ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La mer Noire, nouvel espace de confrontation mondiale
by Damien Roustel
Translated Sunday 19 April 2015, by
Military maneuvers by NATO and Russia, the setting up of American bases, the annexation of the Crimea, the enlargement of the European Union, the persistence of so-called frozen conflicts, battles over gas pipelines… Long considered to be peripheral, today the ancient Pontus Sea is at the heart of Great Power rivalry.
In ancient times, the Greeks called it the Pontus Sea, the “hospitable sea.” The Genoese who, set up the biggest trading post in their maritime empire there in the 13th century, called it Mare Maggiore, the Great Sea. The Ottomans, at their height with the taking of Constantinople in 1453, named it Karadeniz, the Black Sea, not for its grey-green waters but because at the time the cardinal points were designated by colors in Turkish. North was associated with black.
This crossroads between Europe, Asia and southern Russia forms a closed space of about 168,000 square miles and is connected to the Mediterranean Sea (the White Sea, in Turkish) by the Turkish straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Today six countries border the Black Sea: Turkey, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia. This place of conquest and domination was the theater of innumerable wars between Russia and the Ottomans in the 19th century, such as the Crimean War, but after World War II it became a kind of tranquil lake, a synonym of sunny holidays.
“During the four decades of the Cold War, the Black Sea appeared as a peripheral space, a sort of maritime wall between two shores: on one side, on the southern shore, Turkey and NATO, and on the other side, on the eastern shore, the Warsaw Pact and on the northern shore the USSR.” writes Serge Sur in the latest edition of the bimonthly Questions internationales, an edition that is dedicated to “The Black Sea, a strategic space.”
“A certain neutralization, a modus vivendi between the two shores established itself. The collapse of the USSR shattered this, and the awakening of the Black Sea has been troubled,” he said.
On March 10, NATO naval maneuvers involving Bulgaria, Rumania, Turkey and four other countries, including the United States, were held a few cable-lengths from the Crimean Peninsula. This Ukrainian territory, which returned to the bosom of Russia last year despite the protests of the international community, is home to the Black Sea fleet, an imposing Russian military base in the port of Sebastopol. Simultaneously, the Russian army held an exercise and deployed 8,000 artillerymen in the Crimea and along the Ukrainian border.
To reassure the countries of the region, Washington has implemented a military program, the European Reassurance Initiative. A NATO communications center will be opened in Bulgaria. The American presence in Rumania will be reinforced. “This comes at a key moment for NATO to the degree that the end of its mission in Afghanistan, in December 2014, cannot fail to raise the question of NATO’s raison d’être", the researcher Igor Delanoë writes in the magazine.
The eddies in the Black Sea do not date from last year. In 2008, the war between Russia and Georgia had already inflamed the region. By recognizing the independence of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and of Southern Ossetia, Moscow obtained free use by its warships of the port of Sukhumi.
A year earlier, in 2007, a new player, the European Union (EU), entered the Black Sea space when Rumania and Bulgaria joined the EU (having been members of NATO since 2004). In 2009 the EU created an eastern partnership with other countries bordering the Black Sea, and this contributed to irritating Russia a little more, as it felt attacked.
For the past 15 years, a battle over gas pipelines has come on top of this Great-Power rivalry. The Black Sea is practically an obligatory route for the transport of land-locked Caspian Sea hydrocarbons. In December, President Putin surprised the world by announcing that Russia was abandoning the South Stream gas pipeline, a rival to the European Nabucco project. Bulgaria’s abandoning of the Russian gas pipeline – under pressure from Brussels – forced Russia to sign an accord with Turkey for a new gas pipeline: the Turkish Stream.
Turkey, an indispensable Power thanks to its straits and a future energy hub, seems to be the big winner in the geo-political restructuring at work in the Black Sea Region. Some will see this as a revenge of History.