Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Unites States, together with Turkey and other Western allies, led the process of strengthening the political and economic sovereignty of the newly independent countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey was a major anchor and channel of Western political, strategic, and economic interests in the Black Sea-Caspian region.
This collaborative effort brought about the development of the vibrant energy, trade, and transit connections between the Black Sea-Caspian region and the Mediterranean, delivering huge economic and political benefits to all the producing and transit countries of the region: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But Turkey was, and continues to be, the major beneficiary of the economic, political, and security benefits of the East-West energy and transportation corridor, of the expanding pipeline, railway, highway, and port infrastructure, linking the country to Caspian resources and markets. Further, the enlargement of NATO and the EU also brought more security and economic development to the western shores of the Black Sea – to Bulgaria and Romania.
But developments of the last decade drastically changed the strategic environment in the Black Sea-Caspian region. Due to much weaker US-Turkish alliance since the war in Iraq, and the overall decline of the US presence and leadership in the region, the Russian Federation has regained significant power and influence in the former Soviet space.
By controlling Crimea, Russia has now almost complete strategic dominance over the Black Sea, supported by a significant military presence in the breakaway regions of Georgia -Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region- as well as in Armenia, allowing it to establish control over the major elements of East-West transit infrastructure and communication lines on relatively short notice. Russia also made significant progress in expanding the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which in addition to original members -the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Kazakhstan- now also includes Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. By displaying its willingness to use military force in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, Russia has sent a warning to other neighbors as well, which has been received loud and clear. Military success in Georgia and Ukraine also emboldened Russia to move more aggressively in the Middle East, especially with its presence in Syria. The strategic significance of the weak Western response to Russian aggression in the Black Sea region has become more evident as time passed.
Mamuka Tsereteli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at American Foreign Policy Council, based in Washington, DC. He has more than thirty years of experience in academia, diplomacy and business development. His expertise includes economic and energy security in Europe and Eurasia, political and economic risk analysis and mitigation strategies, and business development in the Black Sea-Caspian region.