TENSIONS mount by the shores of the Black Sea

The struggle between East and West is set to envelop the entire region during the coming year
By DOUG SAUNDERS / The Globe and Mail *
January 2, 2008

If, in the coming year, you find yourself relaxing on the beach in the Bulgarian resort of Bourgas on Europe’s little-noticed east coast, you may soon realize that you are in the centre of one of the world’s most lavish and portentous conflicts, one that involves a dozen countries and the nuclear powers of the Cold War and is likely to produce explosions in 2008.

Look up the coast, just to the north, and you will see U.S. bombers and surveillance planes taking off in increasing numbers from Bulgarian and Romanian seaside bases as the U.S. and NATO militaries shift their major installations from Germany to locations along the formerly communist Black Sea coast.

In 2008, a year after the European Union added Bulgaria and Romania, two former Warsaw Pact nations, to its membership, NATO will make its most aggressive bids to win over the rest of the region. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s annual conference will be held near the sea in Romania, and the most explosive item on the agenda will be the proposed membership of Georgia – a Black Sea country that, if it joins, will expand the territory of this Cold War military alliance to the deep interior of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow is already reacting with anger to the expanding presence of NATO on these shores, which had previously been entirely within Russia’s sphere of influence (only Turkey has traditionally been a NATO member). Half a dozen “frozen conflicts” in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova appear ready to erupt into full-scale secession wars in the coming year; in every case, the militant movements appear to have Russian backing.

For the 100 million people who live around the shores of the Black Sea, 2008 may well feel like a return to the Cold War. This time, though, it’s not clear which side any nation, any region or any people are on: Like South America or Southeast Asia during that previous Washington-Moscow standoff, the Black Sea region has become an endlessly contested ground, subject to shifting influences as money and weapons are dumped into unsuspecting populations.
In recent years, that conflict has played itself out most visibly in Ukraine, whose elections have been dramatic showdowns between Russian-supported forces and Western-backed democracy movements. This year ended with pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who took office on Dec. 18, accusing Moscow of actively funding the opposition’s parties.

The struggle between East and West is about to envelop the entire Black Sea region during the coming year, often with military implications.

The sparring is likely to begin as early as Saturday, when Georgia’s five million citizens go to the polls in a presidential election and a referendum on the country’s proposed NATO membership. The vote was called after weeks of violent mass demonstrations in November against pro-American president Mikheil Saakashvili. The demonstrations, which Mr. Saakashvili and a number of outside organizations say were backed by Russia, were met with brutal police repression. Georgia, like Ukraine, appears to be divided in half between voters who support the European Union and NATO and those who prefer a return to Moscow’s influence.

But there are even deeper divisions in Georgia, and in a number of its Black Sea neighbours. Breakaway regions, which hope to form their own nations – usually because their people are more loyal to Russia – have seen low-level conflicts fraught with occasional bombings and acts of violence for years. In 2008, any one of them could become full-scale war.

Georgia’s troubled regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become increasingly violent in recent months, their independence movements staging bolder attacks against government facilities. Neighbouring Azerbaijan has had growing frictions in its region of Nagorno-Karabakh. And on the other side of the Black Sea, the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria, which is loyal to Russia, has seen increasing tensions.

These landlocked slivers of Black Sea real estate could well become conflict zones this year, for reasons rooted in another landlocked country that lies closer to the Adriatic Sea. In late January or early February, the Serbian province of Kosovo is likely to declare independence, an act that is backed by the European Union and the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that if Serbia, a Slavic-speaking country, loses its disputed Albanian-majority province to Western influences, it will have a hard time guaranteeing the integrity of Georgia and Moldova. Many observers see this as a thinly veiled threat: If Kosovo goes, then so goes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. Some observers already say that arms are flowing into these breakaway regions.
“The chance of some kind of armed flare-up in at least one of those conflict zones in the coming year is disturbingly high,” says Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “The consequences could be catastrophic.”

Why are Brussels, Washington and Moscow devoting so much time, money and armaments to a stretch of shoreline that has previously languished in uneasy obscurity? Some of it has to do with geography: Georgia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan sit near the border of Iran, and there is a strong desire to have a Western-loyal buffer of nations and defence installations surrounding this constant site of conflict.

Another reason might become visible if you sit long enough on the beach in Bourgas.

Further out to sea, you might spot Russian ships laying an enormous undersea pipeline, known as South Stream, that will carry billions of cubic metres of natural gas from Russia, across the 900-kilometre width of the Black Sea to Bulgaria, and on to energy-hungry Western Europe.

And just behind you, running up the Bulgarian shore, will be the tail end of South Stream’s Western-funded competitor, known as Nabucco, which carries equally enormous amounts of gas from Iran and Central Asia through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey before it supplies Europe. These pipelines, carrying Europe’s Russian fuel supply and its hard-fought Iranian alternative, provide the economic backdrop for this set of emerging conflicts.
Europe is enormously reliant on Russian gas and oil to heat its homes – some countries, such as Germany and Italy, are so completely dependent that they would face an immediate crisis if the pipelines from Russia were curtailed. (This occurred briefly in 2006, during a dispute between Russia and Belarus over pipeline rights, and caused a sizable shock.) As a result, the supplies of petroleum and gas from the Adriatic Sea through Azerbaijan and from Iran are considered vital. (This is an important reason why the EU has been reluctant to participate fully in sanctions against Iran over alleged nuclear weapons activity.)

So much of this dispute – though not all of it, as some would suggest – is rooted in the West’s need for energy security. If non-Russian sources of fuel are to be securely provided, then the loyalty of the countries to the east, south and west of the Black Sea is vital. From Moscow’s perspective, if its continued dominance is to be maintained (and good prices upheld for its supplies), then pipelines will need to pass through the west, north and east of the Black Sea.

Some countries, notably Bulgaria and Romania, stand to benefit either way: Both Adriatic-Iranian oil pipelines and Russia’s new pipes will enter Europe through their impoverished territory.

As you relax on the beige sands of Bourgas – an increasingly popular vacation getaway for both Central Europeans and for Russians – these rising tensions might be visible along the shoreline and across the water. But they’re likely to seem especially bizarre when you return to your hotel, which is almost certain to have EU flags flying on its awning – and to be owned by Russian tycoons.


The push for independence

Autonomous aspirations of these three Black Sea regions threaten
to flare up in the coming year.


A sliver of land on the Nistria River, Transnistria broke away from Moldova in September of 1990. A brief war killed hundreds before Russian troops intervened. The region of 550,000 people is dominated by Russian-speaking Slavs, who pressed for independence fearing Moldova’s Romanian-speaking majority would one day join Romania to the south. Around 1,200 Russian troops remain. Transnistria covers one-eighth of Moldovan territory but is home to the bulk of Moldova’s industrial base.


Home to 200,000 people, Abkhazia is sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and was once a renowned tourist destination. It fought a 1992-93 war against Georgia and effectively rules itself. It was isolated for years after the war but has since forged closer ties with Russia, which has given Abkhaz residents passports and pensions. South Ossetia fought to throw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s. A ceasefire was signed but the violence has threatened to reignite. Russia has peacekeepers in both regions.


Sporadic clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azeri and local ethnic Armenian irregulars began in 1998, escalating by 1992 into full-scale hostilities between Azeri forces and troops from Armenia. About 35,000 people died and hundreds of thousands fled before a ceasefire was signed in 1994. The territory remains part of Azerbaijan but is controlled by Armenian forces. A major BP-led pipeline linking Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea oil fields to world markets passes a few kilometres from the conflict zone.

Source: Reuters News Agency



As 2008 dawns, Globe and Mail correspondents around the world examine international issues set to make news in the new year. Today’s story is the final of five. For the entire series, visit globeandmail.com




by Joshua Kucera

The US Department of Defense has drafted a new strategy for the Black Sea region, focusing on getting the individual countries around the Black Sea to develop a regional approach to security issues.

Some of the strategy’s finer points are still being developed, and the implementation may be slowed by the US preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. But it nevertheless represents a concerted effort by Washington to get involved in a region traditionally dominated by Turkey and Russia.

To that end, the United States is throwing its weight behind Turkey’s leadership in Black Sea regional efforts. That’s in part because Ankara and Washington share the same goals in the area, and, in part, because Washington wants to allay Turkish concerns about American intentions.

The strategy’s main concept was completed late last year and it remains classified. But its general outline was described to EurasiaNet by a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity. US officials are still in the process of relaying the strategy’s contents to regional governments, including Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Greece. First to be briefed was Turkey, in acknowledgement of Ankara’s leadership role in the region. “Without Turkey, we can’t get this to work,” the official said.

The other key Black Sea player is Russia, and the Pentagon has low expectations on Moscow’s willingness to go along with US plans. “We don’t expect the Russians to be cooperative; they see this as interference in their sphere of influence. However, we’re committed to seeking Russian cooperation wherever we can get it – we don’t want them as an adversary,” the official said. “However, we won’t allow ourselves to be held hostage to Russian objections.”

The US is actively encouraging countries around the Black Sea to take part in the Turkey-led Black Sea Harmony maritime security program, through which intelligence on sea traffic is shared among all the coastal states. In December, Russia became the first country to formally join the program. Ukraine and Romania are also reportedly close to joining. Georgia’s navy is not large enough to provide any significant intelligence, although it does participate in information exchanges.

The cooperation between Turkey and Russia is seen in some quarters as a combined effort to keep NATO out of the Black Sea. NATO operates a similar maritime security operation in the Mediterranean Sea, called Active Endeavor, and NATO has tried to expand that program into the Black Sea. Turkey, however, is worried that NATO’s incursion into the Black Sea would diminish Ankara’s influence there. Some Turkish officials also fear that an expanded NATO regional role could erode the 1936 Montreux Convention, by which Turkey maintains control over the Bosporus Straits. Russia, meanwhile, remains opposed to US influence in its former satellite countries.

“I don’t think we can help that the Russians see this as a zero-sum game, but I do think we can help that with the Turks,” the official added. “The Turkish approach is similar to ours [in dealing with Russia]: pragmatic, but they won’t do anything detrimental to their national security.”

The United States doesn’t see a specific threat in the Black Sea region at present, but that is reason enough to expand the surveillance and monitoring of the area, the official said. Potential threats include the transport of weapons of mass destruction, drugs or terrorists. “One would presume some of that goes on, but we don’t know,” the official said. It’s possible the threat is not great, “but right now we don’t have the detection and surveillance capabilities to know if that’s the case.”

In addition to maritime surveillance, United States would like to see countries in the Black Sea region improve crisis response capabilities and border security.

But the program may be slowed or scaled back, given the Pentagon’s preoccupation these days with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said. “The United States has given a lot of thought to the Black Sea, but I don’t believe we have a clear implementation strategy” because of the two major wars, the official said.

Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC, based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Posted March 1, 2007 © Eurasianet © http://www.eurasianet.org


by Andrew Tully


A EurasiaNet Partner Post from RFE/RL

Romania and the United States have signed an agreement that would establish the first US military bases in an Eastern European country from the former Soviet bloc. The United States already has the rights to a base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, and is in the process of vacating one in neighboring Uzbekistan. With the United States already possessing a military presence in much of the world, what does it want with even more foreign bases?

Romanian President Traian Basescu seemed as pleased to be hosting the bases as the Americans are to have them.

Speaking on December 6 at a Bucharest news conference with visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Basescu welcomed Romania’s opportunity to play a prominent role in international security.

“This agreement [on opening US military bases] places Romania within the global security system — with an important contribution. After the signing of this agreement and its validation by the [Romanian] parliament, Romania will become a pillar of stability in the region,” Basescu said.

Easier Access

The US bases in Romania — and those expected to be set up in neighboring Bulgaria — are intended to give the United States easier access to the Middle East in what US President George W. Bush calls the war on terrorism. Sofia says it expects to finalize talks with the United States by March on setting up US military facilities on its territory.

The deployments are part of a broader US troop realignment outlined by Bush last year. As part of the plan, tens of thousands of US troops based in Germany and elsewhere in Europe will be shifted further east into smaller, more flexible bases, or redeployed back to the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States will still have access to the Kyrgyz base, at least for the foreseeable future. A US presence there has an obvious motivation, and perhaps one that might not be so obvious.

“With regard to Central Asia, I think we have a dual purpose, maybe a triple purpose, with those bases,” Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private Washington think tank, told RFE/RL. “Certainly, we want bases in Central Asia for operations against the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in that region. But having bases in Central Asia also sends a message to China and to Russia that this is now a significant US sphere of influence.”

Carpenter said the US presence in Kyrgyzstan annoys Russia. But he believes President Vladimir Putin is less annoyed than are the country’s “political elite,” many of them left over from the days of Soviet rule. These elites still view the United States almost as warily as they did during the Cold War, he said.

Encirclement Strategy

“For many Russians, this looks like an encirclement strategy to intimidate Russia. And Russia has a lot of issues with many of these countries [that were once in the Soviet sphere], including the treatment of Russian-speaking inhabitants, both in the Baltics and in Ukraine. So this could become a source of very serious friction between the West — and especially the United States — and Russia in the future,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said this Russian perception is not entirely inaccurate. He believes part of US strategy is to encircle Russia, which he calls a recent enemy that must still prove itself as a democracy and a friend of the West.

James Goodby agrees that Putin and other Russian officials are concerned about Western influence on its neighbors. Goodby studies East-West security issues at the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy research center. He told RFE/RL that he believes Putin is prepared to respond to the Western “encirclement strategy” — real or perceived — by strengthening relations with China and former Soviet states in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

“Putin’s main concern is with what they used to call the ’near abroad.’ As Putin sees it, he’s trying to stabilize the region, like Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan. I think you’re going to find much less cooperation with, for example, the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in those regions. And I think Russia will be a bit more assertive, partly because that’s one of their main strategic interests and partly in a kind of a response to American activism elsewhere near their frontiers,” Goodby said.

Already, Goodby said, Putin and China have managed to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to exert their influence in Central Asia. But he expects Putin not to go beyond this sort of reaction.

“Of course, there are things [the Russians] could do to make things a little bit more unpleasant, but they have a lot of other interests, for example, membership in the World Trade Organization. They’re having a meeting of the Group of Eight in St. Petersburg [in the spring]. So they have a lot at stake in their relations with the West,” Goodby said.

Goodby said a stronger reaction might jeopardize Russia’s economy and its prestige.

Black Sea Operations

Posted December 11, 2005 © Eurasianet © http://www.eurasianet.org

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