U.S. interests in the Black Sea area-energy transit, security, counterterrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the traffic in drugs, weapons, and people-have taken on particular significance since 9/11. The Black Sea basin is a strategic region bordering the Greater Middle East and a key transit route for Caspian oil. The U.S. needs a comprehensive regional policy to protect American interests and security.
The Black Sea Nexus. The Black Sea region is a patchwork of overlapping civilizations and spheres of influence. Bulgaria and Romania are members of NATO and, as of January 1, 2007, members of the European Union (EU). Ukraine is caught between the West and Russia. Georgia leans toward the West but borders on Russia's soft underbelly. Turkey and Russia vacillate between East and West, pulled in different directions by national interests and national pride. The Black Sea's six littoral states (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey) are tentatively beginning to construct a regional identity just as foreign powers and outside forces are searching for footholds in their vicinity. The region is geopolitically significant precisely because it is a nexus of cultures, international trade (both legal and illicit), ideas, and influences.
Oil and gas from Central Asia and the Middle East move along Black Sea shipping lanes and pipelines to Europe and other points west. These same shipping lanes are used for the traffic in narcotics, persons (including terrorists), conventional weapons, and WMD components. The Black Sea region can be a launching platform for military, reconstruction, and stabilization operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and possibly Iran, as well as for the protection of energy shipping lanes between the Caspian region and Western markets. It is also Europe's new southeastern border. Thus, both the EU and the United States have strong interests in safeguarding the movement of some goods, preventing the movement of others, and maintaining a presence in the Black Sea region.
The U.S. presence currently has the support of Bulgaria and Romania, but U.S. relations with Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine are on shaky ground. Neither Turkey nor Russia supported U.S. operations in Iraq, and relations with both countries have taken a downturn ever since then. Ukraine has adopted a more pro-Russian stance since Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich took office. Georgia is under severe economic and political pressure from Russia and preoccupied with internal conflicts and is thus ill-equipped to act as a strong U.S. ally. This tangled web of interests and alliances and the recent rapprochement of Russia and Turkey, which has anti-American implications, may hamper U.S. activities in the area.
What the U.S. Should Do. To maintain a presence in the region, the Bush Administration should pursue a realistic strategy to enhance the security and stability of the Black Sea region. Specifically, the U.S. should:
- Coordinate U.S. and EU foreign policy in the
region, especially in regard to the European Neighborhood Policy;
increase NATO cooperation with non-NATO countries through the
Partnership for Peace by offering technical and training assistance
in security areas; and strengthen bilateral military ties with
- Conduct trilateral military exchanges and
consultations (Bulgaria-Romania-Turkey) to assuage Turkey's
concerns about losing its dominant position in the Black Sea
basin to the growing influence of the U.S.
- Encourage the littoral states, specifically
Bulgaria and Romania, to take the lead in multilateral
regional organizations and initiatives, such as the Organization of
the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, which aim to improve regional
security and stability. Where appropriate, the U.S. should request
member or observer status.
- Contribute to existing regional security
structures as either a participant or an observer. This could
include providing crucial technical intelligence capabilities,
airlift, and other specialty capacities. These structures could
also be included in NATO military and disaster
preparedness exercises to improve interoperability.
- Strengthen U.S. alliances with Bulgaria and Romania and provide assistance in the military, emergency preparedness, and technological training of Romanian and Bulgarian forces in missions that are relevant to the U.S. presence there.
- Urge Russia to lift sanctions against Georgia
and push for renewed multilateral talks over the resolution of
Georgia's "frozen conflicts," using the Organization for Security
and Co-operation in Europe and the U.N.'s Friends of Georgia Group.
The U.S. should also promote replacing Russian/CIS peacekeepers in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia with an international peacekeeping
- Expand bilateral trade agreements with the Black Sea states, with special emphasis on investments in infrastructure for the transport of oil and gas from the Caspian region to Europe and in energy security.
Conclusion. Despite the obvious importance of such current foreign policy issues as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea, the U.S. would be unwise to concentrate on these concerns to the exclusion of all others. Shoring up alliances and improving relations with states in strategic areas bordering on main theaters of operation, such as the Greater Middle East, is of the utmost importance in developing future geopolitical arrangements, enhancing strategic stability, and assuring military egress and resupply.
Given the current state of U.S. relations with Turkey and Russia, the only way for the U.S. to maintain and strengthen its footholds in the Black Sea is to develop cooperation across a broad spectrum of issues of common interest and mutual concern. The U.S. needs to learn to tread lightly, offering support where possible and backing off where necessary. This is not an impossible balance to achieve. If successful, it could be used as a model for cementing the U.S. presence in other strategic areas, such as Central Asia. It is time for the U.S. to launch a coordinated policy effort in the Black Sea area to gain support for addressing some of the most pressing issues of the decade: the rise of Iran, WMD proliferation, cooperation in the global war on terrorism, and energy security.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Conway Irwin is a Washington-based freelance writer.