Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 34

Romanian President Traian Basescu’s just-completed first visit to Moscow occasioned discussion on a new proposal on Black Sea sub-regional security. The matter came up during Basescu’s session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It contemplates creating an “operational group” of the six riparian countries to combat illicit arms, drugs, and human trafficking and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Under this proposal, the “operational group” would be endowed with on-call capabilities to respond to emergency situations (Rompres, February 15). Such a group would bring together three NATO member countries (one old and two new ones), two NATO aspirant countries, and Russia. It would exclude NATO as such from those missions, and it would keep the alliance’s naval forces out of the Black Sea.

Pending clarification from the Russian side, the proposal seems in line with traditional Soviet and post-1991 Russian ideas to regionalize and sub-regionalize security in Europe. They typically offered to create groups of NATO and non-NATO countries in key strategic areas, always including Russia as the single strongest actor, and always excluding NATO as such from the proposed arrangements. Proposals of this nature (some of them seeking in vain to head off NATO’s enlargement) had offered to create sub-regional security arrangements for the Baltic Sea basin, Central Europe, and the Balkans-Black Sea area.

At the moment, Russia seeks to prevent the extension of NATO’s naval Operation Active Endeavor (OAE) from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. NATO, including its new Black Sea member countries Romania and Bulgaria, seeks modalities for such an extension. Allied Turkey has, however, sided with Russia on this issue. Although Russia has joined (in a manner ridden with limitations and reservations) OAE in the Mediterranean at NATO’s invitation, and would clearly be invited to join an extended OAE in the Black Sea, Russia insists on keeping NATO naval forces out of the Black Sea. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has reaffirmed Russia’s position on this issue in peremptory terms, most recently at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, at the NATO-Russia informal meeting of defense ministers in Nice, and at the high-level NATO security conference in Munich (Interfax, January 18, February 10, February 13, respectively).

Russia, with Turkish support, proposes tasking the existing, modest BlackSeaFor naval group, consisting of the six riparian countries, with the type of missions envisaged in the “operational group” proposal discussed above. It also favors assigning BlackSeaFor a mandate for “anti-terrorism” actions generally, and possibly even turning it into a standing force with its own headquarters, which Turkey supports. BlackSeaFor, which originated as a Turkish initiative, is only mandated to assemble and exercise one month a year, its command rotating annually. Russia now tends to overemphasize the symbolic BlackSeaFor so as to keep NATO naval forces out of those types of operations in the Black Sea — and out of the Black Sea altogether. For its part, Turkey appears content with a naval condominium with Russia in the Black Sea. Russia and Turkey are set to begin patrolling and other naval activities, including anti-terrorism exercises, on a bilateral basis.

Cautious objections to a “non-riparian naval presence” are emerging in the official Russian discourse on Black Sea security. Commenting on this specific issue during Putin’s recent visit to Ankara, the respected Turkish analyst Yuksel Soylemez related it to the ongoing, overall Turkish-Russian rapprochement: “In fact, what is happening now is a revival of the two countries’ rapprochement [under] Mustafa Kemal and the first decade in the 1920s of Turkish-Russian friendship” (Turkish Daily News, January 16). Turkey, however, is in a position to provide a link between NATO’s OAE and “riparian” naval activities, using the Turkish operation Black Sea Harmony, which involves naval patrols on the approaches to the Bosporus. Turkey has invited other Black Sea countries to assign ships to Black Sea Harmony. It would be up to Turkey to facilitate the extension of OAE into the Black Sea through a link with that same Turkish operation.

For now, a somewhat anomalous situation persists in the Black Sea: Unlike all the seas around NATO Europe (including the Baltic Sea, which is accessed, like the Black Sea, through narrow straits), the Black Sea remains the only one without standing naval access and presence by NATO, even as NATO-member and NATO-aspirant countries now embrace almost the entire circumference of the Black Sea.