By Andrew Korybko
The shaky truce in Ukraine has given NATO ample opportunities to spread the New Cold War beyond Eastern Europe and into new theaters, one of which has been the greater Black Sea region. The recent destabilizations in Macedonia and Moldova that endanger Russian interests there can be directly linked to the long-term ambitions of Bulgaria and Romania, the two members of NATO’s Black Sea Bloc. These de-facto irredentist states are being used by NATO to instigate proxy conflicts (whether soft or hot) that have a larger chance of succeeding than the semi-failed Ukrainian one, taking supreme advantage of the fact that neither targeted state is adjacent to Russia (unlike the East Ukrainian republics) and thereby unable to receive direct assistance or any realistic Russian deterrent if their respective crises deepened.
The flurry of activity surrounding the Black Sea in recent years (particularly the 2003 Rose Revolution, 2004 Orange Revolution, 2008 Five Day War, EuroMaidan, and the Russian reunification with Crimea) proves that this region is among the world’s most politically dynamic areas in the 21st century, and the geopolitical intrigue and tension has now spread past its direct borders into the greater Black Sea states of Macedonia and Moldova. In light of these Western-initiated destabilizations, NATO’s Black Sea Bloc has taken on a hefty strategic role disproportionate to its average size, and accordingly, it’s the subject of study within this article.
Part I begins by placing the Black Sea Bloc into NATO’s strategic context and then describes its composition and targets. Afterwards, Part II analyzes the nascent military grouping’s dynamics and concludes with an examination of possible complications that could obstruct the bloc’s viability.
Step By Step, Bloc By Bloc
NATO’s adaptation to the New Cold War has been to subdivide itself and its affiliated partners into semi-autonomous military blocs strategically delineated along geographic and historical lines. The purpose behind this self-initiated break down is to make the cumbersome alliance more efficient in specific theaters, with each regional Lead From Behind partner feeling as though they have an historical stake in carrying out the US’ shared objectives. Through this geographic restructuring and the reconceptualization of self-interested motivations, the US aspires to rebrand NATO as a ‘swarm’ of smaller interlinked blocs that can coordinately chip away at Russia’s interests and overwhelm its decision makers through the resultant ‘managed chaos’ of near-simultaneous destabilizations.
Here’s what other regional blocs are currently taking shape besides the one centered on the Black Sea:
The US has used the convenient excuse of phantom Russian sub hunts to crystallize a Greater Scandinavian alliance focusing on Sweden, which functions as a de-facto regional leader of the alliance. The rest of the members include Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, and one can possibly even incorporate Estonia and Latvia into the club as lesser proxies. For most intents and purposes, it functions as the 21st-century version of an expanded Swedish Empire.
Poland forms the core of the next regional bloc, and it also includes Lithuania and Shadow NATO member Ukraine. The objective here is to recreate the vanquished Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with an eventual eye on bringing Russian-ally Belarus under their unipolar sway.
West Balkan/Adriatic Bloc:
This formation, which can geographically be described as either the West Balkan or Adriatic Bloc, is less integrated than the previous two that were described, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less lethal. Instead of one Lead From Behind partner, it utilizes the dual mechanisms of two neo-expansionist states, Albania and Croatia. Each of these aspiring leaders has ‘ticking time bombs’ of ethnic and/or territorial ambitions in neighboring states that can be activated to destabilize the Central Balkans via Croatian Bosnia and the supposed territory of Greater Albania, respectively. The other affiliated members are NATO-state Slovenia, NATO-aspirant Montenegro, and the NATO protectorates of Bosnia and occupied Kosovo.
The Western Mediterranean countries of Italy, France, and Spain are NATO’s attack dogs against North and West Africa. France is the inarguable leader of the bloc, and its waged war in both theaters, specifically against Libya and Mali. Italy, on the other hand, only contributed to the Libyan campaign, while Spain has yet to fully intervene in any African conflict. Madrid has, however, opened the gates for the US to establish a major presence near Seville that will predictably be used for forthcoming West African and Algerian campaigns, thereby making it an integral part of the bloc whether it’s directly involved in the operations or not.
The ‘Old Timers’:
The two founding anchors of European NATO, France and the UK, no longer have as much of an interest in European affairs (despite their symbolic involvement in Baltic and Polish anti-Russian NATO provocations), and have instead pivoted towards the Greater Mideast. Nowhere is this more apparent than their new Gulf bases (France’s air facility in the UAE, the UK in its recently returned naval hub in Bahrain) and joint participation in the US-led ‘anti-ISIL’ bombing campaign (France is also heavily involved in its former African colonies, too). In an ironic twist, ‘Old Europe’s’ most important founding NATO fathers (the ‘old timers’) are now focusing the majority of their efforts outside the North Atlantic sphere, while ‘New Europe’ (the post-Cold War members) has emerged as the US’ lead anti-Russian proxy on the continent.
Rounding out NATO’s regional bloc constellation is the Black Sea Bloc, which functions as the geo-pivotal cornerstone for the restructured alliance. Before describing its importance in terms of the larger picture, the formation itself must be outlined.
Romania and Bulgaria are the two official members of this regional arrangement, but they aren’t its only components. Shadow NATO members Moldova and Georgia round out the rest of the bloc, and all together, they occupy the western and part of the eastern reaches of the Black Sea. Eric Draitser wrote a thorough report about US naval strategy in this region and the latest anti-Russian provocations that it partook in with Georgia, which explains the importance of the trans-Black Sea area and justifies the inclusion of Georgia into the larger Eastern Balkan pro-NATO concept. Moldova, for its part, is an ideologically and politically divided land narrowly presided over by a pro-Western elite that wants to accelerate the Euro-Atlantic colonization of the country, but pragmatic, Russian-oriented citizens and the frozen Transnistrian conflict are currently standing in the way.
When one adds the Black Sea Bloc of Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Georgia to the previously mentioned Viking and Commonwealth Blocs of Greater Scandinavia and the former Polish conquests, a startling realization occurs – Pilsudski’s Intermarium ‘cordon sanitaire’ has finally been created. Stratfor’s George Friedman, who has advocated its revival, describes it as a belt of anti-Russian states stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas, which is the pure geographic definition of the interlinked Viking-Commonwealth-Black Sea Bloc. This Intermarium allows NATO to form three separate fronts against Russian interests, targeting it from the Arctic/Baltic, Eastern Europe, and the Black Sea, respectively.
As an incidental strategic touch, however, it is the Black Sea Bloc, the weakest and least integrated of the three, that could ultimately destabilize Russian interests the most. This is because it threatens two important Russian-affiliated outposts, Transnistria and the security of Balkan Stream’s central peninsula corridor through Macedonia. The next section will discuss this in detail and explain the gravely negative implications that either of the two destabilization operations would have for Russian grand strategy.
The Indirect Approach
The Viking and Commonwealth Blocs directly target Russian territory or its overall border security, but the Black Sea Bloc’s intended victims are not immediately adjacent to Russia, and one of them (Macedonia) doesn’t have any direct connection to its military security. By destabilizing Transnistria and Macedonia via the ambitions of Greater Romania and Greater Bulgaria (whether de-jure or de-facto), NATO hopes to chip away at the international security and stability architecture that Russia has built, aiming to score ‘cheap shots’ while it’s still able to do so. Here’s how it looks more in-depth:
This self-declared independent republic is narrowly positioned alongside the Dniestr River and smudged between Moldova and Ukraine. Russia retains a contingent of around 1,500 peacekeepers there, which while serving as a deterrent against Moldovan aggression for the past two decades, inversely may become a temptation for multilateral Moldovan-Romanian-Ukrainian aggression under NATO’s Lead From Behind supervision. In the contemporary context, the whole point of the Ukrainian Civil War was to draw Russia into a strategic entanglement from which it couldn’t extricate itself, thereby creating a 21st-century repeat of Brzezinski’s 1980s Afghan trap. If Transnistria were to fall victim to the combined aggression mentioned above (its already being blockaded) and ominously warned about by The Saker in his must-read analysis, then Russia would find itself in an extremely unfavorable military and strategic situation that could be disastrous to extricate itself from, but much to the delight of Brzezinski and his acolytes.
The Central Balkan country is the lifeline for Balkan Stream, but it’s facing two-pronged destabilization from Greater Albania (the West Balkan/Adriatic Bloc) and Greater Bulgaria (the Black Sea Bloc). Concerning the latter, Macedonia’s historical 20th-century stalker hasn’t eased off its obsession with the country and still wants to enforce its soft (and perhaps hard) influence on its people. This goal overlaps with the US’ own, since it wants to apply as much pressure on Macedonia as possible to get it to abandon Russia’s geopolitically revolutionary pipeline project. Impoverished Bulgaria doesn’t even have to play a conventional role in this scenario, since all it needs to do is offer its soldiers up as ‘bait’ to create a false-flag pretext for a larger NATO intervention. Albania might be the loud, yapping dog of war when it comes to Macedonia, but it’s ‘unassuming’ Bulgaria that poses the greatest threat since not many are aware of its hegemonic intentions over its neighbor. Thankfully Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov recognized this fact and called Sofia out on it, which drew attention to its designs and may have thwarted any planned provocations that could have worsened Macedonia’s domestic turmoil.
Unlike Transnistria and Macedonia, Crimea and Sevastopol are part of Russia’s sovereignty territory and direct jurisdiction, but just like those two aforementioned areas, they too are under threat of indirect destabilization, albeit way more long-term. Romania and Bulgaria, as Black Sea littoral states, aren’t subject to the restrictions of the Montreaux Convention that mandate a temporary and limited naval presence for non-regional states’ vessels (such as those of the US).The significance here is that the US can build up these two state’s naval forces in order to create a proxy navy that won’t ever realistically compete with its Russian counterparts, but could turn out to be quite a nuisance for them if left unchecked and allowed to grow, especially if they establish regular sea lines of communication with Georgia (e.g. between Constanta and/or Varna and Batumi).
The other indirect threat to Russia’s newest federal units comes from Romania’s missile defense cooperation with the US. In an of itself, a single facility in the country poses no threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but as with the Polish situation, Moscow is concerned that it could grow into a network of bases and/or become a front for offensive weaponry directed against it. Combining the previous threat, missile defense infrastructure could also be integrated into naval units, which would give the system a mobile platform and increase its threat assessment vis a vis Russia.
In either case, Russia’s forces in Crimea would be under a strategic threat, with the US having neutralized some of their capabilities and therefore adjusting the balance of military power (if even still largely to Russia’s favor, the relative shift is against it). The forecasted timeframe in which the Black Sea Bloc’s naval and missile defense components begin to actually threaten or inconvenience Russia is at least a few decades away, but still, these emerging strategic difficulties must be recognized beforehand in order to prevent them from reaching their peak efficiency in the medium-term future.
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The Bloc In Action
The central dynamic underpinning the Black Sea Bloc is one of irredentist expansionism and strategic branching, which by its very nature mandates that the group is constantly attempting to export its influence past its understood boundaries. In the case of Moldova and Macedonia, the majority of the population do not want Romanian and Bulgarian interference in their domestic affairs, despite Chisinau’s political elite and fifth column Romanians being all for it and Macedonian Color Revolutionary figurehead Zaev allying with existentially dangerous forces. As it pertains to Georgia, however, Tbilisi wants to rapidly integrate itself into the emerging military group through Washington’s naval assistance, but it’s not envisioned as being anything other than a peripheral appendage of the Black Sea Bloc (albeit one of strategic importance and long-term collaborative interest). Additionally, Georgia is not under any Romanian or Bulgarian pressure, nor do those states have any historical memories that they can weaponize in pressuring it, so it will always remain as a convenient exception to the bloc’s integrated dealings outside of naval cooperation.
Serbia’s Indirect Vulnerability:
Serbia remains another exception as well, but for very different reasons. As it currently stands, neither Bucharest nor Sofia have negative relations with Belgrade, and it doesn’t appear probable that a realistic scenario for such could present themselves anytime soon. This is an intriguing observation because Serbia is the only country to border both official Black Sea Bloc members, yet it’s not under direct threat by either of them. Still, it doesn’t mean that indirect aggression isn’t present, since if Bulgaria and its allies’ plans in destabilizing Macedonia succeed and Balkan Stream is no longer able to traverse its territory (either due to a regime change or dangerously unstable domestic situation), then Serbia would unquestionably become a part of the unipolar world, erasing any trace of its formerly semi-independent and multipolar-curious foreign policy. Looked at from this perspective, then Serbia has a paramount interest in seeing Bulgaria’s designs over Macedonia irreparably fail, while still maintaining positive surface interactions with the Black Sea Bloc state in order to preserve its strategic depth and to forestall any aggravation of bilateral relations that could be used as a pretext for asymmetrical aggression by Romania (the bloc’s core and strongest member).
Greater Claims Equal Greater Problems:
While Georgia and Serbia share the commonality of Romania and Bulgaria not having any realistic designs over their territory or identity, the same can’t be said at all for Moldova and Macedonia. Romanians are largely of the disposition that Moldova should be a part of their country and that there’s no such thing as the Moldovan language or ethnicity, just as many Bulgarians hold the same views of identity denial about Macedonians. Romania actually went as far as organizing the 2009 Twitter Revolution in Moldova in a gambit to shoo in a forced ‘unification’, and Director of the Bulgarian National History Museum Bozhidar Dimitrov suggested last month that a perversion of the Crimean scenario could be used to annex Macedonia.
These disturbing actions of identity denial and intended geopolitical removal prove that both the Romanian and Bulgarian leaderships harbor the most negative of political intentions towards their Moldovan and Macedonian state neighbors (in the sense of their governments, not necessarily their people), and it’s not likely that such anti-state antipathy will ever dissipate. Instead, it’s more probable that both Black Sea Bloc aggressors will continue conspiring against their targets and double down in their offensive moves against them, which will adversely affect Russia’s interests in both of these states. Bulgaria will presumably maintain its close connection with Color Revolutionary Zaev, while Romania could conceivably use its influence to organize and rig a unification referendum (excluding the wishes of the non-Moldovan ethnicities such as the Gagauz and others, or possibly outright violating their suffrage) and provoking emboldened Chisinau to request Bucharest’s assistance (and possibly that of NATO, if Moldova is recognized by the group as then constituting an ‘integral’ part of the allied Romanian state) in forcing Transnistria into the unlawful ‘union’. Suffice to say, the Russian peacekeepers there would immediately be thrown into the conflict, with dangerously unascertainable consequences for NATO-Russian relations after the Rubicon (or Dniestr, in this case) is crossed.
Breaking The Bloc
The Black Sea Bloc is plagued by three major vulnerabilities that could develop to significantly impede its functioning:
A Hungarian Reawakening In Romania:
Hungarians form a sizeable and increasingly vocal minority located in Transylvania, and there’s a risk that they may become even more assertive of various rights and privileges as time goes on. In fact, there have already been pro-autonomy marches demanding a degree of political separateness from Bucharest, and the Hungarian Parliament proudly flies the flag of Szekely Land, the majority Hungarian-populated part of Romania. Other signs of interethnic tension have arisen as well, which while nothing totally inflammatory at this point, could create a situation that boils over sometime in the future.
This possibility becomes more of a reality as the Hungarian government becomes ostracized and painted as a threat by its formal European ‘partners’ over its growing sovereign stance on foreign and domestic affairs. Just as Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, almost came to blows over Cyprus, a similar scenario could possibly play out between Hungary and Romania over Szekely Land if either side engages in spiraling provocations. In the event that the Jobbik Party comes to power in Budapest in 2018 or acquires a commanding influence over policy at or before then (perhaps capitalizing off of a Western Color-Revolution-gone-wrong against Orban), then Budapest would likely become much more assertive over the issue, thus raising the prospects for its potential actualization even more.
A more immediate obstruction to the Black Sea Bloc’s plans could be a deepening of the political paralysis in Moldova. The current government has a slim coalition majority over the pragmatic, Russian-friendly opposition, but this could potentially be reversed if burgeoning protests lead to early elections (and without any restrictions on Russian-friendly parties like last time). Another factor that could freeze the radical process of Euro-Atlantic servitude that the ruling parties are pursuing would be some type of revolt or large-scale resistance in Gagauzia, a small region in Moldova outside Transnistria where the people are looking towards Russia for their future. It doesn’t matter by what means, but if the unstable pro-Western Moldovan coalition can become paralyzed and its state leadership even possibly reversed with early elections, then the likelihood of a Romanian absorption and intensified Shadow NATO membership becomes diminished, although frighteningly, the embattled government might look to distract attention and/or deepen Western support for its rule through anti-Transnistrian provocations.
Bulgarian State Failure:
The anti-Macedonian state is the poorest country in the EU and has a level of corruption that’s three times higher than the EU average. Bulgarian news outlet Standart reported that there are more Bulgarians working outside the country than within it, and Novinite, another of the country’s national news media firms, assessed that remittances totaled 6.2 billion euros in the past decade, now representing the main source of foreign capital in the country. So many Bulgarians have fled the country for work that Risk Monitor, a Bulgarian research group, reports that 26% of schoolchildren have at least one of their parents living abroad, and these children typically perform worse in their studies and have higher incidences of drinking and smoking than their peers. For these and many more reasons, Bulgaria appears slated to one day become the ‘Tajikistan of Europe’, or put differently, a country disproportionately dependent on migrants and their remittances to the degree that such a relationship becomes one of its defining economic and social characteristics (like Moldova).
Bulgaria’s entire stability is thus vulnerable to any sudden changes in foreign currency exchange rates and the strength of the Euro. If a situation occurs where Bulgarian migrants flock back to their home country (either out of a major recession in their host market or perhaps unbearable discrimination against them there), then the disastrous combination of poverty, joblessness, and inefficient state services could compel individuals to take part in organized crime, further destabilizing the state. Bulgarian politics isn’t exactly known for its stability either, and domestic pressures could quickly travel upwards through the system and result in government turbulence. Such a scenario would be facilitated if existing tensions between Bulgarians and ethnic Turks boil over during this period of edgy uncertainty.
Should Bulgaria’s domestic stability continue to unravel, as it shows signs of doing in the near future, then the failing state that it becomes would be incapable of pushing its de-facto identity irredentism over Macedonia and would no longer pose the same threat that it once did. On the flip side, however, economic refugees from failing Bulgaria might be attracted to Macedonia owing to the same cultural closeness that they once evoked to justify aggressive attitudes against it, except in this case, any uncontrollable migration to their economically prosperous and growing neighbor could one day lead to the same irredentist risks that Albanians created for Serbia when they moved en mass to Kosovo for similar economic reasons. While this scenario may appear distant, it shouldn’t be absolutely discounted.
The Black Sea Bloc is the physically weakest yet most strategically dangerous of NATO’s regional fighting formations. It derives its strength not from the caliber of its armed forces (which are embarrassingly shabby), but from the manner in which it can inflict damage on Russia’s peripheral interests Transnistria and Macedonia. Destabilization in both areas is difficult for Russia to respond to, and in the case of Macedonia, it has no direct means to do so. As regards Transnistria, it’s very likely that a strategic entanglement might be unavoidable if certain contingencies don’t prevent its occurrence first, because at the end of the day, the US and its NATO allies hold all the cards in deciding whether or not to initiate hostilities there and lure Russia into the planned trap. They already decided to destabilize Macedonia, which just deflected a failed Color Revolution attempt and dismantled a violent terrorist cell, but there’s no guarantee that a second round of external revolution or terror isn’t being plotted which could eventually sideline the Balkan Stream project. Because of these strategic uncertainties and the constraints that Russia has in responding to them and defending its grand strategic interests in the region, the Black Sea Bloc has unexpectedly sprung to the front of Russia’s concerns, although the threats it’s unleashing are by no means insurmountable.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the U.S. strategy in Eurasia.
The statements, views, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of EMerging Equity.