominantly depend upon France, as the sole NATO member to have signed an arms export contract in Russia in 2011 over a warships deal[x] – two Mistral Amphibious Assault Ships. If the deal is canceled, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned as regards President Putin military maneuvers in Crimea, France stands to lose over one billion euros.
The G7 decision is redolent of Cold War power plays and tactics, being an acrimonious reminder that latent gun-powder barrels and frozen-conflict can always erupt at the EU’s Eastern borderline. As it was the case with the Georgian war in 2008 and with the recent invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. Is the Crimean annexation a dangerous precedent for the entire post-Soviet space? Are for that matter Moldova and the Transnistrian frozen conflict next on Russia’s revisionist geopolitical agenda? From this point of view, Moldova’s security conundrum with the Transnistrian frozen conflict has become a geostrategic priority to the West, with the protracted conflict at less than 200 kilometers away from the EU’s Eastern borderline. In the post-Crimean crisis context, increased efforts should be encouraged to assist the Republic of Moldova on its way towards EU and Euro-Atlantic integration, as a key strategic measure to secure the EU’s Eastern flank.
Three priorities take center stage in the EU’s strategy towards the Black Sea Region: the construction of a substantive regional strategy in the Eastern neighborhood; the frozen conflicts and a more assertive security presence in the context of a newly emerged Realpolitik in relation to Russia; last but not the least, addressing the energy dependence on Russia through the diversification of energy resources and transit corridors for Caspian oil. Energy is the sector in the Black Sea Region where the geo-strategic implications for the EU are most visible and urgent. The EU is notoriously dependent on oil and gas imports from Russia, the Middle East and North Africa, up to an estimated 70% of its total supply by the year 2030. In terms of the EU Eastern Member states, the data[xi] displays an even grimmer picture, with Bulgaria getting over 90% of its gas from the Russian colossus Gazprom, and Lithuania and its industry being almost entirely dependent upon Russian energy resources.
The Black Sea is a crucial transit area since about half of Europe’s energy imports are expected to cross the region in the coming the years. Most Black Sea states have major stakes in the energy sector, from Russia’s huge production and transit interests, to Turkey’s ambition to become Europe’s fourth energy supply “artery”, to Georgia, Romania and Ukraine’s roles in oil and gas transits. Although the EU energy relations with its neighbors have a primarily bilateral nature, a regional approach has been timidly fostered over the past decade. The Interstate Oil and gas to Europe (INOGATE)[xii] has provided an institutional umbrella agreement for the EU and Partner Countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan), which has been operational, although not very effectively, since 2001.
Based upon the previous EU experiences in region-building practices, there is a stringent need for a more comprehensive EU initiative and a pro-active regional strategy (not synergy) towards the Black Sea Region. Strategies of bordering against insecurities in the Eastern neighbourhood have demonstrated their failure with the current Crimean crisis and are a clear instance of the EU’s responsibility avoidance in the Eastern neighborhood.