Formulating a long-term strategy requires willingness and reliable partners. In the Black Sea the two components are missing which makes the West’s position weak. To reverse the development amid growing Russian influence, reliance on Turkey could prove to be a significant improvement for NATO and the US.
The collective West faces drastic changes in the Black Sea region. This is by far one of the most vulnerable geographic areas in the modern Eurasian geopolitics. It is not only the space where several ongoing military conflicts are unfolding, but also where different geopolitical orders collide. Russia views the region as a springboard for its geopolitical aims southward into the Mediterranean. Moscow is building a new vision based on hierarchy and regionalism which presupposes limitation of the collective West’s projection of power into the Black Sea region.
But perhaps the real trouble is the lack of long-term Western strategic thinking. Mostly preoccupied with internal challenges to the liberal world order, US and the EU are struggling to find a proper response to the changed military balance of power in the Black Sea following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Another no less significant trouble is that the West does not really know how to deal with Moscow. It is not that Russia has become exponentially stronger than before. Surely, it is much more ordered and militarily powerful than in the 1990s, but the pillars of power are still weaker than that of the collective West. In other words, in case of a more streamlined foreign policy, the EU and the US could build a powerful foreign policy agenda with reliable tools to blunt Russia’s military and harmful economic moves. But the willingness to pursue a concerted effort is certainly lacking.
It is also understandable that the US and NATO member states are quite hesitant to commit militarily because the Black Sea region is still geographically distanced from the core trans-Atlantic community. Moreover, Russia, however weak it potentially could become, will be unlikely to abstain from trying to project its influence upon its immediate neighborhood. Whether it is under a fully democratic or totally authoritarian governance, a sheer size of Russia in comparison with its neighbors in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, and Belarus, will unavoidably propel Moscow to seek an order-building comfortable to the Kremlin.
Thus, the problem the West faces is long-term, and the Black Sea region is a sore point in the competition with Russia. This is a space where the US and NATO lack a powerful ally or an even a reliable partner to construct a strategic approach. Ukraine is certainly a candidate, but it is still internally weak. Georgia is smaller and weaker, while Romania and Bulgaria are not seen as players willing to take on the role.
The only state which could potentially serve such a purpose is in fact Turkey. Territorially, economically, and militarily the country is positioned to resist Russian moves. But successful resistance will require close cooperation with the US and within NATO alliance. To achieve this the major obstacle – differences between Ankara and the West – must be resolved. While a no easy task, Turkey and the West actually share similar concerns about Moscow’s projection of power. Genuine willingness from both sides needs to be shown on the need to improve the bilateral ties.
Turkey’s Black Sea-Caucasus strategy, particularly its investments in shoring up the defenses of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, dovetails with Western strategies toward Russia, as well as Western interests in these regions in general. Like Turkey, the West is interested in receiving Azerbaijani gas and oil and in investing in the railway and pipeline infrastructure in Georgia. The West also supports Turkey’s wider ambition to position itself as a transit energy hub for TANAP, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), and the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP). The West and Turkey share an interest in keeping the land corridor to the Caspian Sea secure. This provides a narrow, but crucial link to Central Asia, where the West wields limited influence but where Turkey, as it aspires to play a larger economic and political role, building on historic and cultural ties, could potentially become a conduit of western interests, as it was in the 1990s.
As Russia has expanded its influence and military footprint in the Black Sea-South Caucasus during the last decade, Turkey has inevitably been prompted to reply. While its engagements in Syria and Libya are consuming political energy and military and economic resources, Ankara is increasingly also refocusing its attention to the Black Sea and the South Caucasus to balance and counter Moscow. Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan have become the building blocks of the nascent Turkish containment strategy. Turkey’s endeavor to check Russia and to ensure the security of the energy and transport corridor in the south Caucasus demonstrates that Turkish and Western interests converge.
The West’s reliance on Turkey would fit into similar processes in the world where the US seems to be increasingly relegating parts of its responsibilities to powerful regional players to contain/blunt Eurasian powers. AUKUS and QUAD in the Indo-Pacific region is about America empowering regional powers to defend themselves against what is seen as pursuit of a new order by China. It does not mean Washington is withdrawing altogether, but rather that its position becomes more nuanced. It will serve as an anchor behind the regional framework, throwin its military and economic weight behind a collection of players. But to pursue this policy, America needs to have strong players. In Asia there is several such states. In the Black Sea area, Turkey is a likely candidate.
Making Ankara a critical player in the West’s strategy for the Black Sea region should not be crudely about pushing Turkey into an eventual military confrontation with Russia. Ankara will be careful to avoid it. Rather the long-term thinking should be more about increasing the military potential of the Black Sea states thus making potential military interventions for Russia costlier.