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  • Russia and the Black Sea’s Frozen Conflicts in Strategic Perspective
  • Stephen Blank (bio)

The Black Sea and its littoral are once again an arena for interstate and great-power rivalry. The frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh connect regional rivalries within and between states with the larger great-power competition. Some of these conflicts, particularly the one between Georgia and South Ossetia, could explode at any minute with far-reaching implications for the region and world politics in general. That conflict, in particular, perpetually appears to be on the verge of explosion, with incidents occurring there with monotonous regularity. In addition, every observer of these conflicts agrees that their continuation is a major obstacle to regional integration among any or all of the littoral states and to subregional integration, for example among the Transcaucasian states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.1 On a larger scale, the linkages among these conflicts impedes the creation of a stable system around the Black Sea.2

Instability in the Black Sea region of southeastern Europe, an area that now includes the Transcaucasus, calls the durability of any European order into question. This should not surprise us as every Balkan crisis, including the dismantlement of the former Yugoslavia, entails a crisis in the European state system. If we include the Transcaucasus — what Zbigniew Brzezinski [End Page 23] calls the Eurasian Balkans — in this equation, the importance of conflict resolution around the Black Sea readily becomes apparent. Precisely because the conflicts in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia preclude a regional order in the Transcaucasus or around Moldova, they block the construction of a larger Eurasian order. For example, it is the continuing presence of Russian forces in Moldova and, until 2007, Georgia that has held the West back from ratifying the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Moscow now uses this as a pretext to suspend its compliance with that treaty and to threaten to leave it altogether.3 Moscow will not leave Moldova, or so it says, until a political treaty recognizing those forces’ right to stay there comes into being. Russia also has other ulterior objectives. For example, it seeks a twenty-year lease on a base in Moldova to perpetuate its intervention on behalf of a separatist and visibly criminalized Russian faction across the Dniester River.4 Thus it obstructs progress toward conflict resolution here and in Georgia. By doing so it demonstrates its interests in preventing (1) the completion of a durable European order based on peace and security as well as (2) the integration of regional regimes into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Since Russia is central to all these conflicts, it bears much of the responsibility for failed conflict resolution to date and for the larger failure to create a viable regional or European security system.

Any effort at conflict resolution, to be successful, must include the perspective that the creation of a new security order around the Black Sea is the ultimate goal. That order should be a Friedensordnung (an order based on peace) and not perpetuate the current lack of a legitimate order; what exists now is based mainly on force and cannot be translated into legitimate order. The current order reflects the primacy of military force and is thus a Machtordnung (an order based on force) that is inherently unstable and an inconclusive resolution of contemporary regional security [End Page 24] issues.5 European and American officials, on the one hand, and Russia as the key interested outside actor and participant in these conflicts, on the other, recognize this fact; their policies reflect that recognition. As Robert Legvold has written, “Europe will never be entirely secure if the Caucasus is left out of Europe’s security purview.”6 These words apply with equal force and validity to any of the other Transcaucasian or Black Sea littoral states. In fact, this instability carries within it the possibility of constant crises that could escalate quickly to open conflicts.

Through 2006 and 2007 we saw armed Georgian actions against local insurgents in the Kodori Gorge, Georgian arrests of Russian agents who were planning a coup, Russian economic sanctions...