Geopolitical Diary: The Black Sea and Reviving the Cold War
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Russia began the week with a blunt message to the West: You may need us, but we don't need you. First, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told the Russian press that NATO isn't sincere in its desire to cooperate with Russia, and therefore Russia is prepared to completely break ties with the Western military alliance. According to Medvedev, even if NATO chooses to cut ties with Russia, "nothing terrible will happen" to Moscow. Second, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that World Trade Organization membership no longer interests Moscow. He added that Russia would soon be pulling out of several WTO-related agreements, thereby paving the way for Russia to formally withdraw its membership bid after more than a decade of negotiations. Third, the Russian Duma and Federal Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though this is largely a symbolic gesture for now, the Russians are making clear that they can turn the Kosovo precedent on the West in a snap. In yet another blow to the West, Azerbaijan shipped approximately 200,000 barrels of crude to Iran on Monday. This is no ordinary economic transaction; Azerbaijan is the origin of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that circumvents Russia and transports Caspian oil to the West. A recent pipeline explosion combined with Russian military action in Georgia effectively have knocked the pipeline offline, leaving Baku with no choice but to look south and sell to Iran to maintain some level of oil income. This energy deal runs completely counter to U.S. strategy to keep Iran in a financial stranglehold. Through both direct and indirect means, Russia has simultaneously thrown a monkey wrench into the West's plans to evade Russian energy bullying tactics while undermining Washington's pressure policies against Iran. The Russians are getting increasingly bolder in their actions against the West, taking full advantage of the fact that NATO can do little to seriously undermine Russia's moves in the Caucasus. But Russia is not invincible — especially when it comes to Russian defenses against the West in the Black Sea. The Black Sea is absolutely critical to Russian defense. Though NATO does not currently have the capability to project power through land forces against Russia, it does have the naval assets to give the Russians pause. Already, nine Western warships (including U.S., Polish, Spanish, Turkish, and token Bulgarian and Romanian vessels) have made their way into the Black Sea in the name of humanitarian aid for Georgia. Russia is accusing the West of building up a NATO strike group in this body of water with which to threaten Russia's hold on the Caucasus, and perhaps beyond. The Russians simply cannot allow an increased NATO presence in this particular body of water to remain unanswered. The Black Sea is an important buffer for what is a direct line to the Russian underbelly, the Ukrainian plains and the land bridge that extends between the Black and Caspian Seas. Russia is well-aware of its weaknesses when it comes to defending this crucial frontier. The Black Sea, and the Aegean beyond it, essentially comprises a NATO lake. Controlled by Turkey through the Dardanelles, the Turkish and U.S. naval presence combined could easily overwhelm the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The last thing Moscow wants is a U.S. naval strike force in the Black Sea threatening Moscow's control of the Caucasus, crucial for its logistical and supply links to Russian troops in Georgia. And so, the Russian response is already beginning to take effect. The Black Sea Navy flagship "Moskva" sailed from Sevastopol today, and the Russians are likely to deploy more of their current — albeit limited — naval assets out of the Crimean Peninsula. Such moves are only likely to give NATO forces more cause to beef up their naval presence in the Black Sea, further contributing to the Kremlin's sense of insecurity. At that point, the next logical step for the Russians is to start spending some of their three quarters of a trillion dollars in reserves on covert operations that would force the United States to split its attention. It was not too long ago that the Russian intelligence powerhouse excelled in starting up fires in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East to keep the West preoccupied. In the Cold War days, the Russian FSB and KGB were neck-deep in backing groups like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Palestine Liberation Organization across the Middle East. Names and ideologies have since shifted, but it is not beyond the Russian FSB to spread its tentacles once again into certain areas of the world where it can poke and prod the West. This type of tit-for-tat escalation defined the Cold War. Now that the Black Sea has come into play, we are now just a few short steps from having this fracas in the Caucasus fully revive those Cold War tensions. Russia may have been looking for a relatively risk-free option to confront the United States with the war in Georgia. But now that we are seeing hints of a NATO naval build-up in the Black Sea, the Russians may be getting more than they asked for.