The Black Sea is a cradle of civilization, trade and cultures, but today it is also a region of unresolved conflicts, porous borders and rivalries.
Terrorism and insurgency are spreading across the North Caucasus, abetted by fighters from the Middle East and South Asia. Everything from narcotics from Afghanistan to supplies for Iran’s nuclear program are smuggled through the region. Georgia remains tense since the 2008 war with Russia; separatists threaten hostilities in the regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Trans-Dniestr.
Contributing to the insecurity is an absence of effective institutions for Black Sea regional cooperation.
The European Union’s Black Sea Synergy Initiative, the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation and Operation Black Sea Harmony, a Turkish-led naval coalition, limp along.
Three NATO members — Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey — line the Black Sea shore, but the alliance devotes scant attention to the region. Russia and Turkey seek to dominate the sea and keep other navies out, and even if they didn’t, the 1936 Montreux Convention restricts outside warships to three-week sojourns.
Conditions may be ripening, however, for cooperative security initiatives on the Black Sea.
Russia is anxious to assure security for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the edge of the North Caucasus. Ukraine seeks to calm the anxieties of the mostly Russian population in Crimea, while Russia seeks stable naval basing arrangements there.
Turkey, with its large North Caucasian diaspora, and Azerbaijan and Georgia hope fighting in the North Caucasus will ebb. Turkey is also concerned about the security of oil tankers traversing the Bosporus straits. And all the region’s states want to stem illicit trafficking and terrorist flows.
At first glance, Russia seems to be as much a problem as solution. It is building up its ground and air forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian territories it annexed after the 2008 clash with Georgia, and at the Gyumri base in Armenia. These forces create unease because they could easily interdict shipments of Caspian oil and gas. Russia also says it will deploy more warships in the Black Sea, and it is outfitting a naval base in Abkhazia. And despite some hints of change, Moscow still refuses to deal with the government of Georgia.
Yet an over-extended Russia may now have an interest in defusing potential confrontations. Vladimir Putin’s model of authoritarian rule is coming under new challenge, spurred in part by the government’s ineptitude in suppressing this summer’s wildfires. Russian leaders now tout economic modernization and foreign investment. Russia is improving ties with Turkey and Ukraine, and on the second anniversary of the war with Georgia, the Kremlin avoided the patriotic fervor of the previous year.
Russia, Turkey and Ukraine — the largest states on the Black Sea — should take the lead in encouraging cooperative security to lessen the existing threats. All Black Sea states belong to NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, both of which could serve as forums for developing regional initiatives.
Cooperation to reduce transnational threats should improve cross-border links between law enforcement, border control and military organizations, and facilitate joint operations against illicit trafficking.
Cooperation should bolster the capacity to address biological and nuclear threats, including active participation in the Proliferation Security initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which Russia co-chairs with the United States. A new regional energy security dialogue would facilitate cooperative measures to share shipping and threat information and conduct joint cleanup exercises.
NATO could provide unique aerial and maritime reconnaissance capabilities, and the E.U. could help with law enforcement, border security and information sharing.
Last spring, the independent Commission on the Black Sea rightly lamented that “the Black Sea still does not attract enough attention.” Summit meetings later this year offer an opportunity to change that.
At these meetings of NATO, the E.U., and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (O.S.C.E.), the Black Sea region ought to be front and center. With the Sochi Olympics looming, Russia should be a very interested partner.
Denis Corboy, former European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia and director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London; William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and Kenneth Yalowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia and director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.