Strategic sovereignty in the EU’s Southeastern neighborhood: The Black Sea as part of a larger geopolitical region


As part of a larger geopolitical region, the Wider Black Sea requires greater commitment from the EU in the areas of security, renewable energy, and connectivity. Turkey and Russia are the key competitors for influence and resources in the region.

Politische Karte der Region Schwarzes Meer und Kaspisches Meer mit Hauptstädten, internationalen Grenzen, Flüssen und Seen. Wasserflächen zwischen Osteuropa und Westasien. Illustration.

Geopolitical relevance

The greater Black Sea-Caspian Sea region has played a secondary role in the strategic debates of the EU regarding security, trade, transport, and energy routes between Asia and Europe. Public attention tends to focus on the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea regions. While the political discussion on the Mediterranean mainly focuses on refugee routes, the Baltic region is increasingly being defined by Russia’s military provocations. With eight EU countries bordering the Baltic Sea (Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Sweden), it makes sense to concentrate the security policy debate on the Baltic region. At the same time, it is currently unlikely that Russia will intervene in these countries. The Russian leadership does not perceive this region as part of a post-Soviet neighborhood, but as an area bordering the EU and NATO as well as an important transit area for gas transit to the EU through North Stream 1 & 2. 

This is different when it comes to Belarus, which secures Russia’s western border with NATO and the Black Sea region. Not only did Russia intervene in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) but it has been aspiring to strategic dominance in the Black Sea since at least 2014. The States bordering the Black Sea are Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. For the EU, this breaks down as two members (RO, BG); an important, albeit problematic economic and security partner (TK); two Eastern Partnership countries (UA, GE) - with whom association and comprehensive free trade agreements were concluded; as well as a geopolitical rival (RU). 

Restricting the geopolitical debate ‘solely’ to the Black Sea disregards the larger strategic relevance of this region. Russia and Turkey, being the two key actors in the Black Sea region, can serve as reference points - albeit with different interests. From the Russian perspective, the greater Black-Caspian Sea region is a springboard for projecting power and influence in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe. Thus, the Black Sea is the center and access point to key areas with notable security policy challenges (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya) as well as to significant energy resources (Middle East, Caspian region, and Northern Africa). Even though the Middle East and Northern Africa are economically and in terms of security policy more relevant for Turkey, Turkey is NATO’s most important partner in the Black Sea region. One of Turkey’s main strategic goals is to become an energy hub for gas and oil from Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and in the medium-term also from Central Asia to Europe. Ankara also perceives itself as a bridge for trade between Central Asia, the Caspian region, and the Middle East. 

From the viewpoint of the EU, the Black Sea is mainly a space for trade, economic development (Blue Economy), and commodity transit. Up to now, the key focus of the EU’s policy in the region has been the Black Sea Synergy initiative, a regional cooperation platform that was established in 2007 with Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession to the EU. This bottom-up approach, however, was not sufficient for the EU ultimately becoming a relevant actor in the greater Black Sea region. The key challenges in the region are mainly of a security nature, with a Russia focused on military armament and its pivotal role in regional conflicts in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh) and Ukraine (Crimea, Sea of Azov, Donbas).

Strategic and security policy challenges

From a European perspective, NATO is the crucial security partner in the Black Sea region. NATO has enhanced its presence in the Black Sea in response to the annexation of Crimea and increasing levels of Russian military activities. Russia is modernizing its Black Sea Fleet and enhancing its military capabilities on Crimea, thereby challenging NATO and its member, Turkey. At the same time, Moscow is courting Ankara with energy projects and economic cooperation. The Russian Black Sea Fleet serves as an important supply line for military actions in Syria and Libya. Moscow wants to prevent post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia from becoming members of NATO and the EU. It has developed a significant capacity to undermine the sovereignty of those countries by stoking and instrumentalizing regional conflicts. 

Due to limited resources, Vladimir Putin has aligned Russian foreign and security policy to the North-South axis (Arctic-Black-and-Caspian-Seas) as well as the East-West axis (balance between China and the Euro-Atlantic world). Russia is pursuing two key strategies to the post-Soviet space and therefore also to the Black Sea region: “denial and compellence”. First, post-Soviet states are denied access to Western institutions and, above all, the USA, NATO, and the EU are denied ability to set the agenda in Russia’s spheres of influence. Second, the states in the region are compelled to accept Russia’s dominance. With Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, this approach has proven to be successful. The same applies to Armenia and, most recently, Azerbaijan where Russia has deployed troops or “peacekeeping forces”. With respect to the goal of controlling the energy transit from this region, this approach has been less successful: Azerbaijan exports oil and gas to the EU through Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russia.     

While Georgia and Ukraine are limited in their sovereignty, Moscow has become more flexible with regards to strategic partnerships with Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as regional cooperation in the Caspian region. In the 1990s, Azerbaijan anticipated integration into trans-Atlantic structures. At this time, two pipelines were built bypassing Russia with the support of the USA. After the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, however, it adjusted to a transactional neutrality favored by Moscow. This means that Baku aims at good relations with both Russia and the West and is not forced to choose between the two. When NATO and the EU failed to act in the Russian-Georgian war, the Azerbaijani leadership understood that the West would not provide security guarantees to the countries in the region. As a result, Azerbaijan does not seek NATO (or EU) membership and Moscow, in return, allows Azerbaijan to establish an economic and limited security policy cooperation with third countries such as Turkey or Israel.

At the same time, Russia recognizes the growing strategic significance of Azerbaijan and thus included the country in trilateral formats with Iran and Turkey. Moscow could also accept that during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey reconquered seven regions around the disputed enclave without intervening. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has become an important link in the North-South Corridor, which connects Russia and Iran and, on a larger scale, the Arctic with the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. Azerbaijan progressed from cooperation with Turkey in the 1990s - with the goal of containing Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region - to trilateral cooperation with Russia and Turkey, which is beneficial to all three parties in the areas of transport and energy.

Energy as a connecting element

In the area of energy, Russia’s policy evolved from a mentality of obstruction regarding the division of the Caspian Sea to pragmatic compromises. In the 1990s, it was primarily the US that played the key role by supporting the construction of the Transcaucasian Oil Pipeline and South Caucasus Gas Pipeline as well as the safeguarding of the energy infrastructure from this region to Europe. By making concessions on the division of the Caspian Sea, Russia seeks to implement an approach whereby the neighboring states solve their own problems without external actors. In return for non-littoral countries not gaining access to the Sea and not being able to deploy military infrastructure, Moscow has agreed to divide the Caspian Sea into national sectors. Russia has largely dropped its resistance to the construction of Trans-Caspian infrastructure in exchange for acceptance of its military dominance by littoral countries..

The principle of preventing non-littoral countries from establishing military infrastructure in the Caspian region is something that the Russian leadership also wants to implement with respect to the Black Sea. In this regard, Moscow views a close security and economic cooperation with Turkey as an opportunity to curtail the influence, most notably, of the US and NATO. Moscow has no issue with Turkey being a member of NATO as long as it acts neutrally with regards to Russian interests, such as the annexation of Crimea or the de-facto appropriation of Abkhazia and accepts Russian dominance regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. After an initial hesitant wait-and-see policy, the Kremlin reinforced its dominant role as security actor in the South Caucasus by negotiating a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan after a 44-day war on Nov. 9, 2020. In spite of this, the Turkish leadership will try to gain more influence in the South Caucasus through continued support of Baku.

Putin and Erdogan have so far managed to strike compromises despite conflicting interests in Syria and Libya. For Ankara, which finds itself in conflict with the US and the EU, Moscow is a transactional partner with whom interests can be balanced while enhancing their own negotiating position vis-à-vis Washington and Brussels. With the launch of Turkstream at the beginning of January 2021, Russia binds Turkey closer, while Ankara advances its goal of becoming an energy hub for gas to Europe. The combination of Turkstream and North Stream 1 & 2 furthers Moscow’s medium-term goal of bypassing Ukraine as a transit country of Russian gas to Europe.  

Whereas in the past, Turkey pursued the goal of keeping the US and NATO out of the Black Sea region, it is now interested in a stronger NATO military presence to counter Russia’s growing military engagement. According to SIPRI, Russia, under international law, is entitled to no more than 10 percent of the Black Sea coastline. However, it currently controls more than a third of the coast. For Turkey, the prevention of a Kurdish state in the North of Syria necessitates cooperation with Moscow. Not only has Russia sold its S-400 missile defense system to Turkey; the state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, will also build the first Turkish nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Under pressure from the EU, South Stream was not built. Instead, the terminus of the pipeline was shifted from Bulgaria to Turkey.

Strategic autonomy in the Black Sea region?

It is important to broaden the analysis to consider the Black Sea region as part of a larger security and strategic complex. Even though the EU is an important market for energy resources from the region and a significant agent for economic and political development - as well as conflict management – it is essentially irrelevant as an actor in matters of security. Strategic autonomy – in the sense of a "self-determined ability to decide and act" - requires "institutional, political, and material prerequisites to … independently implement cooperation with third parties …" Together with Germany and France, through the Normandy Format, the EU has since 2014 played an important role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But to date, it has developed neither the ambition nor the institutional and material prerequisites to be a strategic actor in the greater Black Sea-Caspian Sea region. The EU member states do not have the will to meaningfully respond to security challenges in the region – either as the EU or within the context of NATO. The first step towards strategic autonomy would be a robust debate over the strategic significance of the Black Sea-Caspian Sea region for European security, with a view to the Middle East and the Mediterranean as well as a bridge between Asia and Europe.

Since the 1990s, Brussels has tried to improve the connectivity of the region with the EU through major infrastructure projects in the context of the Trans-European Networks strategy. At the same time, large infrastructure projects such as the Nabucco gas pipeline failed and geo-economically important projects like the Anaklia Deep Sea Port at the Georgian Black Sea coast did not get the necessary support. A second step, therefore, would be to launch ambitious projects for the construction of infrastructure and transit capacities between the Caspian and Black Seas and Europe. A key component in this is the expansion of infrastructure for alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, which have enormous potential both in Turkey and in the South Caucasus. This would make countries like Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia more independent from gas supplies from Russia and would enable Azerbaijan to diversify its economy away from oil and gas exports. 

Significant investments in local infrastructure by the EU and other European funding institutions already go to individual countries in the region without being aggregated into an overall strategic context. Although China - with its Belt-and-Road Initiative - has not yet prioritized this region, the EU will, in the medium-term, need to find answers to China’s growing economic influence in the region. As a third step, individual initiatives like the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the Black Sea Synergy initiative, the Central Asia Strategy, the Connectivity Strategy as well as Trans-European Networks should be integrated in an overall strategy for the larger Black-Caspian Sea region. This should include the expansion of railway infrastructure and connection to the European network.

The EU and its member states did not play a role in the negotiation of the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. On the other hand, Russia bypassed the OSCE Minsk Format and - in consultation with Turkey - negotiated the ceasefire with the conflicting parties. The OSCE format, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US, had been established during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s to enable multilateral negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result of their inaction in the 2020 war, the EU and the US have been effectively pushed out of the conflict resolution process. A fourth step would be that the EU – in addition to its important role as donor of dialogue projects in local conflicts – becomes a relevant actor in establishing peace in the conflicts in Ukraine and the South Caucasus. There, it is more invested in multilateral negotiation platforms, including those of the OSCE, and is more willing to deploy peacekeepers to safeguard the ceasefire. 

A fifth step would be to foster a European perspective in EaP countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Along with Moldova, these are key states for the stabilization and development of the EU’s Eastern neighborhood. Beyond increased involvement in the European Green Deal, they should also become accession candidates pending comprehensive reforms. This also applies to Turkey. Although currently politically moving away from the EU, it remains an important actor as a key state in the greater region. These actions should be accompanied by consultations with Russia - which would be regard the EU more seriously if Brussels would adopt a stronger geopolitical and geo-economic stance. For the EU Commission to just assert that this is a geopolitical Commission is not enough; there must also be the strategic will, concepts and investments to give meaning to this claim.