The Greater Black Sea Basin (GBSB) – the region between the middle of the Adriatic
Sea in the west and the middle of the Caspian Sea in the east, between the Russian landmass in the north and the Turkish-Persian landmass in the south – is fast becoming Europe’s latest tinderbox.
Although traditional geographic textbooks identify the borderline between Europe and Asia as the line stretching westwards along the water-crest of the Caucasus Mountains and then arching southwards through the center of the Turkish Straits and then hugging the Greek littoral westwards, the legacy of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union put the entire GBSB within the confines of Europe’s geopolitics and geoeconomics.
Hence, the rapidly boiling cauldron which the GBSB has become is first and foremost Europe’s challenge.
And it is Europe’s – specifically, the EU’s – failure to confront and resolve the crux of the crisis that makes the GBSB Europe’s latest and potentially most dangerous tinder-box.
Throughout history, the singular global significance of the GBSB has lied in the frictional overlapping of north-south and east-west mega-trends. It is the recent developments in these mega-trends which aggravate the grand strategic posture in the GBSB.
North-south dynamics started in the middle of the 15th Century when the Russians started pushing the Mongol-Turkic hordes southwards in a series of wars, while the Ottoman Armies occupied Constantinople, brought an end to the Byzantine Empire, and started their advance northwards along the shores of the Black Sea all the way to Crimea. The north-south mega-trend crossed a historic milestone in the early 17th Century when the Cossacks’ raids spread along the northern shores of the Black Sea (today’s Ukraine) and culminated toward the end of the Century when the armies of Peter the Great first reached the shores of the Black Sea (Sea of Azov to be precise).
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Russia fought a series of bitter wars with both Turkey and Persia which determined the southern borders of the Empire until the end of the 20th Century, as well as consolidated its claim to a special – if unwelcome – rôle in the Balkans. As well, Russia fought in the mid-19th Century the main European powers of the day – England and France – on the shores of the Black Sea in order to legitimize Russia’s pre-eminent rôle as a regional power. Throughout the Century, Russia also continued to suppress rebellions and insurgency in the Caucasus. Russia’s aggregate posture endured throughout the turbulent 20th Century: both World Wars and the ensuing Cold War.
East-west dynamics can be traced back to the mid-Second Century BC, to the first recorded origins of the Silk Road which facilitated China’s initial reach out to Europe via Persia. In its original form, the Silk Road was consolidated some 300 years later, in the mid-Second Century AD. The more modern character of the Silk Road can be traced to the mid-13th Century, the civilizational transformation of Eurasia in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of Europe, when the Silk Road expanded and gradually evolved into a comprehensive system of exchange of both goods and culture between East and West. Alas, the east-west dynamics were largely frozen out during the second half of the 20th Century as a byproduct of the Cold War.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, and to a lesser extent even in the last decade of the 20th Century, these historic mega-trends have revived and assumed their dominant rôle in geopolitics and geoeconomics. These revivals come with a new twist befitting the monumental changes that took place in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Global history, as Sir Halford Mackinder articulated around the turn of the 20th Century, has largely evolved as an interaction between the pivotal heartlands and the littoral states. The civilizational history of the Eurasian landmass since ancient times has been dominated by these dynamics. In this respect, the Cold War was a minuscule yet traumatic 40-year long interlude in human, particularly Eurasian, history.
Indeed, the aftermath of the Cold War has been dominated by a global intense drive to return the traditional dynamics largely guided by the principles articulated by Mackinder. However, the end of the Cold War also left the United States – the quintessential littoral state – as the self-declared and self-anointed sole hyper-power demanding a preeminent rôle in the Eurasian heartlands. And that US intervention disrupted the Eurasian return to their socio-political heritage and thus engendered the anomalies at the root of the currently brewing crises throughout the heartlands, including the GBSB.
Significantly, the United States – the perceived “bad guy” in these developments – is NOT an evil empire. The US is hardly an empire. The US is a well-intentioned although misguided global power. As a young country and the product of a unique human melting pot, the US has no institutional perception of history, heritage and long-term mega-trends. The quintessence of US politics is both driven and dominated by domestic-interests. The US is therefore an isolationist-by-choice power.
However, the immense economic power necessitates global interaction to facilitate the huge volume of commerce required to keep the domestic-economic process working. At the same time, being the quintessential anti-empire, the US does not consciously seek to control others and chart their course. The global grand-strategic objective of the US has always been to disrupt others from joining forces and carrying out activities which might be detrimental to the contemporary and domestic-economy-driven interests of the US. This can be achieved by either lavishly and generously helping local peoples and powers pursue their interests in manners complementing the US’ interests of the day, or by ruthlessly and heavy-handedly coercing peoples and powers to change their ways if their actions are deemed contradictory to the US interests of the day. There are neither US long-term objectives, nor consideration and awareness of other peoples’ long-term objectives, traditions, heritage, desires and destinies.
Thus, during the Cold War, the primary objective of the US was to contain the Soviet Union; that is, disrupt the ascent of the USSR so that it could not interrupt the ascent of the US as a global economic powerhouse succeeding the West European colonial powers. A major instrument of this policy was to shield Western Europe from Soviet hegemony.
This was achieved brilliantly under a US umbrella – the NATO Alliance – but without preventing the recovery of Western Europe from transforming into the inherently anti-American regulatory nightmare which the EU has become. As well, starting the early-1970s, the US bribed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into disengaging from the Soviet Union in return for economic modernization and empowerment, but without influencing or preventing the ensuing Chinese chauvinistic awakening which now dominates China’s global posture and behavior.
On a smaller scale, at one time or another when it suited its short-term purpose, the US allied itself with, and lavishly sponsored, vehemently anti-American jihadist forces, be they in Afghanistan, the Northern Caucasus, or the former Yugoslavia. Similarly, Washington’s preoccupation with the here-and-now presently determines the US policies and activities in the GBSB, thus making the US a catalyst for instability.
Meanwhile, shaking off the vestiges of the Cold War aberration in the 1990s, the historic powers of the pivotal heartlands of Eurasia – Europe, Russia, and the PRC – have begun to posture and maneuver in a quest to resume their historic rôles in a somewhat different modern world; a world torn between localized legacies and the globalized economy and information revolution.
As well, for the leading Eurasian powers, there existed a common vital threat: the ascent of the radicalized and empowered militant Sunni Islam. Long dormant and suppressed by the imperial powers, the trend was awakened by the Muslim world’s inability to cope with the spread of Westernized modernity. The Muslim world eagerly adopted the technological advances originating in the West, but was frustrated in its desperate effort to shield Islamdom from the civilizational values which accompanied these technologies.
Contemporary jihadism was inadvertently empowered and exacerbated by the United States as the aggregate and unintended result of the overthrowing of the Shah of Iran, the facilitation of the Pakistani-supported anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the tolerance of the Saudi worldwide export of neo-salafism, and the decimation of traditionalist-conservative Arabism in the course of the Gulf War of 1990-91.
Consequently, in the last decade of the 20th Century – the fledgling first decade of the post-Cold War era – the three historic powers of Eurasia had a common vital threat to unite them even before all other profound issues that separate them could push them apart.
In the GBSB, Moscow sought to contain and prevent the revival and surge of Sunni jihadism into Russia’s own soft-underbelly via Central Asia and the Caucasus. The continued jihadist insurgency in the North Caucasus serves as a constant reminder of the challenge and the imperative for strategic solutions. As its wont, Russia did so by surging southwards once again. This time, however, Russia’s key instruments were strategic-diplomatic rather than military.
The Kremlin’s number one priority has now become the empowerment of, and cooperation with, Turkey and Persia: the local forces which have ethno-national heritage as great powers, even if anti-Russian. For Moscow, the strategic rapprochement with Persia means that Shi’ite Iran serves as wedge separating between the Sunni-Arab cauldron and the Afghan-Pakistani cauldron, thus preventing the formation of a jihadist bloc capable of surging northwards.
Similarly, the Russian alliance with Turkey serves to slow and stall the spread of Arab neo-salafism and jihadism into the Caucasus and the Balkans. Russia is neither oblivious to, nor supportive of, the Islamist radicalism and regional aspirations of both Iran and Turkey. However, their non-Arab character serves as a barrier against the significantly greater threat of neo-salafism and Arabization. As well, the look southwards revived the Russian presence in the Balkans where the US intervention in, and mishandling of, the collapse of Yugoslavia resulted in, among other things, the consolidation of jihadist presence and grass-roots Muslim radicalization.
In retrospect, the collapse of the Soviet Union which ushered in the end of the Cold War did not happen as a result of a US or Western victory. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the outcome of self-inflicted self-destruction which, in turn, ensued from the Soviet rediscovery – under duress and in immense frustration – of their Russian heritage and roots. The profoundly religious Mother Russia could no longer co-exist with the atheist communist Soviet Union; and eternal Mother Russia prevailed. And with this triumph there revived the manifest destiny of Moscow as the Third Rome: the successor of Rome and Constantinople as the guardian and leader of the civilized world.
The Kremlin has thus rejuvenated Russia’s imperial surge southwards along historic routes and directions, albeit now more via hegemony than the traditional occupation by force. Nevertheless, Russia’s is still an expansionist surge in quest for dominance. It is therefore only a question of time before Russia’s current preventive surge will evolve into a quest for imperial-style hegemony.
Meanwhile, the main mega-trend undertaken by the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall was to surge eastward in order to gradually integrate the European states left behind the Iron Curtain. By 2007, the EU reached the shores of the Black Sea. Concurrently, the EU has also reached out for a new coexistence with the eastern reaches of Europe; that is, with Russia and the former Soviet states. The EU’s main surge eastwards has already resulted in the consolidation of the EU-RF common “Eurasian Home” policy, a process which is for the first time making Mackinder’s pivotal heartlands a viable grand-strategic reality. The EU has also embarked on a host of derivative programs; most notably the Eastern Partnership initiative which covers six former Soviet states on the periphery of the EU, five of which are GBSB countries.
However, important as the EU’s advance eastward and the Eastern Partnership are, they are not the dominant elements of the EU’s policy and challenge in the GBSB.
The principal factor dominating the east-west mega-trend is the EU’s reaction to, and coping with, the strategic and economic ascent of the PRC, and particularly China’s renewed surge along the Silk Road. The economic miracle which facilitates the reawakening and ascent of the PRC is fueled by hydrocarbons. The PRC is now a major importer of hydrocarbons, and the primary sources are the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. While the PRC is diversifying its sources of hydrocarbons by shifting attention away from the Persian Gulf to Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, the singular importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus as China’s source of energy keeps growing.
Central Asia and the Caucasus are also the West’s own Persian Gulf of the 21st Century. In the coming decades, the importance of the hydrocarbons reserves of Central Asia for the EU will keep increasing as supply from the Persian Gulf will decrease due to dwindling reserves and growing political instability.
According to the EU’s own data, the EU’s energy dependency will climb from 50 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2030. The EU’s commitment to renewable energy sources will not affect this dependency for the majority of the sources of electricity from solar and wind power will also be outside the EU, albeit in allied countries such as Morocco rather than unstable regions such as the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
Oil imports are expected to rise from 45 percent of the EU’s consumption in 2000 to 90 percent in 2030. Although natural gas imports are expected to rise from 70 percent of the EU’s consumption in 2000 to 80 percent in 2030, the component of Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is expected to double from 40 percent of the total imports to 80 percent (in the event that Nabucco could fully facilitate a flow of gas from Iran and Iraq; the component of Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia would only decrease to 60 percent).
Significantly, despite the EU’s firm commitment to power generation from renewable energy such as solar and wind power by 2020-2030, this will not reduce the EU’s dependence on hydrocarbons for transportation and household heating and cooking; issues that are directly affecting the average citizen.
The main reason for the dramatic slowdown in the energy diversification is because the coattails of the still-unfolding economic crisis will make it impossible to replace the entire oil and gas infrastructure, household appliances and fleets of vehicles in the foreseeable future. Simply put, not only can the EU not afford the huge public works and personal changes of habits required to make energy diversification a reality, but the EU must encourage all job restoration programs even if in energy inefficient and polluting industries. Therefore the EU’s dependence on the importation of hydrocarbons will continue to grow in the coming decades.
In the triangle of conflicting interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus between Europe, Russia, and China (PRC), Russia would rather see the hydrocarbons going westward to Europe. However, Russia and the local states are primarily interested in economic empowerment and the ensuing popular stability. Therefore, the inclination of all local governments is to permit the PRC to carry eastward whatever hydrocarbons Europe cannot ship westward.
Herein is the crux of the east-west face-off affecting the GBSB. Simply put, for Europe to have a reasonable chance to get the energy it needs from Central Asia and the Caucasus, it must dominate a stable GBSB.
The parts of the GBSB which need to be addressed here are the three mini-states and one contested entity of the Southern Caucasus, and the dozen or so states and contested entities of the Balkans and adjacent Ukraine.
These states and entities are squeezed between Russia in the north and Turkey in the south. As well, the pipelines carrying hydrocarbons from Central Asia (and Russia) to Europe pass through them (and Turkey). The inherent contradiction between the indigenous reaction in these states and contested entities to the mounting pressure created by the north-south mega-trend – namely the building cooperation, and even alliance, between Russia and Turkey and Iran – and the EU’s quest for stability (virtually at any cost) are the harbingers of the building crisis in the GBSB.
Except for Greece, the countries of the GBSB were part of the communist world during the Cold War. And while Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania adopted their own distinct paths, breaking away from the Soviet-imposed communist orthodoxy, they nevertheless remained dictatorships with communist-style ideology. During the 1980s, the populations of both the Balkans states and the periphery of the Soviet Union were increasingly influenced by the revival of the quest for self-identity based on, and derived from, ethnical and religious roots and heritage. It was a grassroots reaction to the intensified Sovietization, and especially the growing Russification within, which was exacerbated by the US and NATO “captive nations” propaganda unleashed by the US Reagan Administration. The concurrent spread of fledgling Islamist theology – supported for various reasons by the strange coalition of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Libya – found a fertile niche among the otherwise secularized Muslim population of the region.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the entire GBSB was strewn with a web of myriad ideologies-theologies which sought to adopt extremist and maximalist trends as the solution for preserving the self-identities of small ethno-nationalist groups. These small groups felt threatened by the historic waves crashing all around them; by the sudden and drastic changes to the world they had known for at least half-a-century.
The aggregate impact on the reigning confusion, uncertainty, and economic misery (to the point of hunger and poverty) was a widespread clinging to messianic extreme ideologies-theologies in a quest for divine panaceas. In the process, the communist-dictatorial glue which had held states and nations together – the fear of the centralized state’s “forces of darkness” – was gone and replaced by an explosive combination of near-anarchy popular fearlessness and the revival of historic enmities and rivalries. These were exacerbated by the contemporary competition for scarce resources – most notably food, energy and employment – in the dysfunctional entities that replaced the crumbling communist states.
In 1990-91, the US led the West to focus on the Iraq-Kuwait crisis because of its centrality to Persian Gulf energy safety. In so doing, the West was missing the “Golden Hour” for addressing the unraveling of the Soviet periphery. The US was inclined to give Germany a free hand in the Balkans in order to get the US Army out of Germany and deploy to Saudi Arabia for the assault on Kuwait. Another outcome of the US focus on the Gulf War and the resources invested in it was the sudden rise and spread of global satellite TV news which, in a few years, was to drastically affect the political-military handling of the crisis in the Balkans.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s “Last Hurrah” in the South Caucasus would end up influencing the US post-Cold War policy in the entire GBSB. The incident took place on the sidelines of the then-rapidly escalating war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In May 1992, Azerbaijan appealed to Turkey for help as Armenian military forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring areas in Azerbaijan, and threatened the Nakhichevan exclave.
In response, Turkey’s President Turgut Özal threatened to invade Armenia. In the coming days, Turkish and Armenian forces traded artillery fire and Turkey rushed significant reinforcements to the area. Moscow reacted with fury, convinced that Ankara was carrying out Washington’s and NATO’s instructions. Moscow put the Russian forces in Caucasus on alert and started troop movements toward Turkey.
Marshal Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov warned of the dire ramifications of war against “Turkey and the United States” should Turkey come to the assistance of Azerbaijan. US intelligence learned that Russia was considering a “demonstrative strike” against the US radar near Kars, eastern Turkey, in case Turkish military crossed the border of either Armenia or Azerbaijan. The mere existence of these threats convinced Washington that the GBSB, and the ex-Soviet periphery as a whole, were not worth the risk and cost of a renewed confrontation with Russia. The US policy would now focus on exploiting and capitalizing on events in the GBSB in order to further US causes of higher priority with total disregard to the implications and ramifications in the GBSB itself.
In the 1990s, the United States capitalized on events in the Balkans for exactly such reasons.
Initially, the US-led Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia was aimed first and foremost to salvage NATO (and with it US dominance over post-Cold War Western Europe) from irrelevance and collapse. As well, the support for the Muslims of Bosnia became the counter-balance of the US confrontation with jihadism in the Middle East. Anthony Lake, US President Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, formulated the logic for the US-led intervention on behalf of the Muslims. The US national interest “requires our working to contain Muslim extremism, and we have to find a way of being firm in our opposition to Muslim extremism while making it clear we’re not opposed to Islam. If we are seen as anti-Muslim, it’s harder for us to contain Muslim extremism. And if we stand by while Muslims are killed and raped in Bosnia, it makes it harder to continue our policy,” Lake argued. That in the process the US would end up partnering with, supporting and arming, the very same jihadist forces Clinton was seeking to contain meant nothing to Washington. The only thing Washington cared about was the image of a US rallying to the rescue of a Muslim cause.
But the US intervention in the former Yugoslavia was more than just unilateral and arbitrary use of force in the name of humanitarian interventionism. The US would end up enshrining the legitimacy of a policy based on flagrant lies, as well as the demonization of the Serbs and the world of Eastern Christianity as a whole.
The global strategic outcome of the wars in the former Yugoslavia was determined to a great extent by the images on satellite TV news and the implication of US support and endorsement. Thus, the sight of a quarter of a million Serb refugees being evicted from Krajina with the blessing of the US-led West, of ruined Churches, and of Serbs digging out the coffins of their dead for the long travel, touched a raw nerve among the entire Eastern Christianity. Similarly, the sight of blond-blue-eyed Bosnian commandos saying Muslim prayers in Arabic before embarking on their missions against Christian forces not only reinforced the sense of a global jihadist identity and cause throughout a diverse Muslim world under spell of neo-salafite charities and preachers, it also sent isolated pockets with distinct character into greater isolation and defensive militancy in fear of succumbing to the Arabization propagated by the neo-salafite charities and preachers.
Meanwhile, the old-new wars of the Caucasus continued to rage outside the West’s attention span.
A myriad of wars and mini-wars kept escalating and spreading, bringing back to life long-dormant conflicts and hatreds. It took the exhaustion of the prostrate and impoverished post-Soviet population to end the carnage in the mid 1990s. A host of ceasefire and political co-existence agreements were signed under Moscow’s watchful eye. But there was haste and impatience to bring the carnage to end as soon as possible. And the leaders involved, all well-meaning former officials at the backward Soviet periphery, knew nothing of the intricacies of international law and agreements. The legacy of these shortcomings would, and still does, haunt the region. Ultimately, by then, the genies of hatred and separatism were out of the bottle.
It was in mid-1994, with fratricidal violence subsiding, that Azerbaijan signed the “Contract of the Century” with a consortium of Western companies and ushered in the era of hydrocarbons and pipelines from the GBSB. Unscrupulous Western businessmen dragged Western oil giants into the region promising huge and quick profits. These politically well-connected oil giants, in turn, dragged in the US and West European governments in the name of protecting their investments and commercial interests.
In the process, corporate officials engaged in deal making with local powers and leaders they thought could deliver energy and routes for pipelines, as well as block those of competitors, all in total disregard of genuine legitimacy and local circumstances. The US led the Western governments to bless these deals for their commercial value, thus aggravating the already explosive situation. Most important, the initial Western intervention ended up empowering localized leaders and aspirant leaders, and their fringe ideologies, at the expense of viable political entities throughout the Caucasus.
The regional posture was aggravated by the US intervention in local crises in pursuit of energy transportation interests.
The US Clinton Administration developed a penchant for attempts at forcing an outcome through local crises instead of patiently working will all sides toward a compromise or a negotiated solution. Frequently, the US intervention was motivated by domestic-political considerations irrespective of the regional posture and dynamics. This approach was also pronounced in Washington’s repeated efforts to have both oil and gas pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkish Mediterranean seaports constructed by US corporations rather than European-dominated international consortiums.
Continued in Parts 2 & 3
Analysis By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.