I have just awakened on the first day following a 24-hour trip from Austin to Constanta, a city in Romania that few Americans know of. It is where the Danube meets the Black Sea, and it has been a pivot point since before even the Romans arrived. The Danube is something like the American Mississippi, a river drawing in the waters and the trade of the tributaries that flow from the Alps and Carpathians. It reaches the Black Sea, which is where the similarity ends. The Mississippi reaches the Gulf of Mexico, which opens on the waters of the world. But the Black Sea is an enclosed body of water from which the Mediterranean Sea can be accessed only through the narrow Bosporus, and the world’s oceans only through the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Mississippi trades with the world. The Danube trades mostly within the Black Sea Basin, which today is a body of glowering mistrust, much as it has always been. The Ukrainians and Russians are to the north; Bulgarians and Turks to the south; and across the sea, Georgia and the Caucasus, where Russians, Turks and Iranians have battled for domination for centuries. These nations trade with each other and distrust one another. Like many nations in the Black Sea Basin, they remember each other’s betrayals for centuries even as they depend on each other for trade.
Now the Americans are here, as they are everywhere. There is a joint Romanian-American base, and U.S. warships and combat aircraft visit on a regular basis. This began in earnest after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which the Americans view as a rising against a corrupt Ukrainian government, and the Russians view as a U.S.-organized coup against a legitimately elected pro-Russia government. The Turks, who hold the Bosporus, are the decisive power, retaining the power if not the legal right of determining who might enter and leave the Black Sea.
In the contemporary world, this means that conferences are held here, too – like the one I’m now attending. These are the places where the underpinnings of strategy are created, and relationships between those who might implement them will be formed. The conference is organized by the New Strategy Center, a Romanian think tank; Geopolitical Futures partnered with NSC to write a report on the challenges of the Black Sea. There is an entire profession of self-declared experts who gather regularly at these events, with speakers and panel sessions aplenty. But the real work is done in the private conversations in which those who know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know, and all try to extract information without providing it. In these conversations, you get to know those you have previously known only through writings designed to persuade. And here, reality may begin to emerge.
That the Black Sea basin is critical is obvious. Americans face the Russians, and the Russians face the Turks. Alliances are formed, as with the U.S. and Romania, and others wonder what the other is up to. And so, we meet, and we talk, and sometimes truth is told, and sometimes some of us actually know what the truth is. It is a microcosm of the game of nations. Below, I am sharing with you an introduction I wrote to the report on the Black Sea. I thought it might be interesting to you.
Black Sea: Eternal Riddle
The Black Sea has played multiple roles in its history. The most common role has been as an avenue of trade. The most definitive role has been as an arena of war, or at least an adjunct to the war raging on the land around it. And though there is no war on its waters right now, the Bosporus – which provides littoral nations access to the Mediterranean and thus must be considered in any discussion of the Black Sea– is constantly at risk.
The Russians have participated in the war in Syria. At times, they have been in near-conflict with the Turks, who, treaties notwithstanding, control the Bosporus. For Russia, control of the Bosporus, or at least its neutralization, has been an overriding geopolitical imperative. Russia has always had interests in the Mediterranean that were largely blocked by the Black Sea. During the Cold War, when the U.S. placed its massive Sixth Fleet in the Black Sea, the Russian force was limited, most notably because the flow of vessels and logistic support moved through Turkish and NATO waters, and therefore any naval force they placed in the Mediterranean was at risk.
In order to have free access to the Mediterranean, Russia must be in a position to persuade or, preferably, compel Turkey to make credible guarantees on right of passage. Turkey has a very complex relationship with the Russians. It uses Russia to try to shape American behavior in ways that benefit Turkey. The United States does not want to see a shift in the status of the Bosporus and would likely act if Turkey went too far.
On the other hand, the United States wants an air base exactly where Incirlik is located. Close to a port for logistics, and within range of targets in Ukraine for tactical attack aircraft and able to operate through the Middle East as well, it is a precious asset. No other base would be quite as good. Therefore, the United States is not in a position to pressure Turkey too much, and Turkey doesn’t want to alienate the United States excessively. Any modification of the status of the Bosporus would be excessive.
The United States has based assets in Romania to have an alternative to Turkish basing and, more important, to make certain that if the Russians undertook an unexpected adventure southward, toward Turkey or the Mediterranean, the U.S. would be in a position to respond rapidly, with at least some force.
This all means that the Black Sea remains what it has been for a long time. It is coiled, ready to spring, but unable to do so because the complexity of force around its shores remains so intricate and with so many hostile and intertwining interests that they cannot move. This buys Romania the most precious thing in geopolitics. If the Black Sea springs, or rather when it springs, it will be too late, and Romania cannot simply be a bystander. There is now a three-player game. There is Russia, weakened but still the strongest power native to the Black Sea. There is Turkey, potentially powerful but in the process of a painful redefinition. There is the United States, the most powerful, but not eager to fight a battle in the Black Sea, preferring the Mediterranean. All of this will change over time as it always does, but it cannot be assumed that the coil will not be let loose to spring. But of all the powers, the one least predictable and in the long run potentially the most powerful is Turkey. It is the country to watch.