Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 57

Ten European countries, situated between the Baltic and the Black Seas and aspiring to join NATO, will hold a summit meeting on March 25-26 in Bucharest, Romania. Collectively known as the Vilnius Ten after the venue of the group’s founding conference, these countries are pooling efforts for a more effective pursuit of the common goal of securing NATO membership invitations this year.

NATO is evaluating each country’s candidacy individually, on its own merits. Each country must fulfill a rigorous set of military, political and economic criteria, enshrined in the three-year Membership Action Plans (MAPs) worked out between the alliance and each aspirant country. Their Western-oriented governments have been hard at work, expending scarce economic resources and staking all their political capital on the goal of joining NATO.

While MAP performance remains the basis for evaluating the Baltic states’ candidacies, strategic location takes on greater importance with respect to Central and southeastern Europe. Based on these aggregate criteria, the three Baltic states, Slovakia and Slovenia in Central Europe, and the Black Sea western rim countries of Romania and Bulgaria look increasingly well placed to obtain invitations this year to join NATO in a common enlargement round soon.

In his historic address in Warsaw last June, U.S. President George W. Bush broadened NATO’s enlargement agenda to cover the entire space between the Baltic and the Black seas. NATO alone is in a position to guarantee that this region is not dragged back into its former condition of a “grey zone,” fragmented and up for grabs by external powers. September 11 and its lessons have added to the urgency of treating this space as an indivisible unit and bringing it into the Western alliance system.

The new international constellation, moreover, underscores the security linkages between the Black Sea’s western rim countries and the region to their east. That unstable, resource-rich Eurasian heartland now looms large in U.S. and allied planning. When Romania and Bulgaria join NATO, the alliance will be better positioned to enhance its partnerships with Ukraine and Georgia, to promote strategic stability and development in the South Caucasus-Caspian area, and to connect with Central Asia.

The Black Sea currently serves as the main transit route for Caspian oil–a function illustrated by the recent commissioning of the pipeline from Kazakhstan to Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, whence supertankers take the oil to European markets. For its part, the Black Sea country of Georgia forms the linchpin in the planned overland routes for Caspian oil and gas. The Black Sea basin and Georgia, moreover, form a major segment of TRACECA, the Europe-Central Asia transit corridor planned by the European Union and supported by the United States.

Another Black Sea country, Ukraine, provides an indispensable air corridor for the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition operating in Central Asia and Afghanistan. From October 2001 to date, more than 1,400 American and allied military flights have used the route from NATO Europe via Ukraine, the Black Sea, Georgia and Azerbaijan to reach the theater of operations. The United States and its allies, envisaging a military presence as long as necessary in Central Asia, will need to continue using this air route.

In sum, the Black Sea basin now shares the center stage of international politics with the Caspian basin and Central Asia, by dint of its multiple interconnections with them. Until now, NATO’s presence on the Black Sea has been confined to Turkey on that sea’s southern rim. A staunch NATO ally, Turkey was among the first to argue even in the pre-September 11 world that the alliance needed to secure the Black Sea’s western rim permanently by admitting Bulgaria and Romania as members. With Hungary in NATO since 1999, the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania would not only connect NATO Europe to Turkey and Greece at long last, but would also provide the Western alliance with the most convenient access to the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.

Facing Bulgaria and Romania directly across the Black Sea, Georgia forms in essential respects an extension of Southeastern Europe. President Eduard Shevardnadze has pointed to this fact, illustrated by the TRACECA and pipeline projects and, now, by the prospect of NATO’s southeastern enlargement. Within that context, the United States, the West European allies and Turkey agree on the imperative of safeguarding Georgia’s independence. The recent U.S. decision to deploy special troops on a training-and-equipping mission to Georgia underscores that goal. Turkey, providing Georgia with a reliable strategic rear to the south, is second only to the United States as a source of security assistance to Georgia. Clearly, NATO’s presence on the western Black Sea opposite Georgia would irreversibly anchor that country to its Western partners.

For its part, Ukraine had welcomed NATO’s first enlargement round in 1999 which included Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Hungary. This was viewed in Kyiv as enhancing Ukraine’s own security and stability on the western flank–essentially an insurance policy for the future. That flank of Ukraine was already fairly stable and secure then. It is Ukraine’s southern flank that shows a relative deficit of security and stability now, owing to armed secessionism in Transdniester and the unraveling of Communist-ruled Moldova, with ripple effects on Ukraine and Romania as well. Kyiv, therefore, again has every reason to welcome the stabilizing effect of a NATO that would become Ukraine’s neighbor in the southwest as well.