THE BLACK SEA - CASPIAN SEA GAMBIT

Author: Sergei Shakarjants

Source: Severny Kavkaz, No 8, February 28 - March 2, 2006, p. 9

[Who wants Russia 's positions in the Black Sea region weakened?]

<> WHO AND HOW IS WEAKENING RUSSIA 'S POSITIONS IN THE BLACK SEA REGION

International conference "Black Sea Fleet or NATO?" organized by the Institute of CIS Countries and its Director Konstantin Zatulin personally took place in Sevastopol on February 25. Russian and Ukrainian politicians, scientists, and diplomats were present. The necessity of the Russian-Ukrainian rapprochement and malignancy of NATO presence in the Crimea were the central theses of the conference. NATO presence in the Crimea would put an end to sisterly relations between the two countries and to Ukraine 's sovereignty, those present at the conference agreed.

What does NATO presence in Ukraine have to do with the problems of the Caucasus ? And what does the subject of the conference have to do with the future of the Caucasus ? As a matter of fact, certain centers in the West do view the Black Sea as an element of some "Black Sea-Caspian" region... This is where we come to what is known as Blackseafor, a military structure promoting naval cooperation between countries of the Black Sea region - Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine.

It appeared at first that Blackseafor was supposed to set up conditions for adequate defense and promotion of the interests of these countries precisely. Development of the international situation in the last decade resulted in dramatic changes in the policies of coastal countries and in appearance of new states in the region. Promoting their new military-political interests countries like Bulgaria , Romania , Ukraine , and Georgia aspire for broader interaction with other countries and first and foremost with NATO members. Hence the bilateral and international naval exercises in the Black Sea involving American, British, French, and Spanish combatants - something that has not happened in the region for decades. The involved forces practice navigation control, participation in the hostilities, the landing of forces... All of that is taking place practically on the borders of Russia , which is not invited to participate as a rule.

Blackseafor exercises are usually code-named Black Sea Partnership (and the year). Russian military experts say that activization of Blackseafor was actually necessary because after 2003, the United States and some other NATO countries began promoting expansion of Operation Active Endeavor to the Black Sea (the Alliance is running the operation in the Mediterranean Sea, allegedly as a counter-terrorism measure). Romania is particularly active as the promoter of the idea. Clearly following Washington 's orders, it deliberately evaluates "the state of affairs with regional security as extremely problematic, problematic to the extent where NATO involvement is advisable." Romania already permitted the Americans to establish four naval bases on its Black Sea coast.

From the point of view of the law and the Montre Convention, prevention of British-American actions within the framework of, say, Operation Active Endeavor in the Black Sea is practically impossible. Turkey seems bent on using BlackSeaFor to take over the Black Sea and make it out of bounds for ships of other countries. Official Ankara knows that expansion of Operation Active Endeavor into the Black Sea will be viewed by the Kremlin as an act of hostility. Moreover, it may even compromise cooperation within the framework of the Russia-NATO Council. The situation being what it is, the Alliance will certainly leave it to Turkey to sort things out with Moscow and that is precisely what Ankara does not want. It values its trade and economic relations with Russia too much to jeopardize them. Counting on Blackseafor therefore, Turkey acts as a regional power with considerable weight in the Black Sea region. It maintains the positive balance of its current relations with Russia .

The list of other Black Sea countries ( Romania , Bulgaria , Georgia , and Ukraine ) and analysis of their relations with NATO and prospects of their development indicate that it is precisely the Turkish vector of the problem in the Black Sea region that is particularly promising and productive nowadays. This assumption is confirmed by activeness of Georgia and Ukraine in GUUAM (the bloc Washington is persistently trying to revive to spite Russia ), and Romania 's application for membership in this alliance. Not even a GUAM member yet, Romania has already proclaimed itself a negotiator between NATO and GUAM countries. Moscow views all of that as attempts to undermine Russia 's positions in the Commonwealth and drive the Russian Black Sea Fleet out of the Black Sea where the ratio is already 5 to 1 in NATO's favor. The situation itself warrants active negotiations within the framework of the Russia-NATO Council where Turkey 's position may play an important role.

In fact, on January 24, the Russian leadership put forth a certain initiative, knowing all too well where American military presence in the Caspian Sea may probably lead countries of the region now. Defense Minister and Deputy Premier Sergei Ivanov said that countries of the Caspian region might establish a regional structure, CaspFor, for prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and for dealing with other threats and challenges. Neutral Turkmenistan does not object.

In the meantime, Russia 's confrontation with Georgia and Ukraine is worsening. Some Caspian countries probably "advised" by Washington ignore the CaspFor initiative. Baku reacted with a delay but react it did. Eldar Namazov, one of the founders of Ydeni Sijat (New Policy) bloc and an ex-advisor to former President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev, said that the Russian-Azerbaijani CaspFor talks were either a bluff or they meant that official Baku was trying to make use of the West's conceit. "The CaspFor idea stipulates involvement of Iran ," he said, "and it will inevitably affect official Baku 's relations with Washington and the Alliance ."

The Kazakh authorities keep silent. As for Iran , its leaders have their hands full in their own confrontation with the United States and Israel over the so called Iranian nuclear folder and over the deteriorating situation in Iraq where Sunni and Shi'ah are at odds with each other...

Black Sea Harmony Program should be mentioned here as well for the impression of the framework of military-political preparations between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to be complete. Commanders of Black Sea navies met in Constanza , Romania , on May 16, 2005. Nikolai Nedogibchenko of the press service of the Ukrainian Navy said then that "commanders of Black Sea navies discuss security matters, development and prospects of military cooperation between countries of the region. They will also discuss Blackseafor transformation." According to Nedogibchenko, Blackseafor representatives once again agreed that countries of the region should boost their own responsibility for peace and stability in the region through effective use of the already existing mechanisms of regional cooperation (Blackseafor and measures of trust). Navy commanders backed Turkey 's idea to invite other countries into the Black Sea Harmony Program. "Meeting of the Committee of Commanders of Navies will discuss results of the fourth activization of Blackseafor and program of its fifth activization in August 2005-2006. It will also discuss the findings of experts who met in Ankara and Istanbul ," Nedogibchenko said. It is clear therefore that Black Sea Harmony and Blackseafor are both Turkey 's initiatives.

It does not even matter that the proclaimed goals of the operation have little to do with the actual ones. What counts is that Moscow saw through the disguise and understood that it was but another attempt to weaken its positions in the Black Sea region. Steps were taken to neutralize the bona fide objectives of Black Sea Harmony promoters. Senior officers of the Russian Navy visited Turkey . Summing up 2005, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Operation Black Sea Harmony might soon be transformed into a Russian-Turkish operation. Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin visited Turkey on February 24-26. Negotiations with his local counterparts took place. (Masorin also met ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet visiting Istanbul .) Matters of bilateral cooperation and organization of Operational Black Sea Harmony were discussed. Masorin visited a Turkish naval base in Geldjuk and several surface combatants. Ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on a visit to Istanbul included flagship Moskva, big landing ship Azov, and two escorts returning from an Active Endeavor exercise with NATO ships in the Mediterranean Sea . When the visit was finally over, Russian and Turkish ships sailed to the Black Sea to run a joint exercise there.

Time will show if Moscow has succeeded in neutralization of the true designs of authors and promoters of all these projects, programs, and operations. A member of BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, Moscow sends a message to those who stand behind Ankara 's back that the Kremlin keeps an eye on the developments in the regions considered vital from the standpoint of Russian national security. But no more than that. Disregard of Russia 's CaspFor initiative and the conference in Sevastopol indicate that the "competition" becomes fiercer.

Sergei Shakarjants

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