The Black Sea region appears to involve a relatively small and closed area. This inland sea divides Eastern Europe from Western Asia, and it is linked to the Mediterranean Sea by the Bosphorus. The terrestrial environment is limited by the Pontic Mountains to the south and the Caucasus to the east, while it has direct access to the Balkans and the East European Plain to the Northwest.
There are currently six internationally recognized countries that have direct access to the Black Sea: Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. Traditionally, the Black Sea has been a link in trade routes and a transit point for energy resources, but at the same time, it has been a buffer zone and a border between Europe and Asia.
The Black Sea’s geostrategic scenario and the resulting balance of forces changed drastically after the Soviet collapse in 1991, at which time Russia lost primary influence over the Warsaw Pact countries. Even the states that resulted from the USSR’s break-up and are part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, have moved away from Russia, forging ties with Western Europe.
Another consequence of the rise of new states in the Black Sea and Caucasus area following the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the development of territorial and ethnic disputes that manifested themselves in unresolved conflicts in the Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, not to mention what has happened in recent decades in Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechnya. These disputes aggravate the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine in Crimea and in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
In this way, the loss, as mentioned above, of Russian influence is a determining factor that seems fundamental to the region’s situation and the post-Soviet space in general. Safeguarding free access to the Mediterranean Sea from its port facilities in the Black Sea waters has always been a historical obsession for Russia, who has actually failed to maintain a dominant role in the region, because of its economic weakness and the lack of effectiveness of its political agenda at the local level.
However, this has not prevented Russia from maintaining a strong influence, primarily due to Russian supremacy in the control and transportation of oil and gas production (which many countries in the area depend on to a greater or lesser extent), and also the permanence of the Russian armed forces within these territories. Indeed, in the Black Sea region, Russia is one of the leading players and continues to exert significant influence and maintain ambition, despite having suffered a reduction of its territory.
A second factor that has given birth to geopolitical conflicts in the area is related to issues regarding energy and natural resources. In this energetic game, two central elements can be highlighted. The first conceives greater energy independence which translates into the search for alternative oil transport routes that minimize subordination to other states and in most cases to Russia, and where external interests of third parties – the United States – come into play. Moreover, the European Union seeks to minimize this hegemony that Russia maintains, with new pipelines. The second is a consequence of Russia’s absolute dominance in the natural gas market, in which Gazprom exercises a clear monopoly, which allows it to adopt strategies to stop the supply of gas or raise its price as a political weapon. Russia, therefore, tries to maintain its status vis-à-vis neighbouring states within the region. Above all, it tries to do so within all the countries that were under its rule during the Cold War, mainly Ukraine, trying to perpetuate its role as an influential power in Eastern Europe.
However, this will not prevent the Black Sea basin states, through strategic partnerships and bilateral negotiations, from effectively contributing to rapprochement and cooperation between them to protect and promote their interests in the regional and global context. With this in mind, we could consider the failure of the Commonwealth of Independent States where most of the states of the post-Soviet space were integrated in 1992 (among which are those that make up the Black Sea region), the birth of the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development created in 1994 as an alternative to Russia and the CIS, the Organization of the Economic Community in the Black Sea created in 1994 and the Black Sea Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation in 2005.
Thirdly, American influence has gained much weight in the region, preventing Russia from dominating the Caspian hydrocarbons. Indeed, The Euro-Atlantic alliance has already Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania as full members of NATO and Georgia, Moldova and recently Ukraine are preparing for the negotiation process for future membership. The North American actor’s importance to the entire region of the Black Sea basin and the South Caucasus cannot be overlooked. Indeed, this area will play a vital role in the Middle East and opposition to the Iranian regime.
In recent years, security in the Black Sea area and the Caucasus has become too complicated. It has been characterized both by the process of reaffirming the regional security architecture, trying to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic structure, both by the existence of potentially dangerous tensions caused by ongoing conflicts of an intrastate or interstate character within the CIS as they are currently experiencing in eastern Ukraine, as well as by the increase in asymmetric threats. The proximity of the Black Sea area to the Middle East, the Balkans, Asia and even the Maghreb and Africa also represents a risk of connection to the threats present in these regions.
Lastly, the importance of the fight against terrorism and organized crime, added to the competition for energy resources control, also leads the Black Sea to be the centre of attention of the prominent Euro-Atlantic organizations. The strategic value of this area has pushed NATO to develop individual partnerships with states in the region.
In conclusion, considering its importance in political, strategic, economic, military and demographic terms, the Black Sea region represents the Mediterranean basin’s extension towards Central Asia and the Middle East for Euro-Atlantic interests, becoming a real control tower of the Eurasian space. It will also have a prominent role in improving stability and security in the Middle East, reaffirming it as one of the places with the most significant geostrategic value on the planet.