James Holmes

The Geopolitics of the Black Sea

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James Holmes

The Geopolitics of the Black Sea

America has the Caribbean, China has the South China Sea, and Russia has the Black Sea.

Still think an incidents-at-sea (INCSEA) agreement between China and the United States is some sort of cure-all for high-seas disputes between the two seafaring states? At most it would be a palliative. Heck, after the news out of the Black Sea this week, I’d settle for an INCSEA agreement between the United States and Russia. Here’s some proposed language:

Commanders of aircraft of the Parties shall use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft and ships of the other Party operating on and over the high seas, in particular, ships engaged in launching or landing aircraft, and in the interest of mutual safety shall not permit: simulated attacks by the simulated use of weapons against aircraft and ships, or performance of various aerobatics over ships, or dropping various objects near them in such a manner as to be hazardous to ships or to constitute a hazard to navigation.

Whoops. My bust. That’s the text of Article IV of the INCSEA accord concluded by Washington and Moscow … 42 years ago. The accord remains in force to this day despite the fall of the Soviet Union.

Yet words on parchment did little to stop a Russian Su-24 Fencer attack plane from making repeated passes near the destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea last Saturday. The encounter spanned 90 minutes, meaning this was no fighter jock out hotdogging. This was a deliberate provocation. INCSEA agreements are fine for averting escalation during genuine misunderstandings. Warlike acts are another matter entirely.

But why such conduct now? It appears something about enclosed and semi-enclosed seas encourages the local great power, or powers, to think about them in proprietary terms. Ringed by strong sea powers, the Mediterranean Sea was an arena of nautical strife from classical antiquity until well into living memory. The United States had the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. China has the South China Sea and East China Sea. And Russia, it seems, has the Black Sea (and covets primacy in an ice-free Arctic Ocean — but that’s a story for another day).

Roughly speaking, there are two paradigms, the American and the Chinese. In the age of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States saw itself as the rightful warden of American seas. It forbade new colonial ventures during the nineteenth century, briefly claimed its “fiat” was “law” in these expanses in the 1890s, and ultimately settled on an “international police power” designed to foreclose European acquisitions of Caribbean naval bases. It was meddlesome and at times abusive toward Latin American republics. One thing Washington never did, however, was assert title to the waters and islands of the Gulf and Caribbean. Nor did it claim to set the terms by which foreign shipping navigated Western Hemisphere seas.

Which is the Chinese model. Cordoning off most of the South China Sea and declaring it a zone of “indisputable sovereignty” sounds suspiciously as though Beijing considers these waters internal waters, subject to domestic law. So we have open- and closed-sea variants of great-power primacy in semi-enclosed seas. Which paradigm fits Russia most closely? Or is the Russian model something different entirely? It could be. Black Sea geography differs from the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and China seas in that a foreign power, Turkey, bestrides the single gateway to the waters. The prospect of being cut off from the Mediterranean, and thence from the Atlantic Ocean and Red Sea, could modify how Moscow sees this maritime preserve.

The geopolitics of the Black Sea basin, then, is worth exploring, and comparing to the geopolitics of other confined seas. These days INCSEA isn’t much of an indicator of Russian behavior. Divining Moscow’s attitudes toward its surroundings might supply a yardstick.

Make it so.