Protracted regional conflicts affect the security and stability of the Black Sea region in a number of ways, including through increased militarization, the growing influence of disinformation, and an absence of comprehensive domestic and regional peacebuilding policies.

Militarization

Protracted conflicts in the Black Sea have led to a steady militarization of the region over the past decade, elevating the security threat beyond the littoral states. There are two approaches to consider when discussing militarization in relation to regional conflicts:

  • Militarization is considered an inevitable measure for security, and sometimes for conflict resolution
  • Protracted conflicts are exploited for militarization purposes

Both approaches contribute to a concentration of armaments in the region. The first, however, aims for conflict resolution and stability while the second benefits from the intractability of conflicts and maintaining controlled instability. Importantly, the scale of military force mobilization for the second approach far exceeds that of the first. Russia is the only Black Sea regional power to nurture conflicts by employing the second approach, while other regional states, namely Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, respond with the first.   

Moscow’s ongoing militarization of the Black and Azov Seas has alarmed regional and international communities alike, particularly across Europe. When observing the map of Russian military forces, a concentration of its strongholds is particularly evident along the eastern frontiers of Europe. Russian military forces close to the borders with Baltic countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are all located on Russian territory. This is in contrast to the Black Sea, where Russian troops and weaponry are located on occupied territories in violation of international law.

The only foreign territories in the Black Sea where Russian troops are based and heavy weaponry is stationed are Crimea and the Donbas in Ukraine, Abkhazia and the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. Each of these is a contested territory where the Kremlin is aligned with, and supports, separatist forces. In the case of Crimea, where military interests and stakes were high, Moscow annexed the peninsula to secure unconditional control over the main naval base of Sevastopol.

Mobilizing this amount of military power in conflict zones further exacerbates the security threat. A single event could inadvertently escalate into a larger-scale conflict.

Disinformation

Conflicts make the Black Sea region particularly vulnerable to disinformation – an old security threat renewed with modern technologies and social media.

When conflict-torn societies already facing limited opportunities for interaction are isolated, media – both traditional and social – dominate the communications space. A disconnect between conflicting sides, created by a lack of direct engagement, is often exacerbated when information is disseminated and received through polarized media outlets. This has been demonstrated with the protracted conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, compounded by the fact that Russian media dominates communication channels in occupied territories.

The Kremlin’s sophisticated disinformation machine, familiar to many western countries, played a major role in both the Ukraine and Georgia conflicts. In both cases, well-orchestrated Russian propaganda operations targeted citizens on either side of the conflict divide to further alienate during warfare, and afterwards.

The extent to which the Russian Troll Factory engages in the practice of producing and disseminating fake news can often seem unbelievable. In July 2020, the Kremlin was responsible for a claim that a Georgian man, detained at the administrative boundary line with the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, was collecting bats for bio-warfare in the midst of the pandemic. Though the claim was quickly ridiculed and dismissed as outrageous, this was just one part of an elaborate disinformation campaign against the US-funded Lugar Center in Georgia. Initially accused by Russia as being ‘occupied by American specialists’ and criticized for being too close to Russian borders, the Lugar Center continues to be a target of Moscow’s bio-warfare allegations, especially after Georgia showed success in containing COVID-19.

The Kremlin’s ability to control the conflict narrative in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, while feeding both local and international audiences with disinformation, is a security threat which will continue to challenge the Black Sea region.

Peacebuilding

Protracted conflicts in the Black Sea region hinder the development of comprehensive domestic and regional peacebuilding policies. These processes are interrupted by growing incentives for more robust militarization (as mentioned earlier) and the prioritization of militant rhetoric and hard power decision-making. To ensure peace and security in the Black Sea, countries affected by intractable conflicts must adopt a comprehensive conflict transformation approach that addresses intra-societal needs. For example, to transform a contradictory understanding of conflict(s) and challenge perceptions of a zero-sum reality, it is critical to overcome trauma and anger accumulated amongst societies.

The ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrates how unaddressed (legitimate) grievances on both sides can cause a violent outbreak. A comprehensive conflict transformation process helps to develop an inclusive peace process. This is extremely important in challenging the elitist nature of peace talks and equipping experts, civil society groups, and community leaders with the tools needed for meaningful participation. An inclusive peace process will lay the groundwork for establishing nationwide incentives for peaceful dialogue and reconciliation, as well as addressing any internal propaganda limiting space for compromise.

Black Sea security depends not only on the development of comprehensive domestic peacebuilding policies, but also on a regional vision for a strategic peacebuilding agenda.

Turning back to Nagorno-Karabakh, we are witnessing a broader change in Turkish foreign policy. Ankara has openly backed Baku and referred to Yerevan as “the biggest threat to peace and tranquility in the region.” Some argue Turkey is driven by a lost faith in international diplomacy or a desire to demonstrate its regional influence by directly engaging in conflicts. However, an absence of a clear and comprehensive regional peacebuilding policy has also played a role in shaping Ankara’s decisions. It is critical for the safety and security of the Black Sea that Turkey adopts a strong, pro-peace position and does not rely on hard power to resolve conflicts in the region.

The war in the Nagorno-Karabakh has also tested the European Union’s (EU) ability to address the crisis in a timely manner. It has already been emphasized that a failure of the EU to properly respond will undermine its reputation a strategic regional power. The fragility of the EU in responding to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh will also reduce trust in regional and international mediation and incentivize certain countries to favor hard power decision-making and justify violence as a tool to ‘resolve’ or ‘settle’ conflicts.

In the midst of a global pandemic, war-affected countries are already struggling with loss of life, internal displacement, forced migration, and destroyed infrastructure. This slows down internal processes of democratization which must be built through strong, reliable, and transparent institutions. Thus, regional conflicts threaten the stability not only of individual countries, but of the Black Sea at large.

Recent developments in the Karabakh confirm there are no ‘frozen’ conflicts and ‘unshaken’ status-quo. Growing militarization in the region, strengthening disinformation campaigns, and a lack of levers for strategic peacebuilding have created a fruitful ground for greater militaristic rhetoric and hard power decision-making. Peace and stability in the Black Sea region is extremely fragile.

Ketevan Murusidze is peace researcher and practitioner and MEL Officer at the UN Association of Georgia. Natia Chankvetadze is a PhD student at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. The views expressed in this article are their own. 

Photo by Artur Lebedev\TASS via Getty Images