Geopolitics, Revisionism and the Black Sea
Latent tensions have loomed before civil strife actually irrupted in Ukraine amid deep-rooted political uncertainties. That claims upon the Crimean peninsula would be eventually raised by Putin’s Russia, concentrating troops at the borders and effecting what appeared to be a military invasion, followed by a political validation (i.e. the referendums in the Eastern provinces), were not unfathomable. Yet, in its mitigation attempts the West has failed to appraise the region’s complex history that seeps into centuries of contending geopolitical ambitions, unresolved territorialities and ethnic tensions. A closer look suggests it was the medium of protracted uncertainty, whether regional, domestic or European, that rendered revisionism possible. And although it was deemed to be the most defying frontier reconfiguration of the post-Cold War era, in practice it was met with a rather diffident response, the fruit of an entrenched political ambivalence – both Russian, as after the Georgian conflict there was largely assumed that whatever Russia does in its neighbourhood will not attract any significant retribution from European powers, despite the interests that tied it to European markets; and European, a taken-for-granted attitude that the end of the Cold War heralded the primacy of the European/ transatlantic order and integration models, while Russia’s demise concluded in its containment and peripheral status, despite Europe’s energy dependency on Russian gas. It is with no wonder that the latter was perceived by Russian political architects as yet another form of unacceptable revisionism.
Merely the peak of the iceberg – Yanukovich’s toppling regime and the vacuum of power that left Ukraine on the brink of dismemberment triggered a set of events that seemed hardly believable within European political circles. Not so long ago, Ukraine was perceived to be a game changer in the Black Sea region, and indeed it was, but not in the way EU decision-makers envisioned it to be. Recent events dispelled the deep-rooted post Cold War reliance on the natural progression of the European project and its unfettered expansion towards the post-Soviet space. Applying the same post-imperial reasoning in assuming that Russia would eventually forego its Near Abroad as Western European empires did decades ago proved not only overly ambitious, but erroneous on the long term. There is still an enduring perception that although Russia does not approximate its imperial or Soviet territorial expansiveness, it cannot remain or be considered a periphery of international affairs, or the periphery of any other power. This sentiment fuels not only domestic political strategies capitalising on widespread Slavophilia, but also mobilises the Russian diaspora abroad, which to some extent confers a measure of public endorsement to political actions or at least its simulacrum. Even though Russia’s regional assertiveness became the aura of Vladimir Putin’s mandates, political circles have long-imparted the belief that traditional ties with former Soviet satellites ought to perpetuate unthreatened. Legitimate or not, such claims do provide the basis for Russia’s engagement in its neighbourhood and dismissing these enduring sensitivities all-together has proved rather inconsequential, i.e. the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and the more recent events that concluded with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
However, regional links and interdependencies are not entirely a Soviet legacy or the emanation of personalistic political narratives, and all too often European political architects have indulged in a zero-sum competition that failed to acquiesce the complex role Russia has played in its proximity, not only in parts of Eastern Europe but also in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The infrastructures (i.e. energy routes or communication systems) that interconnect the myriad regions with the centre, providing markets for capital and goods, migration trajectories or security provisions produce a geographic-systemic coherence that cannot be easily dispelled and that, as in the case of the European project, has determined various degrees of integration. In this sense, the Black Sea area is merely the appendix of an expansive neighbourhood composed of borderlands with more or less contentious status or centrality within Russian decision-making spheres. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and as EU frontiers expanded into the buffer zones delineating former spheres of influence, the political and strategic inclinations of Black Sea actors became a matter of international dispute and contention, yet again a palpable proof that the post-Cold War conceptual and territorial redefinition of this region is far from being concluded. Despite Russia’s extensive territorial interface with Europe, shared security interests, links with Western European markets or quite successful cooperation projects (i.e. the Northern Dimension), it is in the Black Sea area that most geopolitical disputes, stalemates and competition sprung, shaping overall attitudes and dictating the perceived opportunities and costs of engagement, both European and Russian. Hence, it is perhaps at a subregional level that Russia-EU relations are quite likely to normalize provided an optimistic scenario.
What we may call a persistent cognitive dissonance has been validated over the centuries by successive crises in which European, Russian or regional expectations and foreign policy ambitions clashed. Such tendencies, animosities between neighbouring states or mutually perceived threats emerge as a regional phenomenon, which has historically challenged and determined European security architectures, toppling political agendas and cooperation arrangements, an Eastern Question that seems to be as valid today as a few centuries ago. Historically, these territories regulated the European Concert, a ‘currency’ of exchange between imperial spheres of influence that altered their demographics and frontiers, feeding separatism and a complex sense of statehood, which passes largely misunderstood.
Thus, it is not over-zealous to assume that regional tensions in the Black Sea area reproduce to a great extent the divisions of our Wider Europe. Historically, around the Black Sea access-related concerns represented the primary vectors of geopolitical transformation, constantly reshaping rapports amongst littoral actors and their more distant counterparts. Convoluted commercial and strategic interests, competing spheres of influence formed the core of the Pontic geopolitical ethos, in which centres of power constantly shifted along a North-South, East-West axis. The expansion of commerce coupled with technological innovation motivated Western (particularly, British and French) and Central European (the Habsburgs) powers to extend operations along the Danube and into the Black Sea, thus securing access to the agriculturally replete territories of the Danubian Southeast. Concomitantly, Russia’s ascension into the northwestern littoral, establishing commercial hubs along the main waterways and coastline opened a gateway into the Balkans, whilst the Black Sea straits conferred access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. The waning Ottoman dominance over the Danubian provinces created an opportunity for their economic and political emancipation. The newly fledged kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria partly resulted from this gradual diversification of their commercial and strategic rapports with both Central-Western European powers and imperial Russia. Moreover, the security provisions that motivated the incipient regimes of the waterways (i.e. European Commission of the Danube) or the neutralisation of the sea stemmed from the strategic necessity of balancing competing interests and maintaining unhindered access to resources.
The way in which the littoral, the territories beyond the coastline or the sea itself have been perceived and attributed strategic utility, serving the scopes of expanding empires or fledgling nation-states would shed light upon recurring patterns identifiable to this day. Whether actors are likely to adopt the status quo or engage in revisionist behaviours could be intrinsically connected to spatial or territorial perceptions, which in turn form the very basis of national security considerations and national-identity narratives. The latter is a complex matter emanating from nation building processes, which for the smaller, less potent states of southeast or central Europe vying to preserve their territorial integrity against imperial plunder, became both a geopolitical necessity and an internal prerogative. However, although unity might have been imperative for state survival and territorial integrity, in some cases national character could not fully reconcile and integrate ethnic diversities or separatist tendencies. Developments in Ukraine and beyond are indicative of similar processes. On one hand, the preservation of territorial integrity against external, revisionist behaviours is a measure of state survival and defense of the status quo, inherited from a history of uncertainty. And on the other, internally, issues of nationhood generated disputes and clashes, resulting in often-exclusionary politics and artificial uniformisation incapable of reconciling within the state’s frontiers broiling ethnic tensions, themselves portrayed as an internal threat. Hence, both the internal and external dimensions become geopolitical vectors of statehood.
The Crimean Peninsula reproduces to a great extent similar patterns. Its strategic utility has been claimed by neighbouring nation-states and empires, its geography subjected to competing national security paradigms, a Black Sea Sea strategic outpost constantly invaded and annexed, populations displaced and demography altered. It has been subject to both Russian and European revisionism. Even if the Friendship Agreement of 1997 between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, allowed the former to harbour its Black Sea fleet in Sebastopol, the concession comported some crucial strategic repercussions. Sovereign, internal matters of one state create the possibility of interventionism should the other perceive a threat. Prospects are exacerbated by the fact that Crimea’s modern history is intimately tied to Russia, politically and ethnically. Hence, Russia’s naval presence amongst others implied that Russian national security interests could be projected beyond its frontiers, explicitly interlocking the two actors into a perilous dependency.
The Black Sea, despite its professed regional status with multiple but largely ineffective attempts towards cooperation, now reemerges as an arena of entrenched geopolitical competition. As the Neighbourhood Policy with its various dimensions reiterated the member states’ myriad interests and reminded of dormant spheres of influence, new capacities of geopolitical projection surface. Whereas the Mediterranean and North Africa epitomized the South’s geostrategic pursuits, the Eastern dimension advanced the new members’ ambitions, Eastern, Central European or Baltic to which others aligned. New energy dependency patterns and perceptions of threat imbued European political agendas, as a nucleus of former Visegrad members resolutely attempted to counterbalance Russian influence. Nevertheless, regional architectures resulted in overlapping arrangements, predicated on multilateralism, sectoral cooperation or bilateral relations, each with different instruments, leverages, participation and memberships. This patchwork of schemes bolstered regional but also European animosities, and despite the Neighbourhood’s normative desideratum of stability at the peripheries, it somewhat externalized and ‘enlarged’ an environment of uncertainty. As support for the Black Sea Synergy, initiated by Romania in 2008 was diminishing, Poland, which has maintained a vivid strategic interest in the Black Sea and the wider post- Soviet spectrum, advanced the Eastern Partnership. Both initiatives have attempted to solidify strategic and geopolitical interests whether one gazes at Romania’s regional ambitions of counterbalancing a historical Turkish-Russian hegemony around the Black Sea or Poland’s resurging presence as a regional mediator, which strongly reminds of previous instantiations, particularly the Promethean movement.
The Eastern Partnership initiated by Poland with Swedish support aimed to restructure relations with the post-Soviet space, preserving incentives for compliance in absence of actual enlargement or accession guarantees. The bilateral agreements, channeling different levels of engagement had a great capacity to stir not only regional competition, but also provided various political factions with electoral platforms that often proved inconsequential to actual domestic/internal reforms and even less so, to foreign policies. At a European level, from its inception, the Eastern Partnership indicated towards a visible strategic shift, and as membership extended to Eastern and Central European states, their strategic concerns, perceptions of threat, dependency patterns became integrated within the realities of an enlarged EU. The more realist European stance visible at the beginning of the 1990s redefining the post-Soviet space according to the EU’s strategic priorities concretised through an infusion of capital, that clearly separated, Russia or the more distant peripheries (the Caucasus for instance) unlikely to become members in the foreseeable future (receivers of TACIS funding) from those states deemed to join and comply with conditionality frameworks (subject to PHARE). Such incipient policy initiatives led to an uneven distribution of capital and development in the region, inconsistencies that were to mar EU’s later attempts towards regional integration and its respective normative stance. On the backdrop of such early initiatives although Russia was one of the most prominent receivers of funding through TACIS, the apparently more stable relations were somewhat facilitated by the ‘old members’ geopolitical concerns – access to resources and maintaining a stable flow of energy. However, with the successive waves of accession in 2004 and 2007, most of these realities were altered by new sets of domestic grievances. Ostensibly, the European geo-strategic environment was to fundamentally change. As European frontiers reached the Black Sea, regional patterns have transformed as well as the rapports between neighbours according to a centre-periphery dynamic and member-non-member status. Such divisions juxtapose the region’s inherent disparities and multifaceted identities that historically generated a confrontational milieu.
On the backdrop of such concerns, the question of access to a stable supply of resources able to sustain expansive territorial projects becomes the ubiquitous thread. Whether the stabilization of these regions was a strategic prerequisite in preserving or diversifying supply and transit routes, a means to an end rather than an end in itself, remains purely a rhetorical exercise. Conversely, if we ask ourselves whether the annexation of the Crimean peninsula was Russia’s premeditated act or an impromptu action forced by circumstances of instability and uncertainty, would be to the same effect. The very basis for future dialogue would be acquiescing the fact that revisionism stems from the over-politicisation of geography and this has been valid for regional actors and their more distant European counterparts alike. Hence, understanding the region’s complex history would be a modest step towards mitigating the risks of destabilising political actions, that impact on the future of Wider Europe.