Georgia and the Black Sea factor: from words to deeds

As a result of Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, the Black Sea region has become increasingly important in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security. The more this importance is realised, the more pressing the need for full and fast integration of the Black Sea region’s countries into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

It is also crucial that the security situation in the region is discussed with candour and not through empty rhetoric. There are real threats to the region’s, not least Georgia’s, interests and security, along with many other urgent issues that require meaningful and frank discussion.

This is not the first time the importance of the Black Sea region as a geopolitical concept and geoeconomic bridge has been discussed. Now, however, more emphasis should be placed on this crucial maritime basin.

Broader trends

Since 2014, Russia has repeatedly attempted to turn the Black Sea into a zone of its exclusive influence – into a sort of ‘Black Sea Kaliningrad’ – through anti-access and area denial systems. These efforts reveal the Kremlin’s broader intentions in the Black Sea, and should have sounded the alarm for Euro-Atlantic policy makers that a coherent strategy for the region was vital.

In the past, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has deployed limited resources to the Black Sea. This shortage is caused by an apparent asymmetry on NATO’s eastern flank; there is stark inequality between the Tailored Forward Presence[↗] on the Black Sea and the Enhanced Forward Presence[↗] on the Baltic.

The security of the Black Sea today requires NATO to, at least, approach the sea in the same manner as it does the Baltic. Although a decision[↗] to deploy an additional contingent in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe was taken at the recent NATO summit, several key questions regarding the alliance’s commitment to the region, as well as how best to secure the Black Sea, are still left unanswered.

These matters gain more urgency when considering the difficulties of NATO’s eastern enlargement. The problem becomes even more urgent for Black Sea countries such as Georgia, which is not under NATO’s collective security umbrella. Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and actions imply that its revisionism will not cease in Ukraine.

To be sure, the failure to form a common NATO vision for the Black Sea region has its objective reasons. In particular, the fragmentation of policy for Black Sea states and the Black Sea itself can be partially explained by various historical-geographic layers and regional factors affecting foreign policy, namely: the relative isolation of Romania and Bulgaria; the harsh present reality of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine determined by a common post-Soviet past; and the ambiguity of Turkey’s approach to regional processes.

The existing challenges, however, can no longer justify references to the past. Present and future risks mean leaders should now make harsh assumptions and clear-cut political decisions. If there are any positives to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine for the Black Sea region, it is precisely the effect by which it may galvanise regional cooperation processes and at the appropriate speed.

Consolidation of Black Sea interests

For the countries of the Black Sea region, a national security strategy characterised by balancing is not new. However, the 20th century and post-Cold War period uncovered an acute shortage of the necessary knowledge and diplomatic skills to execute this strategy well, and ultimately prevent or minimise the impact of threats in the region. This has become a serious challenge for Black Sea countries – particularly Georgia – who have to reconcile their developmental choice with handling neighbourhood threats.

Balancing, and at the same time heading towards a set national development goal, has become more difficult in a world where international norms are being challenged by naked aggression and a lawless infringement of borders and sovereignty. All of this has created an inevitable necessity to swiftly align the strategic interests of Black Sea countries through some sort of formal declaration, partnered with a platform for frequent high level dialogue.

It should be noted that to achieve this, a large part of the work should be done by the countries of the region and its leaders with the support and involvement of their respective populations, and not just by external strategic allies and partners.

It is also essential that such unity in the Black Sea region is built on a healthy foundation, allowing it to, over time, break one damaging regional stereotype: its association with conflicts, destruction and confrontation. A coherent Euro-Atlantic and local strategy for the region would instead rejuvenate its image, and gradually see it associated with development, stability, and peace.

Toward better coordination in the region

A formal declaration aligning the strategic interests of the countries of the Black Sea region would highlight the importance of the region to the international community and provide a solid foundation for regional peace and stability.

Alongside a number of urgent topics, such a declaration could: underline the importance of regional partnerships in ensuring the security of the Black Sea; emphasise the need to view the region objectively; highlight frozen ‘ethnic’, but in reality, geopolitical, conflicts; express support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Black Sea states; and create a platform for the discussion of issues related to regional security.

At the same time, to ensure necessary coordination, regular high-level summits with officials from the Black Sea countries that sign the declaration, as well as from the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), European Union (EU) and other strategic partners, should be considered. The main purpose of these summits would be to support the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Black Sea states; topics of discussion at these summits should be about geopolitical (not so-called ‘ethnic’) conflicts in the region, regional security, international terrorism, cybersecurity, illegal migration, and any other pressing issues and challenges.

Talks about defence alone are not sufficient enough to ensure regional stability and the region’s global competitiveness. It is also crucial to draw declarants’ attention to the necessity of attracting additional investments to the region. One of the initiatives in the declaration could be the announcement of a large regional development project. The aims of the project could include the mobilisation of financial resources for the development of regional infrastructure, the reduction of regional dependence on certain energy sources, and the implementation of targeted social and environmental programmes.

Given there is an organic interconnection between security and the economy, a greater deal of attention should also be paid to the modernisation of energy and transportation routes running across the Black Sea region, as well as the creation of necessary infrastructure – including digital – to foster this. Aspects of the Three Seas Initiative should also be scrutinised by declarants for the aim of better applying it to the Black Sea.

For higher security in the region

The key aim in adjusting the strategic approach to the Black Sea region is dispelling the doubts of our strategic allies and partners about the ‘peripheral’ or ‘second-rate status’ of the region. The Black Sea paradigm for Georgia, however, is that the region is simultaneously a potential source of national development and threats. This strange equation can be explained by the location of Georgia in the conflict zone between two large political and social forces – the Euro-Atlantic world and that of Russia’s authoritarianism. In reconciling this, the Georgian state and its political circles should be realistic.

As geopolitics change, so too do the behavioural rules and constructs of the security field. One such fundamental change is the formation of ‘plurilateral’ initiatives of several participants, which offer member states improved mobility and the optimal use of resources in attaining a set goal.

This trend is of practical interest for governmental, specialised, and analytical circles in Georgia, and indeed other Black Sea states. Research and modelling in this area may help regional countries eradicate flaws, and in certain cases, even anachronisms existing in security models or strategic approaches established long ago. Real and effective security is ensured precisely by these plurilateral initiatives in which countries naturally unite through common interests.

Another option would be to discuss the signing of security and cooperation agreements with key strategic partners, such as the UK-Georgia strategic partnership and cooperation agreement[↗]. It is worth noting that this option, even in case of the postponement of Georgia’s NATO membership for an indefinite time, could be regarded as effective in enhancing Georgian security.

Conclusion

To be sure, prospective security models for the Black Sea should be assessed within the context of ongoing global events. There is a chance that the war in Ukraine may lead to a more ‘Euro-centric’ American foreign policy. This is unlikely, however, as competition with the People’s Republic of China in the Indo-Pacific region will likely continue to dominate the American geostrategic outlook.

There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine will result in divisive lines being drawn in Europe. Towards that reality, the priority of Georgia is to ensure, to the extent possible, that Georgia’s fate is not decided without the involvement of Tbilisi. In the light of the current circumstances, this is the most difficult but necessary objective.

Although rhetoric about international norms and laws is pleasant to hear, the current situation in the Euro-Atlantic demands concrete actions and assertions, particularly when shoring up the security of the Black Sea region.

Victor Kipiani is the Chair of the Georgian think tank Geocase.

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