The Black Sea and the Frontiers of Freedom

The Black Sea and the Frontiers of Freedom

Policy Review (Published by the Hoover Institution)
June/July 2004
No. 125

By Ronald D. Asmus and Bruce P. Jackson

A series of historically unprecedented events have brought the
attention of the West to the wider Black Sea region – that region
including the littoral states of the Black Sea, Moldova, and the
Southern Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The
successful completion of the anchoring and integration of Central and
Eastern European countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea
in the Euro-Atlantic community marks the end of the grand historical
project of the 1990s initiated in the wake of the end of the Cold
War. Moreover, the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and 3-11 have underscored
the dangers of a new century and the fact that the greatest threats to
both North America and Europe are now likely to emanate from further
afield and beyond the continent, in particular from the Greater Middle

These events have begun to push the Black Sea from the periphery to
the center of Western attention. At the same time, they have
underscored the fact that the West today lacks a coherent and
meaningful strategy vis-à-vis this region. Neither the United
States nor the major European powers have made this region a priority
nor have they identified strategic objectives in the region. Absent a
compelling rationale attractive and comprehensible to elites and
publics on both sides of the Atlantic, this is unlikely to
change. Absent such a rationale, Europe and the United States are not
going to be willing or able to generate the attention and resources
necessary to engage and anchor the countries of the wider Black Sea
region to the West – let alone to help them transform themselves into
full partners and perhaps, over time, full members of the major
Euro-Atlantic institutions. We mean to explain in this essay why the
Black Sea region needs to be at the forefront of the Euro-Atlantic

Years of neglect

Why has the West lacked such a strategy in the past and what has
changed to make one so critical now? Four main factors explain the
past lack of interest. First, in many ways the wider Black Sea region
has been the Bermuda Triangle of Western strategic studies. Lying at
the crossroads of European, Eurasian, and Middle Eastern security
spaces, it has been largely ignored by mainstream experts on all three
regions. Geographically located at the edge of each, the region has
not been at the center of any. When it came to Europe, our priority
was with the arc of countries extending from the Baltic states to the
Eastern Balkan states. When it came to the former Soviet Union, we
were focused on building a new cooperative relationship with
Moscow. And apart from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the interests
and attention of our Middle Eastern policy usually ceased at Turkey’s
southern border.

Second, given the crowded agenda of the Euro-Atlantic community since
the collapse of communism 15 years ago, there was little time or
political energy left to address the wider Black Sea region. The task
of anchoring and integrating Central and Eastern Europe, stopping the
Balkan wars, and putting those countries back on a path towards
European integration – and, finally, trying to establish a new and
cooperative post-Cold War relationship with Moscow – became full-time
preoccupations. If one looked at the list of priorities of an American
secretary of state or European foreign minister in the 1990s, rightly
or wrongly, the Black Sea rarely broke through into the top tier of
concerns. The exception was, of course, Turkey, which fought a lonely
political battle to get the West to pay more attention to the
region. Almost by default, our considerable interest in the safe and
stable flow of energy through the region ended up driving our policy –
as opposed to some overarching vision of how we saw the place of these
countries in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Third, there was also little push from the region for a closer
relationship with the West. No Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel emerged to
capture our attention or pound at our door. The countries of the
region, different and with widely varying aspirations, were
preoccupied with their own problems and at times engaged in civil war
and their own armed conflicts. Any thought of joining the West in the
foreseeable future seemed unrealistic or even utopian – in their eyes
as well as ours. In the West, there is always a tendency to ignore or
neglect problems for which one has no immediate answer or prospect for
success: the `too hard to handle’ category. Henry Kissinger is
reported to have said that a secretary of state should not tackle an
issue without at least a 90 percent likelihood of success. The
problems of the wider Black Sea region were seen as failing to meet
that standard.

Fourth, the Black Sea has been a civilizational black hole in the
Western historical consciousness. We suffer not only from a lack of
familiarity with the region, its people, its problems, its rich
culture, and its contribution to the spread of Western civilization,
but also from a kind of historical amnesia. For some, `Europe’ meant
Western Europe; for others, it extended to the Baltic Sea and the
Black Sea – but in the case of the latter, only to its western and
southern edges. For many in the West, Ukraine and the Southern
Caucasus seemed far-away lands of which we knew little and, rightly or
wrongly, cared less. Others were too afraid even to think about
venturing into what Moscow claimed to be its `near abroad’ and natural
sphere of domination.

Many of these hurdles and constraints are starting to soften or
change. As the West succeeded in implementing its agenda of the 1990s,
it now can afford to lift its geopolitical horizon and think about
challenges that lie farther afield. The successful example of the `Big
Bang’ of nato and eu enlargements has helped awaken aspirations in the
wider Black Sea region. Today, a new generation of democratic leaders
in the region openly proclaims the desire to bring their countries
closer to and eventually to join the Euro-Atlantic community. Having
succeeded in joining nato, countries like Bulgaria and Romania are
joining Turkey in trying to impress upon the West the need to make the
Black Sea a higher strategic priority. Having largely ignored the
region for the past decade, the West is starting to wake up to the
need to determine just exactly what our objectives and strategy should

What is the wider Black Sea region?

Historically, the black sea has stood at the confluence of the
Russian, Persian, and Ottoman Empires. During the Cold War, it was
further divided between East and West. Public images of the region
were shaped as much by spy thrillers and James Bond movies as anything
else. The twin revolutions of 1989 and 1991, leading to the collapse
of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the ussr itself,
in turn opened the door for a new chapter in the region’s history and
called attention to it for the first time since parts of the `Great
Game’ were played out along its shores in the nineteenth century. With
nato members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey dominating the western and
southern shores and newly minted cis states Moldova, Ukraine, Russia,
and Georgia along the north and east, the region begins to take shape.

The wider Black Sea region must also include all three Southern
Caucasus states – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In referring to
the region, we implicitly refer to the Euro-Asian energy corridor
linking the Euro-Atlantic system with Caspian energy supplies and the
states of Central Asia. Moreover, we are also making some claim to the
projection of a Black Sea system northward from Transnistria, Odessa,
and Sokhumi because a stable system would require both the resolution
of `frozen conflicts’ along a northeast arc and access to the great
commercial rivers that flow into the Black Sea: the Danube, Dniester,
and Dnieper. Conceptually, then, the wider Black Sea region is as
broad and variegated a region as the North German Plain or the
Baltic/Nordic zone.

Significantly, the concept of a unitary Black Sea region was
envisioned in several 1990s efforts to build regional cooperation,
first in ad hoc structures and since 1999 in the engagement of major
Euro-Atlantic and European institutions. Limited systems of
cooperation such as the Black Sea Economic Council and the so-called
guuam (a coordination mechanism among former Soviet republics Georgia,
Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) reflected a growing
sense of common economic and political interest. The articulation of
the so-called Southern Dimension of European security and in 2001 the
accession of Romania and Bulgaria to nato in April 2004 confirmed that
three major states of the Black Sea region agreed that they shared a
single security system fully integrated into the larger Euro-Atlantic
system. As we approach the nato summit in Istanbul, both Ukraine and
Georgia are pursuing nato membership, suggesting that these states
also see their futures in terms of shared Black Sea security and

A similar convergence of regional interests can be seen in the
development of relations with the European Union. The countries on the
south and western shores of the Black Sea – Turkey, Bulgaria, and
Romania – constitute the entire class of formal applicants to the
European Union and, therefore, potentially an integrated political and
economic system. After the anticipated decision on June 12, 2004 to
extend Europe’s Neighborhood Policy to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and
Armenia, all the countries on the northern and eastern shores of the
Black Sea – including Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova – will be engaged
in developing closer relations with the European Union.

The engagement of other multilateral institutions – the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Minsk Group approach to
the `frozen conflicts’ of the Black Sea, the negotiations surrounding
the southern flank of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe –
all follow the formula of `Common Regional Problems, Cooperative
Regional Solutions.’ Common economic and security interests and the
gravitational pull of a rapidly integrating Europe are driving the
Black Sea states toward some manner of regional convergence. While the
persistence of conflict and the fragility of national institutions
suggest that the emergence of a fully functional Black Sea
geopolitical system is still some years in the future, there is strong
evidence that the Black Sea is indeed an inchoate Euro-Atlantic
region. It follows that the Euro-Atlantic states have an interest in
and should have a strategy towards such an important and potentially
positive development.

The strategic case

Why do we need a new Euro-Atlantic strategy for the Black Sea region
today? Let’s begin with the strategic case, which has two major
reinforcing components. The first element has to do with completing
the job of consolidating peace and stability within Europe. The other
has to do with addressing the most dangerous threat to future
Euro-Atlantic security, which emanates from beyond the continent in
the Greater Middle East. A subsidiary but still important strategic
consideration pertains to European access to energy supplies.

Over the past decade nato and the eu successfully projected stability
and helped consolidate democracy throughout much of the eastern half
of the European continent, from the three Baltic states in the north
to Romania and Bulgaria in the south. As a result, Europe today is
probably more democratic, prosperous, and secure than at any time in
history. At the same time, there are parts of the continent where
peace and stability are not yet fully assured. They are centered in
the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Belarus, and the Black Sea. Whereas
the eu and nato are heavily engaged in the Balkans and are developing
new approaches toward Ukraine and Belarus, the same cannot be said
with regard to the Black Sea, a region just as important strategically
and arguably more so.

The inclusion of the wider Black Sea region in the Euro-Atlantic
system would both consolidate the foundation of this system and
buttress it against many of the future threats to its peace and
stability which concern us most. The case for strategic buttress is
easiest to illustrate in the negative. If one thinks about many of the
major new problems and threats Europeans today are concerned about –
be they in the form of illegal immigrants, narcotics, proliferation,
or even trafficking in women – the wider Black Sea region is the new
front line in combating them. This region constitutes one of the key
routes for such illegal contraband. The traditional trade routes of
the Silk Road are now used to bring heroin to European markets and
dangerous technologies to al Qaeda terrorists. For the first time in
more than a century, trade routes under the control of European states
are being used for a sex-slave trade in women and children. Moreover,
the four `frozen conflicts’ monitored by the osce (Transnistria,
Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh) run through the region.
It is widely and correctly believed that these unresolved fragments of
Soviet Empire now serve as shipment points for weapons, narcotics, and
victims of trafficking and as breeding grounds for transnational
organized crime – and, last but not least, for terrorism.

Another equally important strategic reason has to do with the Greater
Middle East. During the twentieth century, Europe – and Central Europe
in particular – was the locus of the greatest potential conflict
confronting the West. The Fulda Gap in a divided Germany was the place
many feared the next major war would erupt. Today the only Gap left in
Fulda sells blue jeans, and we worry about terrorists armed with
weapons of mass destruction launching attacks on either side of the
Atlantic. Now the Greater Middle East is the place from which the most
dangerous threats to the Euro-Atlantic community are likely to emanate
and where Americans and Europeans are most likely to risk and lose
their lives.

The Black Sea region is at the epicenter in the grand strategic
challenge of trying to project stability into a wider European space
and beyond into the Greater Middle East. As nato expands its role in
Afghanistan and prepares for a long-term mission there and
contemplates assuming added responsibilities in Iraq, the wider Black
Sea region starts to be seen through a different lens: Instead of
appearing as a point on the periphery of the European landmass, it
begins to look like a core component of the West’s strategic

Put simply, the interface between the Euro-Atlantic community and the
Greater Middle East runs across the Black Sea, the new Fulda Gap. The
generational challenge of projecting stability into the Greater Middle
East will be much aided by a stable and successfully anchored wider
Black Sea region. This is not just a matter of geography, territory,
or Western access to military bases that might better enable us to
prosecute the war on terrorism. We have a key interest in seeing the
countries of this region successfully transform themselves into the
kind of democratic and stable societies that can, in turn, serve as a
platform for the spread of Western values further east and
south. Azerbaijan’s ability to transform itself into a successful
Muslim democracy may be as important to our ability to win the war on
terrorism as access to military bases on Azeri soil. What these
countries become may be as important as where they are.

The mechanisms and alliances Europe and the United States develop in
cooperative efforts in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Black Sea region
will also likely be immeasurably valuable in tackling the long-term
challenge of bringing democracy to the Greater Middle East. In the
wider Black Sea region, ethnic conflicts, post-conflict societies, and
economic devastation confront us with the same conditions we will find
in the Greater Middle East. We may look back on a successful Black Sea
strategy and see a proving ground on which effective multilateralism
and nation-building were first developed.

A final consideration in the strategic case pertains to the role of
Euro-Asian energy supplies in providing for the energy security of
Europe as well as the environmental quality of the Euro-Atlantic. At
present, Europe imports approximately 50 percent of its energy over
complicated and often dangerous routes through the Bosphorus and
English Channel. By 2020, Europe will be importing 70 percent of its
energy from sources beyond Europe. To the extent that we might have
political concerns about Russian or Saudi influence in European
capitals or harbor an environmental bias against nuclear power or
unrestricted shipping off our beaches, we might look seriously at what
a stable and secure Black Sea system offers as an alternative.

The wider Black Sea region straddles and indeed dominates the entire
Euro-Asian energy corridor from trans-Ukrainian oil and gas pipelines
running to the markets in Europe’s north to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline running to the Mediterranean. A new Euro-Atlantic strategy
geared towards anchoring and stabilizing the region can potentially
bring the vast energy reserves of the Caspian Basin and Central Asia
to European markets on multiple, secure, and environmentally safe
routes. Not only will these energy supplies secure the prosperity of a
politically independent Europe for decades to come, but the
construction and maintenance of these routes will provide an important
economic stimulus to the economies that were left behind in the
revolution of 1989.

The moral case

As important as the strategic argument for Euro-Atlantic engagement in
the wider Black Sea region is the moral case. After all, it was
precisely the combination of moral and strategic factors that made the
case for enlarging nato and the European Union to Central and Eastern
Europe so compelling and which eventually carried both elite and
public opinion. In a nutshell, that argument was based on the premise
that the West had a moral obligation to undo the damage of a
half-century of partition and communism and to make Europe’s eastern
half as safe, democratic, and secure as the continent’s western
half. Today that same argument must be extended to the wider Black Sea

Reaching out to the Black Sea countries is the natural next step in
completing our vision of a Europe whole and free. Today there are
growing numbers of voices in the region articulating their aspiration
to anchor themselves to, and eventually become full members of, the
Euro-Atlantic community through membership in nato and the European
Union. Ukraine publicly claims to have made a strategic choice along
these lines (although some of President Leonid Kuchma’s actions as
well as Ukraine’s limited progress on reform have undercut that
case). More recently, Georgia has clearly moved in the same
direction. Azerbaijan has harbored nato aspirations for some
time. Armenia, with its close relationship to and dependence on
Russia, thus far continues to be the odd man out.

These aspirations have evoked an ambivalent Western response – just
as, for many, the aspirations of Central and Eastern Europe initially
did a decade ago. Overwhelmed with the challenges of completing the
integration of Central and Eastern Europe, many Europeans don’t want
to consider any options of further enlargement down the road. In
addition, many in the West have forgotten the key role that this
region once played in the evolution of Western civilization. Along
with the Mediterranean, it was the cradle and meeting place of many of
the cultures and peoples that have built the heritage of what we now
call the West. Reclaiming those cultures and helping these nations
reform and transform themselves into societies like ours represents
the next step in completing the unification of Europe.

Once again, the West is struggling to define what constitutes `Europe’
and the `Euro-Atlantic community.’ At several points in the 1990s
debate over nato and eu enlargement, we faced the issue of how far
membership in these institutions could or should extend. At each and
every step there were Western voices calling for a pause or a cap on
the process. The proponents of an open-ended approach prevailed with
the moral argument that countries which had suffered longer under
communism or were simply less developed should not be discriminated
against or punished, but should instead have the prospect of one day
walking through the open doors of our institutions once they have
embraced our values and met the criteria for membership. We must press
that case again today.

The moral case hinges on the extent of the Euro-Atlantic’s collective
responsibility to those people beyond the immediate scope of our
defining institutions but who share some or all of the cultural and
historical characteristics that define our civilization – as, for
example, Armenians undoubtedly do. The European Union’s new
Neighborhood Policy comes as close as Brussels could be expected to
get to asking, `Am I my brother’s keeper?’ As Genesis informs us,
opinion on this question varies. At one end of the spectrum are those
who would narrowly define a `core Europe’ whose highly integrated
markets would be restricted to existing eu members and remain a de
facto `Christian club.’ At the other are those who see a politically
completed community encompassing a wide range of ethnicities and
faiths within a more modestly integrated Europe. At a minimum, we can
say with certainty that the answer to this moral question has
existential consequences for the 250 million people, most of whom live
in the wider Black Sea region, who await our judgment.

The second moral reason underlying the need for a new Euro-Atlantic
strategy for the wider Black Sea region revolves, paradoxically,
around Russia. Today, all too many people see Russia as a reason for
the West not to engage in the wider Black Sea region – for fear that
engagement will generate new tensions with Moscow. The opposite may
actually be the case. The long-term goals of the West are to support
the democratization of the Russian state and to encourage Moscow to
shed its age-old zero-sum approach to geopolitics. A policy that
essentially cedes the Black Sea to Russian influence is likely to
retard both. The anchoring and integration of the countries of the
Black Sea to the West is likely to enhance both. While a full account
of how to craft a Western policy toward Russia is beyond the scope of
this paper, one thing is readily apparent: Once again, the West faces
the dilemma that a strategy aimed at further extending stability will
in all likelihood be seen by many Russians as hostile. And once
again, the West will have to reject such thinking and instead be
prepared to defend its own integrationist logic.

The reality is that nato and eu enlargement to Central and Eastern
Europe has not created a new threat on Russia’s western border. On the
contrary, enlargement has probably created a more enduring peace and a
greater degree of security in the region than at any time in recent
history. An enlarged nato and eu have eliminated a worry that has
haunted Russian leaders since Napoleon, namely, the rise of an
aggressive and hostile power to its west. Moreover, since September
11, the United States and its allies have done much to reduce the
threat to Russia on its southern border through the successful war
against the Taliban and the deployment of a nato-led peacekeeping
mission in Afghanistan.

Where to start?

Developing a new Euro-Atlantic strategy for the wider Black Sea region
must start with the major democracies of North America and Europe
recognizing our own moral and strategic stake in the region. In this
regard, the European Union has already taken a key step by including
the Southern Caucasus in Europe’s Neighborhood Policy, informally
known as `wider Europe.’ This allows these new democracies to begin
discussing the `Four Freedoms’ of wider Europe – freedom of market
access, direct investment, movement of labor, and travel. While the
European Union will begin discussions of its Neighborhood Policy on a
bilateral basis and will attach a high degree of conditionality, the
liberalization of trade and labor and capital flows with the Black Sea
countries will swiftly have beneficial regional and subregional

It is time for nato to take a parallel step at its upcoming summit in
Istanbul by recognizing the strategic stake the alliance has in the
region. Such a recognition should be matched by a stepped-up program
of outreach and both bilateral and regional cooperation. As proved
effective in Central and Eastern Europe, various Western countries can
organize themselves to take the lead in working with each of the Black
Sea countries on a bilateral or multilateral basis. The tools for
expanded military cooperation already exist under nato’s `Partnership’
programs. What is lacking is the political will and the guidance to
tailor such programs to the specific interests and needs of the
region. Much as nato responded to the changed geopolitical
circumstances of the Visegrad and Vilnius states, it must develop a
comprehensive Black Sea strategy that complements the political
objectives of the European Union.

Finally, North America and Europe, working through the osce and the
United Nations, must step up and make a concerted effort to resolve
the frozen conflicts that continue to plague the region, thereby
setting the stage for the withdrawal of Russian troops who have
remained since the end of the Cold War. Persistent conflict and
occupying forces are childhood cancers in relation to the development
of peaceful and prosperous regions. In place of economic development,
a frozen conflict will substitute criminal enterprise and
trafficking. In place of a shared regional approach to security
cooperation, Russian military bases have only fostered the
proliferation of arms, a climate of intimidation, and protection
rackets. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is time
to make the resolution of the frozen conflicts from Transnistria to
Nagorno-Karabakh a top priority of our diplomacy with Moscow.

Such steps can help contribute to a new dynamic of reform in the
region. To be sure, the impetus for reform and change must come from
within these countries, but the West can both assist in that process
and help create a foreign policy environment that reinforces such

In doing so, we would be laying the foundation for the completion of
the third phase of a wider Europe. The first phase focused on the
anchoring of Poland and the Visegrad countries. The second phase
broadened our vision of an enlarged Europe by encompassing the new
democracies from the Baltics to the western edge of the Black
Sea. Today we face the challenge of extending our strategy to embrace
a Europe that runs from Belarus in the north to the eastern edge of
the Black Sea region in the south. The completion of this vision of a
Europe whole and free would be a tremendous advance for the cause of
democracy, integration, and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. It
would also better position the United States and Europe to deal with
the challenges of the Greater Middle East. The key question is not
whether it is desirable but whether it is achievable. What we have
learned from the enlargements of nato and the European Union and since
1994 from coordinating the efforts of our multilateral institutions in
the Balkans argues that a common and compassionate strategy toward the
Black Sea is well within our grasp.

Ronald D. Asmus is senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall
Fund of the United States.

Bruce P. Jackson is president of the Project on Transitional

Email: [email protected]