Monday, March 9, 2015

The Black Sea: The Heart of the Matter

This view from Istanbul. www.ceoe.udel.edu/blacksea/history.

“In essence, the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.”
General Philip Breedlove

yahoo and wiki images
The Black Sea.  It’s on my mind.  It’s been on Putin’s mind even longer, beginning with his deliberate and vicious stealth campaign to take over Crimea (which he now brags about) to his invasion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (more gloating about destabilization).  The subterfuge, propaganda and lies are mind-boggling. It must have felt like this as Hitler took over Europe up to World War II.  So far nothing is standing in Putin's way.  

The Black Sea is the watery theater of an ancient, complicated and tumultuous history. This drama has many acts, from prehistory to the Greeks and Romans, to the Ottoman Turks and Constantinople, from the Crusades to the Crimean War and other 19th-century wars, from World Wars I and II to the rise of the Soviet Union and its dissolution in 1991. 

I’m not a Black Sea expert, but I wish I was. I remember thinking when I was in Yalta, in Yevpretoria, in Sevestopol, in Odessa, in Istanbul, that if I was starting graduate school all over again I’d explore Black Sea studies.  It is that impressive to see firsthand, that engrossing.  Just look at a map.

The Sea sparkles like a diamond in the rough, with its fishing meccas, historic sites and resorts. It’s surrounded by six countries, each with its own history and cultures: Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. The Black Sea receives water from the Don, the Dnieper, and the Danube rivers.  Imagine! It connects to the Mediterranian through the Aegean Sea.  The Turkish straits connect the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea and comprise the Bosphorous, the Sea of Marimara, and the Dardenelles. Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia.  The Black sea connects the East and the West.
This map gives a hint of the Black Sea's
incredible history and potential.
Russia is now militarizing Crimea.  It is moving its anti-air and missile systems to the peninsula it stole from Ukraine, according to NATO Commander and Air Force General Philip Breedlove. “These weapon systems—from air defense systems that reach nearly half of the Black Sea to surface attack systems that reach almost all of the Black Sea area—have made Crimea a great platform for power projection into this area.” (quoted in Will Catheart, “Putin’s Plans,” the Daily Beast, 3/1/2015). I predict Russia is moving its nuclear missiles there, too. 

Thus Crimea’s geopolitical direction and complexity is changing again, drastically, and with it the fragile balance of relationships that characterizes the Black Sea.  The Sea’s history is like that.  It doesn’t move in a linear fashion into the future.  It is full of twists and turns, crises and tragedies, the pulls of the past, the push of the present.   

“In essence,” General Breedlove said, “the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.” 

The Black Sea is rich in petroleum resources as well, a critical strategic consideration.   Moreover, it’s a lot easier to get to them than the resources in the Arctic, although that far-northern region is being militarized by Russia, too.  The Soviet Union started drilling for petroleum in the Black Sea’s western portion in the 1980s.   Ukraine began drilling in the 1990s, within an "Exclusive Economic Zone," inviting major international oil companies for exploration.  Discovery of  new oil fields in the area stimulated an influx of foreign investments.  It also provoked a brief dispute with Romania, resolved in 2011 when an international court redefined the Exclusive Economic Zones.  I'm not sure of the present status, but the Black Sea is still up for grabs. 

Putin is trying to make his way there by hook and by crook, mostly by crook. He has Crimea, which I view as a tragedy of historic proportions, an illegal annexation that should not be tolerated.  His proxies are close to Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Azov.  I've been harping about this for a long time. I'm scared of what may happen. Look at the map again.  More Russian troops and weapons continue to pour into that area.  International observers are not allowed to watch. 

“Putin has the entire Black Sea to gain,” General Breedlove notes. “This is why the Kremlin is seeking economic dominance of the Black Sea corridor and energy transit routes and military dominance as well.”  The future of the Black Sea looks foreboding. 

Russian troops amassing in eastern Ukraine (yahoo).
Some sources: 
Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (Oxford, 2005).  An extraordinary Black Sea scholar, King has also written books about Odessa, Istanbul, the Caucusus, and other historic places in the region 

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea (Hills and Wang, 1995/2001 fifth edition). 


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