“Frozen Conflicts” and Russian Influence

WASHINGTON — “Frozen conflicts” and Russian influence are vital to the future security of the Black Sea region, according to a group of analysts who gathered here this week to swap notes on how the region fits into the security agenda of the United States.

Meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on June 21, American national security experts and representatives from the administrations of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey discussed stability and U.S. interests in the black sea region.

Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at CSIS, said that as the economies of the region’s countries have flourished in recent years — specifically through increasing tourism — the darker side of globalization, namely drug and arms trafficking, has become more evident.

Of greater concern for the United States, however, are slow-burning conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Russia’s political and military influence over the region.

Stephen Blank, professor of Russian national security studies at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, said that the ongoing conflicts in any one of these countries could become “unfrozen and major threats to international security.”

Russian Power

Blank argued that recent Western efforts to combat Russia’s sphere of influence have been at best sporadic and insufficient, and without more aggressive action against Russian expansionism, tension in the Black Sea region will only continue.

As an example of Russia’s power, he pointed south to the Balkans, where the fate of Kosovo’s bid for independence from Serbia appears to hinge on influence currently being exerted by Moscow.

While the United States and the European Union both advocate Kosovar independence, Russia has made it clear that it will veto any vote supporting the breakaway province.

Just as during the 1990s Balkan conflicts, “European security depends on Black Sea security,” Blank said.

“Enormous Amounts of Corruption”

Keith Smith, a senior associate in CSIS’s Europe Program, maintained that the United States and the European Union have long ignored Russia’s energy policies in the region — and in doing so, have missed an opportunity to counter Russia’s influence.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new strategy to expand Kremlin ownership and control of the country’s energy companies, Russia’s ability to supply Europe with energy in the future is actually in decline, according to Smith.

“The cost of energy in Western Europe is probably double what it should be,” he said.

“The only way Russia can . . . continue to supply energy to Europe in large amounts is by monopolistic control of the pipeline systems of Central Asia, which have some oil but lots of natural gas,” Smith said. “By letting those pipelines be controlled by Moscow, Brussels has really allowed Russia to engage in . . . anti-trust [and] anti-competitive practices.”

But Russia will continue its practices as long as the European Union ignores them and East Central Europe remains rife with an “enormous amount of corruption,” he said.

No Other Energy Option For Bulgaria

Philip Bokov, chief of cabinet of Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, argued that Russia’s political strategies should not surprise anyone in light of its history.

“I think it would be strange if we expected Russia to behave otherwise,” said Bokov, who added that Putin is utilizing the power available to him, and no one should “demonize” him for that.

Bokov maintained, however, that Bulgaria has no other energy option but Russian oil and gas, so the country wants support for a common European energy agreement. NATO in particular needs a strategy for the region, he said.

“I think it would give us better chances to have energy supplies,” Bokov said. “It is very good to discuss the challenges . . . in the Black Sea region, but it’s time to start taking practical steps.”

Lauren Gardner is a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., and Editor in Chief of AU’s student-run newspaper, The Eagle. She is a summer 2007 international news intern for WPR and her reports will occasionally be featured on this blog.

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