Victor Kipiani – The West’s approach to the Black Sea region urgently needs to be reviewed and readjusted

Interpressnews spoke with Victor Kipiani, the Chair of Geocase about the Black Sea region and the balance of power, the incompatibility of interests among external actors and the new regional challenges that Georgia is facing.

- Mr Kipiani, the question of security in the Black Sea region has become increasingly important over the past few years, especially in terms of international relations and the changing world order.

Many specialists and politicians are writing and speaking about the Black Sea region nowadays, and its specificities are the basis for many different analyses and forecasts.

There is no doubt that security in the Black Sea is closely linked to matters of global security, and that Georgia’s policy requires much careful observation, analysis and action.

How would you evaluate the many new tendencies that are linked to security in the Black Sea region?

- Yes, security in the Black Sea region has become a very popular topic these days; and this interest is not always purely theoretical, but is also often dictated by the motivations of particular actors.

This question and the practical solutions it calls for are directly linked to Georgia’s security and development as well as to the stability of the region as a whole, and it is therefore vital that Tbilisi seek to forecast developments and prepare both preventative mechanisms and timely responses to the risks and challenges.

In general, the Black Sea’s importance derives not only from the countries that lie along its shores, which is only natural, but also from its history—particularly for several global actors with regional interests.

The Black Sea itself and the wider region around it have throughout history been an arena in which a variety of goals were pursued, the foremost and most decisive of which was trade.

The shift away from purely commercial interests to a larger ‘Great Power’ confrontation truly began when Russia established herself along the Black Sea’s shores, and from 1853 onwards Russian interest in the region has been invariably high.

The Crimean War and the later replacement of European interests with those of the United States and NATO progressively increased the perceived importance of achieving and maintaining an influence over the Black Sea region.

NATO has repeatedly stated the region’s geopolitical and geo-economic significance ‘in terms of Euro-Atlantic security’, most notably at its summits in Warsaw in 2016 and in Brussels in 2018.

In contrast, the London summit of 2019 can be said to have caused some dissatisfaction in this regard, although a meeting of the joint NATO-Georgia Commission subsequently held in Batumi pointed out the need to define ‘priorities for the coming period’.

The Black Sea region’s growing role is not at all surprising if we consider some of the Western or Russian doctrines and theories that describe it as a ‘rampart’ or even as a dividing line between democracy and authoritarianism.

Many current developments in and around the region are practically equivalent to the erection of a ‘New Iron Curtain' that cuts right through our Black Sea region.

- You have mentioned the geopolitical power balance in the Black Sea region, and a more panoramic assessment would help us to identify some of the key elements of the bigger picture.

What are the contours of the geopolitical balance of power in and around the Black Sea region? To what tendencies should we pay more attention?

- In my view, the contours of the geopolitical balance of power that you are referring to are relatively amorphous, but the lack of more vivid lines in the regional picture is not only caused by its specificities.

The thing is that, this amorphousness can be seen in almost every one of the world’s ‘centres of gravity’. We should therefore search for the reasons of this geopolitical amorphousness and uncertainty in the Eurasian gravitational space itself, of which the Black Sea and Caspian macro-region is a primary element and in which various global processes linked to the Cold War and the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre are underway.

These existing challenges have more recently been worsened by Russia’s aggressive acts in the region, particularly against Georgia and Ukraine, which have bluntly ignored the established norms of behaviour between countries and have led to a many-faceted international crisis.

All these matters which have been rising in importance in and around the Black Sea region have since been compounded by the current coronavirus pandemic, which threatens to fundamentally rearrange many things. As a result, we are now facing many critical questions whose answers are scattered around the region and indeed around the globe as a whole.

Today, we very often hear talk of a so-called ‘Grand Strategy’ whose definition has almost become an end in itself. The desirability of having such a ‘grand’ plan is of course perfectly understandable—we all want to know how to get from point A to point B, how long it will take and how much it will cost—but it is also important to remember that this journey must not involve unpredictable risks.

One of the main problems, however, is that when an attempt is made to commit such a ‘Grand Strategy’ to paper, one often loses sight of the initial goals. I think that this loss of the fundamental issues is frequently due to the absence of a common understanding of the ‘Grand Strategy’ and to the emergence of variations upon the same theme, every one of which is based upon the divergent expectations of individual countries at different times. The Germans, for example, believe first and foremost in ‘strategic patience’, i.e. not involving themselves in matters beyond their direct interests; the French, on the other hand, have always preferred a ‘strategic autonomy’ that aims for the establishment of a European political and military identity; and Poland (as a last example) follows a policy of ‘strategic embrace’ that involves maintaining direct contacts with the United States that bypass European structures.

This great diversity of national strategies precludes long-term planning in practice and thereby limits any ‘Grand Strategy’ to short-term goals and tasks that are more tactical in nature than strategic.

I therefore believe that it would be more desirable to talk of an ‘emerging strategy’ rather than a ‘grand’ one, particularly as this concept allows for greater flexibility when seeking to overcome current risks and challenges.

I believe that it would be more desirable to talk of an ‘emerging strategy’ rather than a ‘grand’ one, particularly as this concept allows for greater flexibility when seeking to overcome current risks and challenges.

I suppose that the fact that this ‘emerging strategy’ brings us closer to a feeling of ‘reality’ and therefore to rational rather than idealized assessments is due to its practical nature, whereas realistic assessments enable us to exercise greater caution and avoid occasionally catastrophic results against the background of new confrontations.

In Georgia’s case, following strictly rational and realistic approaches gives us the ability to adapt to uncertain processes, and in the wider Black Sea region will help us to better combine elements of competitiveness and co-operation.

- Considering all you have just said, the need to avoid new threats to the Black Sea region’s balance of power remains a very relevant topic for us.

How would you evaluate the soundness of regional and international security mechanisms, whose main mission is to prevent new conflicts from erupting and new aggressive action to be taken?

- This is a very specific question and I will try to give you an equally specific answer. You mentioned the balance of power, and I believe that identifying ‘who is who’ in the region requires us to first clarify several issues.

It was no accident that I mentioned Russia early on in the conversation. In order to explain in detail Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region as well as better understand the West’s positioning in the region, we must first mention a Kremlin doctrine that was largely formulated under Yevgeny Primakov.

More precisely, the aptly-named Primakov Doctrine reflects Russia’s interest in preventing neighbouring countries from leaving her sphere of influence and establishing themselves as independent, self-sufficient countries—and indeed even to deny them any opportunity of doing so. This doctrine denies the countries the sense of self-confidence and skills they need to successfully govern themselves.

The Primakov Doctrine reflects Russia’s interest in preventing neighbouring countries from leaving her sphere of influence and establishing themselves as independent, self-sufficient countries—and indeed even to deny them any opportunity of doing so. This doctrine denies the countries the sense of self-confidence and skills they need to successfully govern themselves.

In practice, the Primakov Doctrine was used to apply different kinds of pressure on the countries Russia sees as belonging to her ‘Near Abroad’—from hybrid war to direct and open aggression.

In reality, however, this Russian approach was nothing new and had already been employed immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it lacked spontaneity and theoretical ‘justification’ for quite some time.

Since Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, annexation of Crimea and recent attempts to turn the Black Sea into a closed one, however, Moscow’s ‘Near Abroad’ policy of maintaining areas of influence has become much more systemic in nature.

When considering the Black Sea, the important point is that, besides its geopolitical significance—enabling Russian access to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa—the region also bears an internal political dimension for Moscow. By maintaining maximal strategic depth along the country’s federal borders, Russia is trying to prevent ‘harmful’ foreign influences from penetrating her inner state space. According to their own perception, this enables Moscow to act according to the requirements of Russia’s choice of ‘sovereign democracy’.

It is clear that outside observers have no right to question the choices a country has made to further its national development—unless of course these choices involve a disregard for international law and order and regional security, and the occupation and annexation of neighbouring countries.

Therefore, Russian policy towards the Black Sea ‘aquarium’ and neighbouring countries, according to their own logic, is precisely that: Moscow openly imposes its rules of the game, and is committed to achieving maximum results for itself as a ‘regional super-state’.

Russian policy towards the Black Sea ‘aquarium’ and neighbouring countries, according to their own logic, is precisely that: Moscow openly imposes its rules of the game, and is committed to achieving maximum results for itself as a ‘regional super-state’.

And so what has the West’s collective security response been to Russia’s approach? Unfortunately, this ‘response’ could at the very least be described as irrelevant and inadequate in the face of reality, and given Russia’s blatant disregard for the integrity of Georgian and Ukrainian territory and indeed their occupation, this irrelevance becomes even more prominent.

At cause is the Alliance’s lack of focus on its eastern flank. Compared to the Baltic Sea’s intensified security system, which according to NATO terminology constitutes an ‘enhanced forward presence’, the Alliance’s security component in the Black Sea region is of a relatively lower quality, as indicated in the somewhat humbler term ‘tailored forward presence’.

This asymmetry could be explained 10-12 years ago, but through the prism of recent developments, the Alliance’s security model in the Black Sea region urgently needs to be reviewed and readjusted.

- The lack of balance in the Black Sea region could be corrected in several ways. Directly linked to Georgia, one of these ways would involve developing and following various specific approaches which I have spoken about in my previous interview with Interpressnews. This specification is linked to both the bilateral and multilateral formats of various defence and security issues.

But since we are now discussing collective security, let us return to NATO’s eastern flank. I repeat that if the Alliance truly intends to create an effective security system in the Black Sea and support its regional partners in this way, then the existing system requires significant rearrangement.

If the Alliance truly intends to create an effective security system in the Black Sea and support its regional partners in this way, then the existing system requires significant rearrangement.

As a minimum, our expectation would be a shift in the Black Sea region towards an ‘enhanced forward presence’. If this is not done, it will very soon become difficult for NATO to ensure complete security in the region simply based upon the Alliance’s Romanian and Bulgarian fulcrums.

It is therefore time for our Western partners to develop a common view of Black Sea security based upon important Eurasian geopolitical and geo-economic factors and to consider the general Eurasian context of security.

The fact that Western analysts frequently discuss our region entitles us to a certain degree of cautious optimism, but the greatest support must be given to the idea of drafting and applying a new Eastern European strategy according to the principle of the so called ‘One Flank, One Threat, One Presence’.

The greatest support must be given to the idea of drafting and applying a new Eastern European strategy according to the principle of the so called ‘One Flank, One Threat, One Presence’.

The asymmetry between the northern and southern halves of NATO’s eastern flank could also be corrected by establishing a system for rapid situational assessments and timely reactions to hybrid threats; but Western analysts readily admit that the Alliance is lagging behind in this concrete matter. I also believe that the West should demonstrate its support for its Black Sea partners by carrying out a new Marshall Plan of economic and investment projects in the region.

A complex, multifaceted approach such as this would enhance the region and, by representing the West in a tangible way, would better project their interests in the Black Sea and Caspian macro-region and would accelerate the complete integration of ‘this side’ of the Black Sea region into the civilized world.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Georgia’s role has so far been major: from the moment we recovered our independence and freedom, we have claimed to be a guide on the path to integration with the Western civilized world, and continue to do so even now. And even more: Georgia’s security and development is the ultimate test of the West’s real interest in the Black Sea region.

Georgia’s security and development is the ultimate test of the West’s real interest in the Black Sea region.

- You have expressed several important facts involving Georgia through the prism of Black Sea diplomacy and security. Do you have anything to add on the topic of Georgia?

- Georgia’s complex political geography has been mentioned many times, and this will always be the case and is simply a reality that we cannot avoid. The global changes that the coronavirus pandemic is now causing will of course add themselves to this reality, and I have discussed the nature and possible impact of some of these in previous publications.

To Georgia, the Black Sea region is a source of both opportunities for national development as well as threats. The reason for this unusual equation is Georgia’s location between two large political and socio-economic actors in an enormous zone of conflict, one of whom considers human rights to be superior to the state, whereas the other prefers the practically unlimited power of the state over the person. This circumstance alone is enough to demonstrate the causticity of the conflict between the two.

History is replete with examples of nations caught between two sides that were forced by one to reject the prospect of becoming an independent, self-sufficient country.

If push comes to shove, Georgia will not have the luxury to refuse: neither our history nor our present circumstances would enable this, although they do suggest quite a few interesting possible developments and original solutions.

Be that as it may, and regardless of the global or regional context, constant domestic reform and a growing relationship of mutual dependence with our allies remain the two most important and invariable components of Georgia’s agenda. The first is vital if we are to become a competitive state, whereas the second will give us the defensive possibilities we need to ensure our development.

But whatever the global or regional context, constant domestic reform and a growing relationship of mutual dependence with our allies remain the two most important and invariable components of Georgia’s agenda. The first is vital if we are to become a competitive state, whereas the second will give us the defensive possibilities we need to ensure our development.

If they are to act responsibly, however, the Georgian government and political circles should become realists: the time for ‘love’ and ‘hatred’ in geopolitics is long gone, and these terms will be replaced with ‘need’, ‘necessity’, ‘adaptation’ and ‘use’. The Black Sea is already a region in which this replacement is taking place.

Russia will of course continue her attempts to maintain Georgia as a measure of ‘strategic depth’, shielding her ‘sovereign interests’ from Western ‘expansion’. In response, the main goal of the West in the Black Sea region should continue to be proving the advantages of Western principles with the successful example of Georgia. This is the current situation that will remain with us for the foreseeable future; its objective result is a Black Sea analogue to George Kennan’s ‘Restraining Line’ that crosses our country, thanks to which the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts are in reality geopolitical rather than ethnic conflicts.

This is the current situation that will remain with us for the foreseeable future; its objective result is a Black Sea analogue to George Kennan’s ‘Restraining Line’ that crosses our country, thanks to which the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts are in reality geopolitical rather than ethnic conflicts.

- If I understood you correctly, the development of various regional processes in the Black Sea requires us to ‘fasten our safety belt’?

- Yes. We should also not forget that identifying, analysing and seeking to forecast regional risks could serve as our main intellectual trump card, and we could not dream of doing better than that. One of the main conditions for the effective use of this trump card would be to share information and experience with our allies.

Of course, rather than the reality of what we are describing now, we would all wish to discuss other scenarios—for example, the Black Sea region as a centre for dialogue between civilizations and cultures, or as a platform for conciliation, coexistence and the de-escalation of conflicting interests.

I like the idea of ‘fastening our safety belt’, but when you are ‘frozen’ a safety belt is not much good. Our regional context and circumstances demand us to take action towards real security and self-sufficient development.

Listing these scenarios would obviously not be enough, and we should be striving towards them as much as we can, but to put it simply, our time and resources should be devoted to much more urgent and down-to-earth priorities.

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