The West Surrenders its Strategic Ambiguity in the Black Sea

Main Image Credit US President Joe Biden holds a secure video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 7 December 2021. Courtesy of The White House

In the face of Russian threats, Western allies must urgently fashion a credible deterrence policy for the Black Sea, or risk their strategically important ties with regional partners.

Russia’s massive military build-up around Ukraine is causing alarm in the transatlantic community, reflecting the fear that the Kremlin may decide to expand the military invasion that it began in 2014, potentially turning Ukraine into a failed state. The diplomatic alternative to military action that Russia has put forward offers an even more sweeping change in the correlation of security forces in Europe. Under these proposals, Russia seeks to roll back NATO’s presence in Eastern and Central Europe.

The Kremlin’s efforts to trigger a crisis with Ukraine to force a wider security shift are widely seen as a decisive moment in Europe’s post-Soviet history, more significant even than the Russia–Georgia war of 2008 or Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its use of proxy forces to launch the Donbas conflict. While Ukraine is the strategic centrepiece of Russia’s push to regain its leading role in Eurasia, the Kremlin’s move to challenge the relationship between Kyiv and the transatlantic community aims for a far broader regional impact.

As Russia’s proposals on the future of European security make clear, Moscow’s ultimate ambition is to prevent the states of the former Soviet Union from having a security relationship with the transatlantic community, enabling the Kremlin to assert fully a sphere of privileged interest. While this would be a principled shift for the transatlantic community, in practice the alliance has already been steadily marginalised from much of the region as the space for effective engagement beyond NATO member states has contracted under steady Russian pressure.

In 2008, the NATO Bucharest Summit opened the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance, but there has never been a political consensus in the organisation on offering actual membership. The political divisions have only been deepened by the Russia–Georgia war and Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. As a result, both Kyiv and Tbilisi have found themselves in a security limbo between Russia and the transatlantic community. Lacking the security of NATO membership, leading alliance states have sought to bolster Ukraine and Georgia via a policy of strategic ambiguity.

Even before the current Ukraine crisis, the transatlantic community’s ties with the region had become increasingly tenuous

The US, together with the UK and others, has provided diplomatic support and security assistance to both countries, undertaken regular exercises, supplied weapons and built close training partnerships. NATO has also sought to build its support through various programmes of assistance short of membership. This approach has been designed to offer deterrence through uncertainty about how the transatlantic community would respond to further escalations by Russia. In the absence of NATO membership, this security ambiguity has provided a degree of space for both countries to maintain a transatlantic orientation, even while much of the rest of the region has moved away from this relationship.

In response to Russia’s current military threat to Ukraine, the policy of strategic ambiguity has been largely abandoned in haste, with the US and its leading allies making clear that they will not fight for non-NATO members, and will instead focus on a response to Russian aggression involving expanded sanctions and an enhanced military presence within existing NATO member states on the eastern flank. This shift leaves Ukraine militarily exposed to potential Russian action, but the effect on relations with the South Caucasus may be even more significant.

Even before the current Ukraine crisis, the transatlantic community’s ties with the region had become increasingly tenuous. Despite efforts by the EU and NATO to engage Armenia and Azerbaijan over the past three decades, authoritarian politics in the two states and the unresolved conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh prevented significant progress. Instead, Russia was able to maintain a regional role through its security guarantees to Armenia and as the leading arms supplier to both sides.

The second war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, resulting in an overwhelming victory for Azerbaijan, has further shifted the political centre of gravity towards the regional powers of Russia and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iran. The post-war regional order is now being settled through a framework of relations set by Moscow and Ankara, with the EU relegated to the role of declaratory diplomacy and being a payer, not a player – funding stability initiatives within a new regional power balance defined by others.

Georgia is left as the only state in the South Caucasus where a significant Euro-Atlantic orientation survives. Since the Russia–Georgia war of 2008, while not offering EU membership, considerable efforts have been made by Brussels to build a political and economic relationship with Georgia, notably through the 2014 Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. The EU has recently sought to extend this relationship at the 2021 Eastern Partnership Summit.

The transatlantic community’s retreat from the policy of strategic ambiguity will make developing or even maintaining security and political ties with regional states more difficult

In the absence of NATO membership, the political space for the Georgia–EU relationship to move forward has been created by the security engagement of the US and other NATO allies. In neighbouring Armenia in 2013, Russia vetoed Yerevan’s efforts to agree a similar deal with Brussels using its security relationship as leverage. Since 2008, the US has provided significant security assistance, regular military exercises, and high-level political support to Georgia, along with individual contributions by other alliance members. NATO, too, has expanded its cooperation through the NATO Georgia Commission and the creation of a Liaison Office in Tbilisi from 2010.

Despite these efforts, the transatlantic relationship with Georgia has run into trouble. Even before Russia’s move to challenge NATO’s regional role in the former Soviet Union, the NATO–Georgia security relationship had appeared to reach a plateau, with the alliance unwilling to offer Tbilisi a NATO Membership Action Plan. Meanwhile, relations have been strained by Georgia’s democratic backsliding. At the same time, Georgia has come under pressure to participate in the Turkish- and Russian-promoted 3 + 3 regional platform to bring together Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and the three regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – to consolidate a new regional order following the second Karabakh war.

While NATO will not pull back from its open-door policy in the face of Russian military threats and diplomatic demands, Moscow has already called NATO’s bluff and revealed the ultimate shallowness of its security relationship with Ukraine and Georgia. Russia has announced that if its far-reaching security demands are not met, it will take further measures. While the immediate focus will be on Ukraine, Moscow’s potential for exerting pressure also extends to the South Caucasus, and notably Georgia, where Moscow maintains a significant military presence supporting the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On the ground, the transatlantic community’s retreat from the policy of strategic ambiguity will make developing or even maintaining security and political ties with regional states more difficult, while economic ties will increasingly need to align with the strategic interests of regional powers. This shift will inevitably have a negative impact on NATO’s security position in the Black Sea, notably in the northern areas and eastern littoral.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, European security was seen as an expansive and inclusive idea stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. In the subsequent years, European security has shrunk and is now in danger of being confined to the territory of the transatlantic community itself. The policy of strategic ambiguity offered a lifeline to the few remaining former Soviet states aspiring to the idea of shared values and rules across the European continent. As the US and its NATO allies look to engage with Russia on its proposals to reorder security across the continent, the transatlantic community has a responsibility to ensure that in place of its former strategic ambiguity, it fashions and signals to Moscow a robust policy of deterrence that can also provide its remaining regional partners with a means to protect the gains of the past 30 years.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Neil Melvin

Director, International Security

International Security

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