Geopolitical competition in the Black Sea and implications to Turkish Foreign Policy

Sources: Sputnik News “Nato Warships enter Black Sea”

The Black Sea region is one of the most important region for global strategic agenda of the twenty-first century. Its geographically strategic position became very significant especially to two opposing military-political blocs to from an alliance with the states in the region; US/NATO and Russia.  The immediate result of this global competition over the security vacuum has led to serious politically, economically and militarily motives and divisions among the states of Black Sea Economic Cooperation. From growing security dilemma, expansion of terrorist organization to energy cooperation were mainly the reasons for this two former Cold War power blocs to re-emerge as principal and dominant actors consequently form an alliance to pursue new sphere of influence in this new security environment.

Cold War which was ideologically motivated, separated the region into two; the Western bloc and Communist bloc. As a result of this two power blocs, Black Sea region were divided into two; Soviet territory and states surrounded by Soviet territory. The proximity territory with Soviet mainly inspired these states to join NATO and shared military cooperation. The collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 nevertheless has led to an unpredictable growing security vacuum in the region and none had ever predicted the emergence of the wider Black Sea area and serious security problems in the area especially after 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Today in the new era highlighted by serious expansion of terrorist organization in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, accurate redefinition of US Strategic interest and foreign policy of other alliance are urgently needed. From strategic reason to political, economical and military motives, American-Turkish relation often goes back to security as a major factor for states to form an alliance in order to strengthen their economic stability and enhance their poor military capabilities. The cornerstone of this partnership are the strategic location of Turkey in the Black Sea; controlling the sea route of Bosphorus and Dardanelles toward Mediterranean and Aegean sea, for the United States to manifest their strategic interest in the Black Sea region, Turkey supporting the United States is highly influential.

Nonetheless, today new era marked by serious consequences from the US invasion of Iraq and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Turkey’s proximity with these conflicting areas need to redefine foreign policy of Turkey to preclude the conflict spread into Turkey’s territory and to protect national interest of Turkey. Turkish national interest implies to the understanding of this correlation of geography and politics so clearly evident in the Black Sea ‘security’, requires geopolitical approach, for this reason, it is significant to Turkey to protect their national interest by seeking cooperation with their former enemy and new economic cooperation partner; Russia.

The United States and main NATO ally who sought political and military expansionism into Black Sea region certainly do not prefer this partnership. It mainly could preclude NATO expansionism program and give a military space to Russia. Although the concept of ‘region’ playing in the minds of the alliances, both the US/NATO and Russia still perceive each other as subject to the contrary. As the US/NATO still perceives Russia as a subject of deterrence; to preclude Russia from expanding his sphere of influence in the region and meanwhile Russia perceives political dialogue with the US remains complicated. In other words, there are a lot of uncertainties in the future in maneuvering security of the Black Sea in the hands of this two power blocs.

The Black Sea region and security environment changed over the course of its history; from Second World War to Cold War and aftermath of September 11. The changing new security environment in twenty-first century led the US and NATO to reassess their security outlook to adapt to this changed security environment. The US and NATO perceived that the Black Sea region has become a strategic area to deploy their military base to provide the basis for ‘global war on terrorism’. This policy was formulated in reaction to aftermath of 9/11 and also Russian-Georgian war and Russian invasion of Crimea – of which the US and NATO sensed that Russia for some reasons has modernized their military capabilities beyond former Soviet capabilities. From the US/NATO security outlook, Russia bordering with Eastern countries and the Baltics might give serious political implications to the NATO countries. The view obtained from two Russian invasions hastened them to reassess Russian move as revanchist, neo-imperialist, expansionist, and hostile power bent on dismantling the post-cold war European security system and dividing the region into sphere of influence. Therefore, prompted the United States and NATO to response to Russia’ transformed the new security environment in the Black Sea.

From US/NATO perception, the emergence of Russian threat is real. This perception is mainly derived from Russia’s actions in the new security environment; firstly, Russian aggression towards Georgia and Ukraine, secondly the government of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland whose have expressed their concerned over Russia’s actions and thirdly Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime in Syria. From all of Russia’s actions, NATO sees the importance to modernize their military capabilities as well although it creates adversarial relationship between the West and Russia. It nonetheless does not stop the US and NATO to increase their military budget expenditure and to aggregate political influence in the Black Sea – which is very near to Russia’s border and Russia’s national interest.

For the US/NATO, if Russia remains intransigent on the estimated issues in this region, they will likely continue to proceed with their expansionism program in order to prevent the unpredictable conflict. The unpredictable conflict refers to nuclear war often overshadows the other qualities such as political dialogue. Thus this unpredictable conflict is likely could be caused by confrontation and provocation. Amid the confusion, the Russia remains to be seen as deterrence to the US and NATO, despite they do not intend to provoke Russia. The sphere of influence inside the big box, will remain there.

Turkey unlike many others continues to promote his partnership with Russia for certain reasons involved Turkey’s border proximity with Russia, Syria, and Iraq and as the state-ally were perturbed by this geopolitical competition, Turkey cannot proceed beyond diminishing his close partnership with the United States and provoking Russia. The foreign policy of Turkey positioned between Western bloc and Eastern bloc is dangerous for Turkey to cross. The importance of Turkey’s strategic position can be found from their’s long-standing quo in the Montreux convention regulating the navy and ships movements from Black Sea across Europe. The US/NATO who look forward to expanding their political and military expansionism in the Black Sea received a great deal of opposition from Turkey. Nonetheless, Turkey as a NATO member must ensure they do not provoke NATO for his abrasive attitude to promote ties with Russia in energy sector and military cooperation – of which the US and NATO sought to deal with Turkey alone.

But indeed Turkish-American loose relation derived from the 2003 of the different opinions between Turkey and the United States over the terminology of ‘terrorist’ – the PKK terrorism in the Southern Turkey and YPG militia in Northern Syria often heightened the disagreements over larger problems. For example, US/NATO expansionism program in the Black Sea stemming from protecting the security of the Black Sea region and European security would require an obligation to Montreux Convention (involves Turkish Straits), thus, can only be achieved via political and military presence in the region.  Despite Turkey has worked hard to put political dialogue with the United States and Middle East countries, loose Turkish relations with the United States hardly amend due to the differences of ‘terrorist’ terminology. This upset situation is also likely derived from 2003 US invasion of Iraq which the event consequently expanded into terrorism and terrorist organization dispersed into Turkey’s border in the Southeast area. In short, this new security environment around Turkey’s border led Turkey to redefine Turkish foreign policy adapting to new security environment in the Black Sea region cornered with four nexus and to reassert accurate foreign policy matched with current situation to guarantee its own security and stability in region surrounded by this new security environment and conflict everywhere.

BSEC (Black Sea Economic Cooperation) ministers

Turkey’s membership in NATO was also affected by Turkey’s perception in the eyes of European Union. For many decades, Turkey has been trying to become part of European Union, which was often led by failure in discussion – the enlisting process was rather difficult for Turkey. As a result, this another upset situation led Turkey to look on BSEC and greater Middle East cooperation which turned out de-escalate the tensions between Turkey and these countries but nevertheless the greater Middle East was affected by situation in Syria and BSEC crumbled by Ukraine joining NATO and provoked Russia. All these main reasons created a course to Turkey to promote ties with Russia.

Therefore, the general implications of this geopolitical competition towards Turkish foreign policy can be drawn from two broad focal main points: 1) US/NATO political and military presence in the Black Sea, and 2) Consequences from US invasion of Iraq 2003. On one hand, the first main point dealing with competition with Russia, on the other hand, the second main point, connoting a serious issue of security in the Black Sea caused by the war. These two events are likely to contribute to a more challenging and setback in Turkish foreign policy.

Siti Rafiah Tahir
Marmara University, Department of Political Science and International Relations.

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