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The Black Sea at the center of European and Global geopolitical rivalries : how to overcome the tensions





An international conference was held on May 21 in Sevastopol in Crimea with the theme « The question of the Black Sea at the center of world politics ».Dedication to the 150th Anniversary of the Treaty of London 1871

This conference, bringing together many researchers from the academic world, examined the current geopolitical situation in the Black Sea, made historical comparisons with the situation in the 19th century and discussed solutions to overcome the tensions that threaten European security.

The global geopolitical context is the cause of these tensions. Today, the new configuration that has emerged since 2014 is the new rivalry of the great powers since the United States has designated Russia and China as strategic adversaries.

Today, as in the 19th century, the Western powers want to contain Russia in its continental lands to slow down the evolution towards a more multipolar world. These powers therefore refuse the attachment of Crimea to Russia, which would give it a strategic advantage in the Black Sea, despite the historical heritage, since this territory, which is mainly populated by Russians, has been part of Russia since the 18th century.Today, the crisis between the European Union and Russia is thus a direct result of the Ukrainian question.

In the 19th century, great power rivalries were punctuated by frontal wars, but never total. These conflicts led to the negotiation of treaties which were by definition temporary and precarious, but which stabilised the situation for a limited period.

What is surprising today is the absence of negotiations leading to new treaties as in 1856 or 1871. This stalemate reflects a crystallisation of antagonistic postures and an intransigence that locks rival powers into their irreconcilable postures, with a collapse of multilateralism and international law.  

Since 2014, no treaty has been signed between the United States, the EU member states and Russia; the great powers do not enter into frontal conflict but wage war on each other by proxy, and hybrid warfare takes precedence over military operations. This situation has led to permanent conflict with a range of power tools such as communication warfare (propaganda), cyber-conflicts, economic sanctions, interference in the internal politics of states, attempts at colour revolutions, along with the intertwining of different geo-strategic, geo-economic, geo-cultural and multilateral issues.

Why did European powers, in the 19th century, agree to sign treaties reflecting the new geopolitical configuration, after crises and wars that claimed many more victims than today? 

Let us put forward the following hypothesis: the conflicts in Europe today are of too low intensity to modify the objectives of the different powers, and each conflict in Europe with Russia turns into a frozen conflict because none of the actors accept the new situation which remains unsatisfactory for each party. The most Atlantist countries, led by the United States, still wish to enlarge the borders of Euro-Atlantic space with NATO, while Russia has still not obtained the legitimisation of the new situation (return of Crimea to Russia). After the unipolar moment of the 90s-2000s, the followers of exclusive Euro-Atlanticism (the West), still hope to impose a unipolar world, without multipolarity, zones of influence, temporary and precarious treaties that manage diversity as it was the case in the 19th century.    

This situation is the result of a more fundamental reality: there is no international order without spatial/ geopolitical, order.

Without acceptance of the emergence of a  multipolar world, there can be no agreement on multilateral negotiations leading to treaties to stabilise the situation.  And today, we are in a transition where no acceptable geopolitical order has been agreed between rival powers.

Conflicts in 19th century were followed by new treaties : 1856 – Treaty of Paris, 1871 – Treaty of London. The contrast is strong today because there is no treaty between the United States and Russia to move forward and stabilise the situation. This demonstrates that the states have not yet achieved their objectives and are pursuing hybrid warfare.

As far as the permanent elements are concerned, there is today, as in the 19th century, a desire of the Western powers (a notion that emerged from the Cold War) to contain Russia in its continental lands to varying degrees in order to slow down the evolution towards a more multipolar world. The United States and its NATO allies play the main role in the containment/encirclement of Russia and not only Great Britain and France as in the 19th century. Turkey is today seen as a bulwark against Russia, as was the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Turkey has an ambiguous posture but values its NATO membership more than its tactical consultation with Russia. 

In western Europe, France and Germany do not want a frontal war against Russia. However, governments in both countries were so far are unable and unwilling to position themselves in a independent and autonomous posture from United States. The Franco-German geopolitical rivalry and imbalance since German unification prevents them to adopt a bold common policy and  reciprocal neutralization prevails.   

As there is no acceptable spatial order for the great powers, there is total uncertainty about the prospects although the risks of war are supposed to be limited though the possession of nuclear weapons ( by great powers such as United States, Russia, France and UK in Europe, but also the storage of American nuclear weapons on Belgium, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey). Hybrid warfare ( with communication war, conflicts by proxy, targeted destabilization,  colour revolutions or  economic sanctions… )  is the new confrontation ground.  The nuclear factor prevents the great powers from going too far in the confrontation, but the escalation can obviously be more risky with intermediate nuclear weapons. However, regional and local conflicts could escalate as a result of misunderstandings 

Prospects and solutions for overcoming political bottlenecks 

To overcome the current fracture, which seems to be set in stone, at least for the short and medium term, it is avoiding escalation that seems most pressing (escalation to de-escalation in the case of Ukraine by Russia).

The options are as follows:

1) Firstly, there is the need to maintain links in all sectors as states find it difficult to get along. Above all, there is a need to pursue exchange in civil society, especially between academics, researchers, artists and citizens through tourism.

We are in fluid situation and in the post-Covid era, internal regime and state crises, but also international crisis will develop and might lead to new geopolitical configurations more favorable to a reset of relations between Western European nations and Russia. The European Union, based on « liberal » ideology promotion and not on European civilization  is also facing multiple crisis.  International and supranational organizations but also many nations states in the « West » did not adapt yet to the new multipolar geopolitical configuration.        

2) Another way is to strengthen regional and cross-border cooperation, within multilateral, regional and local organisations but also between cities according to a « bottom up » logic.  It would be useful to take examples of initiatives that work, for example in the Arctic, where regional cooperation with Russia continues despite the crisis, even if Crimea presents a specific situation that is more difficult to overcome with the targeted sanctions. The organisations to be mobilised are the Council of Europe and the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), in order to get around the blockages, since with the EU, the sanctions block initiatives, whereas the EU also promotes regional and cross-border cooperation (European Neighbourhood Instrument, Interreg NEXT Black Sea Basin Programme).

Thematics can be diverse, such as energy cooperation, universities, the environment, research, energy, security, climate, artificial intelligence, space, culture and tourism.

3) Convincing political actors of the obsolescence of reciprocal sanctions. In the most likely scenario of the evolution of the crisis, since the lifting of sanctions is highly uncertain in the near future, it is the creativity to develop new cooperation projects to compensate for the existing sanctions that would be wise. When governments realise that these sanctions are not only politically useless as they have not contributed to a change in the posture of governments, but that they are increasingly unworkable on the ground and even counterproductive, the lifting of sanctions could be considered. Bypassing and circumventing sanctions will be otherwise necessary.

 The question of the recognition of Crimea as an integral part of Russia is an even more difficult issue, but it is a matter of political will to not make it an obstacle to cooperation. The case of Turkey and the non-recognition by the EU of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is de facto under Turkish military control, shows that this is not an obstacle, neither for a customs union between the EU and Turkey, nor for funding to Turkey (migration crisis), nor for accession negotiations.                 

4) The EU is no longer the right framework for a reset of relations with Russia in the immediate future, but for maintaining links in the framework of selective cooperation. In March 2016, EU foreign ministers and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, agreed on five guiding principles for EU-Russia relations: full implementation of the Minsk agreements; closer ties with Russia’s former Soviet neighbours; strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats; selective engagement with Russia on certain issues such as counter-terrorism; and support for people-to-people contacts. The European Union today makes therefore a deepening of EU-Russia relations dependent on the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and thus makes its relations with Russia de facto dependent on Ukraine. At the heart of the dispute between Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the US is the status of the Donbass rebel republics, but even more so the status of Crimea, although this aspect is less and less emphasised in political communication.

What is the geopolitical positioning of the European Union, behind this legal and normative posture? The geopolitical priorities, which vary according to the EU Member States, are above all implicit, because as we have said, it is the normative ideology that is put forward.

However, a report by the European Parliament gives the keys to this positioning.     

In this 2019 report, it is also stated that  » whereas Russia’s polycentric view of the concert of powers contradicts the Union’s belief in multilateralism and a rules-based international order; whereas Russia’s adherence to and support for a multilateral rules-based order would create the conditions for a strengthened relationship with the Union; » (European parliament (2019) Resolution on the state of EU-Russia political relations, 12 March 2019)

This sentence underlines that the EU is thus de facto in favour of a unipolar world which enshrines the primacy of the exclusive Euro-Atlantic vision under US leadership, since the polycentric vision contradicts the EU’s vision. The European Union, which considers itself complementary to NATO, is participating in the attempt to lock Russia into the Eurasian continent and to reduce its room for manoeuvre in the Black Sea, with the promotion of the Eastern Partnership (Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan).    

This vision, however, goes against the French Gaullist vision of a « Europe of nations » in a multipolar world.

The EU (Markus Ederer memorandum, https://www.ft.com/content/725aa5b6-d5f7-11e9-8367-807ebd53ab77) has proposed technical cooperation on the following issues; the Arctic, digital, Eurasian economic union, regional infrastructure, and the « Northern dimension », between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. This approach may be useful, the underlying idea is competition with China, but it cannot change the geopolitical configuration, and solve the fundamental security issues that require a new European security architecture.

However, could  this initiative be extended to the Black Sea issues ?.

5) Finally, another alternative scenario would be the emergence of variable geometry coalitions on the European continent, according to geography and thematics, Russia included on « realpolitik » principles (for example, Western Europe and Russia adopting a non alignment doctrine in case of United States-China escalation).  This could  circumvent or at least prevent the worsening of relations between Western Europe and  Russia in a context of institutional freeze of relations between Russia and  EU/NATO.

These approaches will not change the geopolitical configuration, but they can restore confidence, and develop local and regional programmes that can bring benefits.

However, the long term prospects for Europe as a whole still lie in thinking about a new pan-European geopolitical architecture.      

Long-term perspectives: the relevance of a new European and Eurasian security architecture.

For a resolution of the various ‘frozen conflicts’ on Europe’s eastern flank, Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea, Donbass, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Trandsnistria, whose future is still undetermined, a new European and Eurasian security architecture therefore remains relevant in the future. It is illusory to believe that the various conflicts can be resolved on a case-by-case basis, as they are part of a wider systemic problem, the rivalry between Russia, the United States, the European members of the EU and NATO and Turkey. They can be reactivated at any time depending on the evolution of the balance of power.     

As long as the threat of NATO enlargement hangs over Russia’s near abroad, and the EU sees itself as a complementary entity to NATO, there will be no significant progress.

It is also in France’s interest to promote this new European security architecture with Russia, for a better geopolitical balance in Europe and Eurasia according to the Gaullist vision from the Atlantic to the Urals (or the Pacific as we would say today).  This requires a halt to the enlargement of NATO, but also of the EU, so that Europe is no longer the theatre of Russian-American rivalry.  

As we stressed before, there is no international order without spatial, and therefore geopolitical, order.

To negotiate a new European security architecture with Russia, a new geopolitical order is needed: a continental agreement between sovereign nations, without integration and based on a better geopolitical balance, not a Euro-Atlantic integration of Russia. This would imply a halt to the expansion of NATO and the EU, the neutralisation of Ukraine and the former USSR states, the identification of reciprocal red lines and the delimitation of the zones of influence. Ultimately, it is a question of rediscovering the classic negotiations based on European, Eurasian and global geopolitical balance of power.

This requires a move away from an ideological approach centred on integration and multilateralism advocated by the EU, but which de facto aligns itself with the geopolitical priorities of NATO, and therefore of the United States.

The idea is to relaunch a « Greater Europe » to position Europeans between a « Greater West » centred on the United States and its new « America First » doctrine, China’s « Greater Asia/New Silk Roads » project, and Russia’s « Greater Eurasia » project, whose core is the Eurasian Union. These initiatives will overlap, often compete, but sometimes complement each other. Europeans must not remain inactive in relation to the great manoeuvres of the other powers. A reformed EU and Russia can avoid becoming junior partners in these rival geopolitical projects, with the EU remaining a peripheral sub-element of the ‘Greater West’ and Russia a sub-element of the ‘Greater Asia’

Today, the desire of some NATO countries to weaken Russia is harmful to European security and has many parallels with the situation in the 19th century. However, many geopolitical interests between Russia and the Member States of the European Union are identical today. These include the stabilisation of the arc of crisis in southern Eurasia, from North Africa, including the Sahel, to Afghanistan, which threatens the whole of Eurasia, including Russia and Western European countries, with failed states and the threat of Islamic terrorism.

However, in the long run, the European project without the inclusion of Russia won’t reach minimal geopolitical clout in the multipolar world.

The emergence of a coalition of willing states in Europe at the initiative of France and its allies in line with this vision would be appropriate to build up sufficient political weight within the EU, or outside if political bottlenecks persist, to begin discussions on a new approach to promoting peace and stability in Europe and the elaboration of a common geopolitical vision from Brest to Vladivostok as a long-term perspective.

.  As a result of this international conference, a declaration was drawn up asking the central question: « Have we learned from the bloody battles of the 19th and 20th centuries? »  Reciprocal sanctions, warlike rhetoric between states were deemed counterproductive in overcoming current tensions.

A more positive agenda was proposed with the following events and projects

to hold a round table of the most famous journalists, writers, political scientists and philosophers from the countries that participated in the Crimean War and WWII in Livadia Palace, Yalta, where the heads of Great Britain, the USSR and the USA in 1945 agreed on peace and establishment of the United Nations after the most terrible war in the history of mankind.   The agenda is inspired by the works of Leo Tolstoy, participant in the Sevastopol defence in 1854-1855: ‘Crimea of ​​the XXI Century: War or Peace?’- to launch an international program ‘Crimea as the International Health Resort’ for the rehabilitation of post-COVID-19 patients in sanatoriums, rest houses and boarding houses of Crimea- to hold the international music festival in support of peace with the participation of the world’s leading performers of rock and classical music titled ‘The Charge of the ART Brigade’ on the Balaklava battlefield of 1854, immortalized by Lord A. Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.

– on behalf of well-known environmental experts from different countries to prepare an appeal to UNESCO, IAEA and other authoritative international institutions dealing with environmental issues, on the resumption of full-scale cooperation in the field of ecology.

Annex :

APPEAL of the Participants of the International Conference

‘The Black Sea Issue in the Focus of the World Politics. Dedication to the 150th Anniversary of the Treaty of London 1871 to Mass Media of the Countries which Took Part in War Actions in Crimea

21 may 2021,  Sevastopol

Dear Editors and Journalists of the Leading Mass Media of Germany, Great Britain, Italy,Romania, Turkey and Fr ance!

We, lecturers and employees of scientific, educational and research institutions and centres of  Belgium, France, Germany,  Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, independent experts, business representatives, members of historical, cultural, youth, sports, student and public organisations of Crimea, upon holding in Sevastopol the conference dedicated to the historical and current issues of the world geopolitics in the Black Sea region, have to underline our deep concern with the following:

The world community, as never before in recent decades, has approached the dangerous line of military confrontation;

Reciprocal political, diplomatic, economic sanctions, other asymmetric and mirror restrictive governmental actions of many countries of the world, the leading politicians and public opinion leaders’ regular rhetorics about a new war, open and ever-increasing sabre-rattling have become common in the present day;

Mutually beneficial international cooperation has been replaced by multibillion-dollar losses, negatively affecting the figures of gross national products, entailing multiple obstacles to the normal international exchange between peoples of different countries of the world.

From Sevastopol, which entered into the world history as the crossroads of the military and strategic interests of the global great powers, we are appealing to the mass media of the states which soldiers, officers and generals are forever buried in the Crimean land: Have not the bloody battles of the 19th and 20th centuries taught anything and anyone indeed?

As it is known, a journalist’s pen is equated with a bayonet. We call on the representatives of the ‘Forth Power’ to thrust these bayonets into the ground and use their pens to solve the most pressing problems of our time by joint cooperation rather than by confrontation.

The conference participants are coming up with a number of new initiatives that can serve to neutralize military threats and increase international trust:

to hold a round table of the most famous journalists, writers, political scientists and philosophers from the countries that participated in the Crimean War and WWII in Livadia Palace, Yalta, where the heads of Great Britain, the USSR and the USA in 1945 agreed on peace and establishment of the United Nations after the most terrible war in the history of mankind.   The agenda is inspired by the works of Leo Tolstoy, participant in the Sevastopol defence in 1854-1855: ‘Crimea of ​​the XXI Century: War or Peace?’ This should be an open discussion of authoritative representatives from different countries about the destiny of the Earth, broadcasted to the whole world;

to launch an international program ‘Crimea as the International Health Resort’ for the rehabilitation of post-COVID-19 patients in sanatoriums, rest houses and boarding houses of Crimea, known for its unique natural healing resources, the long-term experience of physicians and the scientific medical base, which presently is being significantly improved.

– on behalf of well-known environmental experts from different countries to prepare an appeal to UNESCO, IAEA and other authoritative international institutions dealing with environmental issues, on the resumption of full-scale cooperation in the field of ecology. To develop this, hold the Black Sea Environmental Forum in Sevastopol with the invitation of representatives of environmental organizations of the Black Sea states, international organizations operating in the Azov-Black Sea basin, specialists in international maritime law and representatives of the business community. Environmental protection problems do not have state borders and are not guided by any sanctions.

– to hold the international music festival in support of peace with the participation of the world’s leading performers of rock and classical music titled ‘The Charge of the ART Brigade’ on the Balaklava battlefield of 1854, immortalized by Lord A. Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The word “ART” in the title means “artistic”. The embodied in music call of world renowned cultural figures for peace will be a powerful contribution to curbing the growth of international tension.

– to offer foreign stakeholders joint programs of international scientific, student and school exchange related to the specialized activities of scientific institutions, universities and tourist facilities in Crimea, contacting the authorities of the city of Sevastopol, the Republic of Crimea and the Russian Federation to create additional financial incentives, simplify customs and border procedures for participants in these programs.

We invite reputable international media to support these initiatives and to promote their implementation. Moreover, the participants of the conference in Sevastopol call all well-known journalists to look around and make the only right decision in the choice between war and peace.

Adopted at the plenary session of the conference.

Voted in favour – 83 participants

Voted against     –  0

Abstained           –  0

To be sent to the leading mass media of the countries participating in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries in Crimea.

Conference Organising Committee

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