The US Department of Defense has drafted a new strategy for the Black Sea region, focusing on getting the individual countries around the Black Sea to develop a regional approach to security issues.
Some of the strategy's finer points are still being developed, and the implementation may be slowed by the US preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. But it nevertheless represents a concerted effort by Washington to get involved in a region traditionally dominated by Turkey and Russia.
To that end, the United States is throwing its weight behind Turkey's leadership in Black Sea regional efforts. That's in part because Ankara and Washington share the same goals in the area, and, in part, because Washington wants to allay Turkish concerns about American intentions.
The strategy's main concept was completed late last year and it remains classified. But its general outline was described to EurasiaNet by a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity. US officials are still in the process of relaying the strategy's contents to regional governments, including Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Greece. First to be briefed was Turkey, in acknowledgement of Ankara's leadership role in the region. "Without Turkey, we can't get this to work," the official said.
The other key Black Sea player is Russia, and the Pentagon has low expectations on Moscow's willingness to go along with US plans. "We don't expect the Russians to be cooperative; they see this as interference in their sphere of influence. However, we're committed to seeking Russian cooperation wherever we can get it we don't want them as an adversary," the official said. "However, we won't allow ourselves to be held hostage to Russian objections."
The US is actively encouraging countries around the Black Sea to take part in the Turkey-led Black Sea Harmony maritime security program, through which intelligence on sea traffic is shared among all the coastal states. In December, Russia became the first country to formally join the program. Ukraine and Romania are also reportedly close to joining. Georgia's navy is not large enough to provide any significant intelligence, although it does participate in information exchanges.
The cooperation between Turkey and Russia is seen in some quarters as a combined effort to keep NATO out of the Black Sea. NATO operates a similar maritime security operation in the Mediterranean Sea, called Active Endeavor, and NATO has tried to expand that program into the Black Sea. Turkey, however, is worried that NATO's incursion into the Black Sea would diminish Ankara's influence there. Some Turkish officials also fear that an expanded NATO regional role could erode the 1936 Montreux Convention, by which Turkey maintains control over the Bosporus Straits. Russia, meanwhile, remains opposed to US influence in its former satellite countries.
"I don't think we can help that the Russians see this as a zero-sum game, but I do think we can help that with the Turks," the official added. "The Turkish approach is similar to ours [in dealing with Russia]: pragmatic, but they won't do anything detrimental to their national security."
The United States doesn't see a specific threat in the Black Sea region at present, but that is reason enough to expand the surveillance and monitoring of the area, the official said. Potential threats include the transport of weapons of mass destruction, drugs or terrorists. "One would presume some of that goes on, but we don't know," the official said. It's possible the threat is not great, "but right now we don't have the detection and surveillance capabilities to know if that's the case."
In addition to maritime surveillance, United States would like to see countries in the Black Sea region improve crisis response capabilities and border security.
But the program may be slowed or scaled back, given the Pentagon's preoccupation these days with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said. "The United States has given a lot of thought to the Black Sea, but I don't believe we have a clear implementation strategy" because of the two major wars, the official said.
Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.