Black Sea: A New Analytical Framework Is Needed

Ukraine’s place and role
in the Black Sea region.
Expert opinions

Razumkov Centre’s Roundtable

In photos: View of the Black Sea, Chaika, Varna, Bulgaria. Photos:,
author: gabiavram. Photos selection BlackSeaNews

Valeri RATCHEV [1],
Director, Political Cabinet, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Bulgaria

– What is your assessment of the current state of the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea Region and the perspectives for its future development (5-15 years)?

Nine times out of ten the wider Black Sea area is pictured in security analyses as a cross-field of geopolitical regions («region-between-regions» [2]) in which prevailing players exercise different instruments of power with the intention to establish some kind of control – political, economic, and even military. The area of Black Sea was looked as a «glacis between falling and rising powers» [3], where they exercised influence with variable results. At the extreme end of this tendency are those who believe «the wider Black Sea region has become a new strategic frontier for Europe, Russia and the United States in terms of energy security, frozen and festering conflicts, trade links, migration, and other key policy areas».[4]

This situation escalated with the collapse of USSR and continued during the spirally like developments of the last two decades. The major players – the US, Turkey, Russia and the EU have each developed and tested strategies for the development and masteringof the region. There is however principle differences in their interests towards the Black Sea-Caspian region which will inevitably influence the possible developments in the future.

Turkey traditionally perceives the Black Sea from both naval and commercial point of view. In this respect, Turkey is a defender of the status quo in as broad as possible space around the Black Sea. Turkey’s first attempt to establish its integration project dates back to the 1980s based on the extremely contradictory concept for the «motherland from the Adriatic sea to the Great Wall of China». The second attempt pursues «economization of the concept of the Wider Black Sea Area» through the «Black Sea Economic Cooperation» project. The institutionalization of the region is a good idea for Turkey and its attempts to surpass EU’s enlargement.

This is why, the project is positively supported by Russia – Moscow is well-aware that Turkey has a low capacity for positive expansion in the region between Sarajevo and Vladivostok. Any restraint on further progress of the European integration project to the East is welcomed by both states. This is why, the «Wider Black Sea Area» is the only region and strategic issue on which Turkey and Russia have overlapping interests and have achieved an acceptable historical compromise. Turkey’s behaviour will change radically with the approach of EU membership or with Turkey’s remise of its own European project.

The Russian approach has changed during the decades after the end of the naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays, the focus is put on keeping the US and NATO outside the Black Sea (which coincides with Turkey’s interests), preserving of the options for domination in sea trade via the straits (75% of the traffic of tankers via Bosphorus in fact is from and to Russia) and in this way – hindering the establishment of a regional, political, economic and military alliance in the Black Sea area under the leadership of the US and EU.

In about a decade, Russia will probably have several advantages in post-Soviet parts of the region – it will be the major though not the only trade partner due to the possible increase of the purchasing power of the population, it will provide employment to millions of economic emigrants and seasonal workers due to the need to develop new sources of raw materials, it will supply the armies of separate states with armament and military equipment, it will provide for military security such as antiaircraft defence, air and sea control, strategic intelligence and missile defence, it will be trying to represent common interests before international institutions and forums.

The US perceive the region

(1) as a linking unit between Central Asia and their supporting bases in Europe,

(2) as the air-force and land gate to the broad region of the Persian Gulf,

(3) an element of their strategy for preventing Russia’s expansion to the West and South, and

(4) as a very important aspect of the establishment of pro-American block in Eastern Europe.

The support for democratic changes and the evolution towards market economy of former communist states in the region as well as their affiliation to the Euro-Atlantic platform of political and strategic behaviour is a long-term goal ahead of the US. 

It is related both to restraining Russia’s revisionist ambitions in the post-Soviet space, as well as to the future rivalry with China’s expansion to the West. Fight against terrorism in Middle East and the restraint of nuclear states in the Persian-Indian region also give direction to the strategic interest of the US in the development of the region. US commitment to Western European allies as to the diversification of oil and gas sources is yet another factor determining their behaviour in the perspective of coming decade. Furthermore, the US are compelled to seek a second option in the case of a possible loss of Turkey as the pivotal state in the region.

The European Union takes interest in the region from the point of view of

(1) energy security,

(2) as a filter for terrorist and criminal threats from the East and Southeast, and

(3) as a buffer or second option in the relations with Russia and Turkey.

The European Neighbourhood Policy encompasses the entire region, while the European Commission Communication «Black Sea Synergy – A New Regional Cooperation Initiative» of April 11th, 2007, is an attempt to state European interests and goals related to the development of the region. The interests and ambitions of European states towards the region as a whole, however, are too unevenly distributed to expect a strategic change during the next decade. The deterioration of energy problems as well as the approach of the decision about Turkey’s EU membership makes the development of a consolidated strategy and a systematic policy for its implementation very likely.

In the perspective of the next 5-15 years, the challenges Ukraine should cope with could be explained in different manner and standpoint. Probably this one, which most adequately reflects the public expectations, is the dilemma of what to do to escape from home-made political and social mess. Objectively the alternatives are basically two: to join the European (Euro-Atlantic) or Russian integration model or to «follow our own way».

The European integration project (in which the Trans-Atlantic connection and NATO are inseparable components) has been the most successful and attractive social model in history. It has won this status because it has been founded on public values which have always been more important in principle than the interests and goals of separate states. The European project is vital, because it simultaneously provides people with opportunities to make use of the collective potential and globalization in the best possible way, yet at the same time it makes them share joint responsibilities.

The problems solved during the development of the project are often of fundamental nature and result in principal changes in the Euro-Atlantic environment and adjacent regions. The solution of all difficulties is a matter of dialogue and argumentation which go way beyond governmental circles. The project and the organizations related thereto – EU and NATO – make the governments more responsible for the wellbeing, progress and security of citizens. Both organizations, without being perfect, are irreplaceable for their members and attractive for other nations.

The European project enters the dynamics of this scenario at the point when it has reached certain results in the second stage of its internal development and political and geographic enlargement. This stage, launched in the end of the Cold War, has been driven both by interests for expansion «from the inside», as well as by interests for accession «from the outside». The biggest achievement of this development is the transformation of the European project from «ideologically motivated» to the most powerful non-military (political, cultural and economic) factor in international relations and international public development – for many peoples and their elites the European model has been the best example for civilized and humanistic development.

During the next 10-15 years, the European project will be developing mostly internally pursuing homogenization of the political, economic and social space. It requires security along the periphery and stability in neighbouring regions. Security along the periphery suggests special collective efforts to maintain it as well as management and investment in the capacity of the organizations in the security sector in order to face risks and threats of continental significance. The stability in neighbouring regions suggests constructive common foreign policy avoiding confrontation and at the same time uncompromising on the principle issues related to human rights and civilized behaviour in international relations. This gives a very strong chance to Ukraine.

Russia and Russia’s integration project are yet another component in this scenario. For the past 20 years, Russia has gone through several crucial political, ideological and strategic transformations. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 resulted in a colossal historical humiliation for Russia – in no time, it would lose its status of a super-state and would turn into a third-class country. Russia’s internal weakening throughout the 1990s led to catastrophic consequences for its foreign policy. From a conceptual and operational aspect, it would remain for a long time trapped in old ideas and new illusions from the period of transition.

In 2007, Russia is already a state spanning over gigantic territories yet its population is less than that of Pakistan, a state with huge natural resources, yet having quite imperfect economic structure and strange paradigm of ambitions for leading international affairs – empire-like thinking, great aspirations and total lack of significance for both international economy (apart from being a source of gas and petrol) as well as a public model. Russia however is the most important player along the borders of the European integration project and everything that happens or does not happen in Russia tends to affect European interests.

So far Russia has failed to do one thing – to establish an attractive integration model, at least attractive as much as that of the EU. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is not any more attractive environment even for Russia’s positive expansion. The diversification of political, economic and security interests of the twelve member-states is significant to an extent that Russia is not any more the most important partner. Everyone is aware that Russia is unable to act in the former Soviet republics any more differently the way it acts that at home. CIS has become so empty of content that no one bothers even to leave it – it simply does not matter any more.

However, at the brink of the second decade of the century, Russia is stable inside and has consolidated its control over most of the neighbours. Russia knows that it broadly dominates the countries and can now move more freely in and out of them – and allow the states more leeway, though within Russia’s constraints. This is a challenge to Ukraine.

– What are the place and role of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula in the security system of the Black Sea Region?

Declaring «non-block status» for a country is a different type of choice. [5] Such a decision is deeply rooted in the internal political and social realities. It illustrates why the geopolitical prism is far away of being sufficient to determine any country’s strategic decision. Explaining it, the political elite say to the society (viewed as a public) «we will follow our own way». And The Way is being an island of stability in a sea of troubles, a bridge between the West and the East, whatever this will mean in decades ahead, a mediator between civilizations (because itself has a disputed identity), and everything else that could be putted in the kettle.

Actually this is a non-decision. It only explains how different are the elite’s and public’s agendas. Applied to the so called «Crimean issue» it does not give any idea about perspective, stable and mutually acceptable solution. Moreover, it is producing a local sense of further elaboration of «doing our way» – «We can’t depend on anyone else but ourselves», explains it very well. [6]

The painful experience of the «Balkan’s own way» (between 1989 and 1997 mainly) discloses that this is a cover under which self elaborated and election-legitimized elites are extracting the state from the nation, re-distributing of huge assets of state property and this way transforming itself into economic power. Who pays the price? Ivan Krastev rightly summarized that «The structural reason of the growing gap between the public and the elites is that the elites do not need wealthy citizens to realize their extraction project» [7]. And this could be a danger for Ukraine.

In conclusion: the Black Sea geopolitical prism (despite its popularity and, in some degree, reasonability) does not reflect synonymously the local realities and expectations. Nor do the history paradigm that explains every problem with the heritage of collapsed communism. What the region (probably) needs is a serious locally based and internationally supported rethinking of the analytical framework that to lead to a politically and society shared vision for developing the region as prosperous and stable area.

The question the discussants should try to answer is what is happening politically within the Black Sea countries and what could happen in next 5-15 years? The local people need to discuss and understand the real content of their political and social perceptions: what exactly happens with their democracy beyond the electoral eruptions, what is the elite’s agenda and how it corresponds with the public one, how much market is their market economy and what is the economic role of the state, how much social should be the state and who will pay for this, how much security, for whom and at what price.

[1] The views are only those of the author.

[2] Commission of the Black Sea, A 2020 Vision for the Black Sea Region,

[3] Bernd Papenkort, The Balkans and the Caucasus: Drifting into Multipolarity,

[4] Hamilton, Daniel and Mangott, Gerhard (eds.), The Wider Black Sea Region in the 21st Century: Strategic, Economic and Energy Perspectives (Washington, D.C.: Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2008).



[7] Ivan Krastev, The Inflexibility Trap. Frustrated Societies, Weak States and Democracy, (Sofia: Centre for Liberal Strategies, 2002).