Comprehensive security in the Black Sea Region amidst the Ukrainian crisis – a view from the EU

Sinikukka Saari:

Senior Research Fellow at The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The speech was delivered as part of the Russo-Ukrainian dialogue process. The dialogue process had been organized within the framework of the project Ukraine – Out of the Crisis Through Dialogue. The project is funded by the FCO/DFID/MOD Conflict Pool through the British Embassy in Ukraine.

Comprehensive security in the Black Sea Region a midst the Ukrainian crisis – a view from the EU

This paper discusses the competing visions of security for the Black Sea region, its potential and its stumbling stones. The biggest hurdle for comprehensive regional security is the mutually incompatible security cultures of the two biggest in the region, namely Russia and the EU. This article does not discuss the role of Turkey that has also aspired to play a major role in the regional security matters; this is partly because Turkey is seen as a pragmatic player with its own agenda but whose position has been regionally problematic for some years now. Furthermore, Turkey has been very quiet during the Ukrainian crisis; partly because of its economic ties with Russia, but also because of its dominant focus on the current crisis in the Middle East.

The EU’s vision of security

In many ways, the EU is an exceptional foreign and security political actor. Although a conventional understanding of the different logics of domestic (order) and foreign policy (anarchy) often prevails, the EU aspires to follow essentially the same logic in both policy fields. As a supranational entity, “national interest” cannot be the guiding star for its foreign policy. The legitimacy of its foreign and security policy stems rather from what it is and what it stands for.

Support for regional integration at various levels, respect for common norms and values as well as avoidance of confrontation and preference for negotiated outcomes are all typical features of EU’s foreign and security policy. This security identity and its conceptual framework have been outlined in the European Security Strategy (ESS, 2003), and its continued validity has been confirmed in later documents (Report of the Implementation of the European Security Strategy: Providing Security in a Changing World, 2008). The whole European project has been a successful peace project internally and – rightly or wrongly – its foreign policy in essence reflects this experience. The European values of democracy, human rights are also the guiding principles of its foreign policy.

Institution-building and norm-transference, are essential elements of the EU’s security policy: “Even in an era of globalisation, geography is still important. It is in the European interest that countries on our borders are well-governed.… Our task is to promote a ring of well governed countries to the East of the European Union and on the borders of the Mediterranean with whom we can enjoy close and cooperative relations. It is not in our interest that enlargement should create new dividing lines in Europe. We need to extend the benefits of economic and political cooperation to our neighbours in the East while tackling political problems there. “

The EU’s role in the Eastern Neighbourhood has grown gradually gaining momentum only during the first decade of 2000s. The EU nominated its first Special Representatives for South Caucasus in 2003 and kicked off European Neighbourhood Programme in 2004-5. Also the role of the EU in the conflict resolution processes In Georgia and Moldova was strengthened. Today the EU conducts its policies towards its Eastern neighbours mainly through the EaP programme where the multilevel integrationist approach of the EU is evident.

The EU has also two civilian CSDP missions in the region: the EUMM in Georgia and the EUAM in Ukraine. The mandates are related to institution-building and reform and to post-conflict stabilisation and normalisation. In 2014 the relationship with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine entered a new phase as the AA and the DCFTA were signed.

Russian vision of regional security

Russia, on the other hand, has a dramatically different vision of security and Russia’s role in the world. Russian leadership sees that Russia is ‘destined’ to be a global great power. It also appears that Russia sees the post-Soviet region belongs to Russia’s exclusive sphere of interest. Russia should have the right and the responsibility to manage the post-Soviet space and to do so exclusively, without other outside actors’ interference.

Russian understanding of security highlights traditional state-centred military might. Even trade and businesses are tools for enhancing and strengthening the state, and its foreign policy goals; these often overrule purely economic considerations.

This vision became more consolidated in the mid-2000s as a response to the so-called colour-revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgystan. After the revolutions, Russia understood western integration in the post-Soviet neighbourhood as a hostile act against Russia and Russian interests in the area. At this point Russia started to exert direct and more systematic pressure on its neighbours that sought closer relationship with the EU or NATO.

Many in the region, and outside of it, hoped that Russia’s zero-sum approach would gradually be diluted into less confrontational and more pragmatic integrationist attitude: that instead of Russia’s exclusive sphere of interest in the post-Soviet region we might have inclusive and positive sphere of Russian interests competing and cooperating with that of the EU. The Eurasian Economic Union first appeared to be a sign of more pragmatic, “softer” regional approach. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian crisis seems to have proven this hope misplaced and now it certainly seems that there is no escape from the confrontational approach.

It seems that not much then has changed in Russian foreign political and security thinking since the Cold War years; indeed, the relative stability of the Cold War seems to represent an international ideal for Russia: relatively stable and world order based on bipolarity and superpowers’ silently acknowledged spheres of influence. However, the model presupposes that small states’ sovereignty is limited by the interests of the great powers and that this hierarchy is at least silently acknowledged and in practice respected by other great powers.

Furthermore, whereas the European security approach highlights the need to reach beyond the official state-level towards the civil societies and ultimately individuals, Russia sees this often in negative terms. At least in the case of Russia, this is seen as a challenge to the state authority and NGOs receiving foreign funding are branded as “foreign agents”. This, of course, does not mean that Russia would not be interested in the deployment of “NGO-diplomacy” abroad.

No return to the Cold War

Although Russian security thinking reflects nostalgia for the stability of the Cold War order, the stability cannot be constructed as the core elements that made that possible are no longer there.

  1. The bipolarity of that age was based on rather accurate reflection on the actual distribution of military might. If we now reflect on the existing realities, the world order would be even more unipolar than what it really is. Russia would be in the same category that UK, France, India and China and well below that US.
  2. Since the Cold War, the ideological rivalry has died and human rights and democratic freedoms have been acknowledged as universal. Although not all states are democracies, democracy is generally acknowledged to be more legitimate form of government than a non-democracy. No spheres of influence that override sovereignty of a democratic state can be accepted in today’s world.
  3. As J.L. Gaddis noted in his article “The Long Peace” (1983), the Cold War stability rested on superpowers’ preference for predictability over unpredictability; even when the predictable choice seemed an anomaly and the unpredictability a “rational” choice. Russia seems to behaving in totally different manner today: Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was claimed to correct a historical wrong but at the same time it opened a door for instability and insecurity in a grand scale. In this sense it truly contradicts Russia’s own goals and interests internationally.

Ways forward – are there any?

Since 2008 Russia has taken up the idea of drafting and signing a new European security agreement several times on international fora. From the beginning the west has passively resented the idea, due to suspicions that Russia would attempt to get acknowledgement from the west to its post-Soviet sphere of interest. The recent developments in Ukraine have made the Russian proposal an even more unrealistic goal. Even despite the pervasive distrust in the air, there seems to be little incentive sign anything with Russia now that it has broken all the existing rules agreed on, e.g. the inviolability of borders in Europe.

So are there any areas, where positive security-related cooperation could take place?

Are there any prospects for any kind of cooperation taking place between the EU and Russia? Russian hostility towards the west makes cooperation against terrorism and on the issue of Syria difficult. Also on a political level, the prospects are dim. Due to sanctions and Russia’s economic downward spiral, also trade and financial cooperation offer very little incentives for cooperation at the moment. The only strategically relevant sector for cooperation would be people-to-people contacts but unfortunately this was one of the first victims of the current confrontation. The EU suspended EU-Russia talks on visa matters already in March 2014 which testifies lack of strategic thinking from the part of the EU. By closing doors from the average citizen of Russia, the EU is only contributing to the mentality of an “besieged country” in Russia and thus strengthening the anti-western mood in Russia.

In order to enhance security in eastern part of Europe, the EU should actively support democracy, rule of law and economic reforms in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. Fighting corruption and crime and strengthening the states should be a strategic priority for the EU.

It may well be that for now the security cooperation with Russia in the shared neighbourhood is impossible; nevertheless, if and when Russia is ready to accept inclusive spheres of interest instead of exclusive sphere of influence, the EU should be ready to cooperate.


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