The Black Sea security landscape has dramatically shifted since Russia’s occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory in 2008 and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Serving as a link between the Caspian, Aegean and Mediterranean basins, as well as a corridor to the Middle East, the Black Sea has always been an important region for both Russia and the United States. In the last decade, however, the region has witnessed an increased effort by Moscow to shift the military balance to its advantage and pursue aggressive policies against Georgia and Ukraine – two important U.S. allies. Russia uses not only its military power against these two countries, but also a vast range of hybrid warfare instruments, while simultaneously transforming the Black Sea into an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone. Moscow’s provocative moves in the region indicate its determination to further challenge the West in the Black Sea.
It is therefore critical that Tbilisi reframes and strengthens its role as a proactive contributor to Black Sea security. Georgia has already proved itself as a trustworthy NATO partner and contributor to Euro-Atlantic security through active participation in NATO-led operations and international missions. In a recent address, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia highlighted Georgia’s need for a new strategic role in Black Sea security: “Georgia has to rediscover the Black Sea in terms of its foreign policy and security. When we are talking about the Black Sea, we see the opportunity for Georgia to figure out a new role, serving as a reliable partner, a security partner for Europe and the United States, as well as NATO.” A secure Black Sea is of vital importance for Georgia’s democratic future and Euro-Atlantic integration. Strengthening cooperation with NATO Allies should and will remain at the top of Georgia’s political agenda for years to come.
In May 2020, NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai stated that NATO intends to take clear steps to ensure Georgia is more involved in the Black Sea security framework. These remarks reflect a deteriorating security environment in the region but also highlighted the exemplary relations between NATO and Georgia. NATO-Georgia cooperation would involve “hybrid defense” exercises aimed at increasing Georgia’s resilience against malign actions such as disinformation, cyber-attacks, energy blockade, covert intelligence, and military activities. Such actions have been used widely by Russia to place pressure on Tbilisi and undermine NATO-Georgia relations. For example, a disruptive cyber-attack on Georgia’s government servers was executed by the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU) in October 2019. Strengthening Georgia’s “hybrid defense” capabilities is more important than ever, but timing is key given Moscow continues to assert dominance over the littoral states.
Since its occupation of Georgian territories, Russia has illegally deployed troops to Abkhazia, which lies on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Moscow has also continued a significant military buildup of forces on the Crimean Peninsula and has improved its air and naval capabilities to create an A2/AD zone in the Black Sea. Russia has deployed S-400 surface to air-missile systems, which have an operational range of 400km, potentially causing security consequences for not only Ukraine, but to all littoral states in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Russia has used the Black Sea as a launching platform for its military operation in Syria. As demonstrated with recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow is using its strategic advantage to quickly advance ahead. In line with the recent Russia-brokered Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal, Russia is deploying 1960 servicemen for a so-called peacekeeping mission to secure the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. This mission will further deteriorate the regional security environment while increasing Russian military presence and ultimately, its leverage in Georgia’s neighborhood. Yet, despite Moscow’s aggressive and provocative actions, the main challenge is actually a lack of consensus among NATO-member littoral states. This dynamic makes it all the more difficult for NATO to establish a much-needed Black Sea strategy
With growing threats in the Black Sea region, Georgia must take full advantage of its geostrategic location by strengthening regional cooperation with littoral states and strategic partners. Most importantly, Tbilisi must reinvent itself as a logistic and information hub in the region. As a democratic, pro-Western state with a population overwhelmingly in support of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Georgia must invest in developing transportation and transit routes while deepening trade links with the littoral states and connectivity with EU member states Romania and Bulgaria. While Georgia does not share a border with any EU member state, Tbilisi can use the Black Sea, a key transit corridor for energy resources and goods, as a geographic bridge. This would turn Georgia into a transit hub, connecting Europe and Asia while bypassing Russia. The Anaklia deep sea port is one project integral to Georgia’s ambitions of becoming a reliable transit route, while at the same time enhancing Georgia’s geo-strategic importance for NATO.
Tbilisi must also focus on enhancing its cooperation framework with NATO, while taking advantage of existing initiatives such as joint military trainings and exercises. Georgia regularly takes part in military exercises alongside NATO members. The Noble Partner drills were recently hosted at Georgia’s Vaziani training ground, organized jointly by the Georgian Defense Forces and the U.S. European Command. Meanwhile, Sea Breeze 2020, a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Ukraine, is held annually to enhance readiness and interoperability amongst Black Sea nations, strengthen maritime security, and improve collaboration in the region. Enhanced level of military cooperation has already shown a real value in strengthening the capabilities of Georgian defense forces.
It is crucial for Georgia to leverage its location, as wll as already strong ties with NATO Allies and regional partners, to make economic, political, and security gains. Yet, at a time when the Kremlin is eager to achieve its neo-imperialist ambitions in its so-called “sphere of influence,” Georgia also needs practical support from NATO. After all, Georgia has consistently shown itself to be a reliable and stable ally. Development of a cohesive and effective strategy for Black Sea security, focused on countering Russia’s malign activities against NATO Allies and partners while helping Georgia progress toward NATO membership, is a much-needed starting point.
Natia Seskuria is a fellow with Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are her own.
Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images