Ukraine’s recent provocation in the Black Sea has become another pretext for unraveling the Yalta system of international institutions and legal accords, which has been actively and openly done since 2014. Before that, it was Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, a bungled attempt to do the same in Syria, as well as a series of “color revolutions,” orchestrated in close vicinity of the Russian borders, including the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, however, these attempts hit another snag after Crimea reunited with Russia, southwestern Ukraine rebelled against Kiev’s nationalist ideology and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were declared as a culmination of the disintegration processes set forth by Maidan. These attempts have equally failed in Syria after President Bashar Assad asked for military assistance from Russia and, in August 2015, signed an agreement to deploy Russian military aircraft in Syria in line with the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that the Soviet Union and the Syrian Arab Republic inked in October 8, 1980.
Fully aware of the failure of previous attempts to use limited troop contingents in different parts of the globe, the West in general and the US in particular, were very skeptical about the success of the Russian military mission in Syria. Still, backed by the Russian Air Force group, quickly deployed in the country, the Syrian army took a mere two years to turn the course of the war all around.
Since 2004, the Ukrainian leadership has been diligently kowtowing to some Western powers’ attempts to dismantle the system of international agreements and the balance of forces existing since the end of World War II and, therefore, has ceased to be an independent one. Kiev is trying hard to put its self-serving interests in the context of the general political line of its Western patrons. To this end, Kiev is doing everything possible to give the West a reason to impose sanctions on Russia and to further exacerbate tensions between Moscow and the West. One of the results of the recent provocation in the Black Sea was the cancellation of President Vladimir Putin’s planned meeting with US President Donald Trump in Argentina, and the introduction of martial law in some Ukrainian regions.
Speaking of recent history, squeezing the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol and the creation of a NATO naval base there was one of the much anticipated and planned outcomes the “Revolution of Dignity.” Ukraine’s plans to join NATO alienated the country’s mutinous southeast, and Crimea’s rejoining Russia put “paid” to Brussels’ dreams of setting up a base on the peninsula.
However, even though the “Ukrainian project” in its original sense fell flat, the strategic goals haven’t gone anywhere. It’s been decided to keep up pressure on Russia with a plan dubbed “Azov tension,” whose implementation very curiously coincided with the completion of the construction of the automobile section of the Crimean Bridge.
Did the provocation in the Black Sea come as a surprise for the Russian military and diplomats? By no means, because the Western actions being taken as part of Operation “Azov tension” were too obvious to ignore. In an interview given on November 23, on the eve of the provocation, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that “… the Azov [incident] was intentionally injected into the information space. The Kiev regime, in coordination with its foreign mentors and patrons, has found another anti-Russian theme created from scratch. Moscow has recently been facing a series of unwarranted accusations of allegedly engaging in some illegal actions in the Sea of Azov. This should have been expected though, because now that the issue of Crimea as an instrument of pressure on Russia has lost its acuteness, they need a new pretext, and the Azov [incident] has been chosen as exactly such a pretext.”
The November 25 provocation in the Black Sea unfolded against the backcloth of frequent flights by US reconnaissance aircraft, and served as an excuse for increasing the number of NATO military observers in the Black Sea region. This is evidenced by the following chronology:
- On October 8, US Air Force and Navy planes flew many hours of reconnaissance flights off the coast of Crimea and Krasnodar Region (the RQ-4A Global Hawk strategic drone cruised from Crimea’s westernmost tip along its southwestern and southern coasts, near the Kerch Strait and further along the entire length of Krasnodar Region, all the way to Sochi). Almost simultaneously, a P-8A Poseidon US Navy anti-submarine patrol plane flew along the Russian coast from Sevastopol to Novorossiisk in close vicinity of Russia’s sea border on the Black Sea.
- On November 5, it was reported that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet had intercepted and escorted a US EP-3 Aries reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Black Sea.
- On December 2, a US Air Force RQ-4B Global Hawk strategic UAV flew a second, eight-hour, reconnaissance mission off Russia’s Black Sea coast, cruising near Crimea, the Kerch Strait and Kuban Region.
- On December 4, two American reconnaissance aircraft, an RC-135V strategic reconnaissance plane and an EP-3E Aries II long-range electronic reconnaissance aircraft, flew for many hours off the coast of Crimea, near the Kerch Strait and Krasnodar Region.
This may not be the most detailed chronology, but it is still enough to understand the amount of attention paid to the region ahead of and after the November 25 Ukrainian provocation in order to gauge the reaction of the Russian Navy.
The following statements further clarify the US strategy in the Black Sea region:
- Speaking during the International Conference on Maritime Security in Kiev on November 29, Ukraine’s top naval commander, Igor Voronchenko, said that “due to the Russian ships’ aggression against Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov, Ukraine will insist that passage through the Bosphorus in Turkey be closed to Russia.”
- On December 3, US Senator John Barrasso proposed sending US ships to the Black Sea and “have NATO do it as well” to present “a forceful response” to Russia. He also called “to give [Ukraine]anti-aircraft [weapons] and give them weapons also in terms of anti-ship.”
To better understand the situation in the region, one should consider Turkey’s position on this issue. Ankara claims regional leadership, is actively involved in the Syrian conflict, is a member of NATO, has been included the US program of supplying the latest F-35 fighter jets, is building the Turkish Stream pipeline and a nuclear power station with Russia and is buying the latest S-400 missile systems from Moscow. Diverse and multidirectional as Ankara’s interests are, its close cooperation with Russia still makes Turkey a stabilizing factor in the Black Sea region. This is evidenced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer made on November 29 to act as a go-between in resolving the incident in the Black Sea. He also discussed the initiative with the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and the United States.
It seems, however, that neither Erdogan’ proposal, nor his independent position on arms purchases resonate with the US strategy in this region. In view of Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 air defense missile system from Russia and the planned supplies of F-35 fighter jets from the US, Washington has told Ankara that it must make a choice whether it stays with the West or sides with Russia. In response, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Janikli dismissed as unacceptable the US demand that his country should not go ahead with the purchase of S-400 missiles as a condition for getting F-35 fighters.
Ukraine’s call to close the Bosphorus to Russian ships is also an attempt to make Turkey decide whose side it is on. This proves once again that executing foreign instructions to the detriment of their own country’s long-term interests, is now topmost on the minds of the big shots in Kiev, who have neither a development strategy or any vision of their country’s future. By subordinating itself to the will of others, Kiev stays the course of breaking off ties with Russia and setting the stage for new anti-Russian sanctions. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has already announced the cancellation of 40 bilateral agreements with Russia. On November 30, Ukraine lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights about the incident in the Black Sea. On December 3, President Petro Poroshenko submitted for parliamentary approval a proposal to terminate a treaty of friendship with Russia. The Ukrainian president also said that Kiev was going to lodge a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice to make Russia liable for the “recent act of aggression” in the Black Sea.
Well, a provocateur’s place in history has never been an enviable one. People usually forget his name the very moment his mission is over.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road
Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.
This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.
This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.
Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.
It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.
This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.
A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.
The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.
Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.
Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today
Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy
Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.
None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.
The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”
Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.
The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.
The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.
The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.
Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.
The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.
“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.
The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.
The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.
In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.
The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.
The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.
A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.
The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.
Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”
Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”
The Black Sea of Economic Cooperation
Since the Ukraine crisis of 2014 the security situation in the Black Sea region has significantly deteriorated. The annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as the latter’s military moves around the Kerch Strait and in the Azov Sea destabilized the shaky status quo which had been in place since the end of the Cold War.
To back up the current state of affairs in the Black Sea, many an analysis as well as entire books dedicated to the Ukraine crisis mention various Russian-Turkish wars of 18th-19th centuries, underlying the notion that the Black Sea has always been a space of competition and intermittent confrontation among several powers.
Wars indeed were waged and at least two powers were always competing with each other for influence across the sea. This narrative, however, portrays the Black Sea as a sea of insecurity. In reality, though, seen from a centuries-wide perspective, wars between Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea lasted for a small fraction of time in comparison with the periods of peace in the 18th-19th centuries.
Moreover, the Black Sea, though always surrounded by rival powers, was nevertheless a space of economic exchange. Trade flourished, which contributed to close contacts between coastal states. Take, for example, the period of Greek colonization in the 8th c. BC. Colonies in what is nowadays western Georgia and in the Crimean Peninsula enabled the exchange of goods in the region. During the Roman and Byzantine periods (up to the 7th-8th cc. AD, the coastline of modern western Georgia was closely integrated with great cities in Asia Minor and Crimea.
Under the unified Georgian monarchy (late 10th-15th cc.), despite patchy information in historical sources, there was a wide range of economic activity which connected western Georgia to Byzantium, Crimea and later to the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, this period saw such a large economic interconnection that Georgian traders even visited Constantinople, Thessaloniki and from the late 13th c. onwards, were in close contact with Italian merchants who operated ships and had colonies in Crimea and in Georgian cities – Sokhumi, Poti and Batumi.
Even the period of great empires from the early 18th c. around the Black Sea cannot be considered solely as a time of continuous confrontation. In fact, the Black Sea served as a good merging point for connecting different economic systems represented by Russia and the Muslim world (namely the Ottoman Empire). By the early 20th century, just before the outbreak of World War I, there was much economic activity seeing Russia sending most of its coal and grain through the Bosporus and Dardanelles to different parts of the world. Georgia, too, was connected to the rest of the world by the early 20th century when Batumi operated as a main conduit.
Surprisingly the Soviet period too can be characterized as a period of economic cooperation. Ukraine, Georgia and Russia’s ports transported oil, coal and other natural resources through the straits to the Mediterranean.
Thus, despite the wars we know in history, there have been even longer periods of much deeper economic cooperation which the countries (or empires) around the Black Sea have enjoyed over several centuries.
Back to the current deterioration of the security situation in the Black Sea, it could potentially diminish overall economic activity as the flow of foreign investment may be curbed or diverted elsewhere. In a way, the geopolitical situation in the Black Sea today is more chaotic and unpredictable than it was in the 19th century. A certain order was still in place when the Russian and Ottoman Empires fought each other, whereas in 2019 there is much unpredictability in Russian and NATO behavior. Nevertheless, it is still possible to say that economic cooperation among the countries living around the Black Sea will continue. The sea will again play a role not of a divisive, but rather a unifying character.
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