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The Pontic-Baltic ‘Rimland’ or the ‘containment’ of the Russian Federation
NATO’s expansion and the Russian Federation’s intention to protect its European ‘near abroad’ are geopolitical factors of a zero sum-game.
The Russian Federation does not want the coastal states situated by the Baltic and Black Seas, that were once part of the communist bloc, to be transformed by NATO into ‘buffer states’.

Neighbouring in its ‘Rimland’ an anti-totalitarist Europe, marred by its traumatic experiences from the age of the Cold War, is a concerning factor for the Russian Federation.

Being aware of the geopolitical advantages that access to the seas and oceans provides, translated in geopolitical terms into control over the Rimland, the Russian Federation takes actions that facilitate the deployment of its naval forces in this strategic area.

Having a strong fleet is vital for the Russian Federation as it strenghtens this country’s resilience from the containment policy that could pillory the Eurasian region.[1]

In order to achieve this, the Russian Federation must be able to secure its access to the cold seas in the North and the East, as well as to the warm seas in the South and the West. Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation seems determined to seek the advantages of its Rimland that it did not benefit from during the Cold War.

Thus, the Russian Federation aims at being surrounded by ‘buffer-zones’, such as Kaliningrad, Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on which it can exert its influence and allow it to access the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, while ‘piercing’ the Euro-Atlantic Rimland comprising countries such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania or Georgia, situated in its ‘near abroad’.[2]

This is why NATO’s expansion and the Russian Federation’s intent to protect its ‘near abroad’ in Europe represent the geopolitical factors of a zero-sum game, where the Pontic-Baltic Rimland becomes a ‘buffer-zone’.[3]

For the very same reason, the Russian Federation does not want the coastal states situated by the Baltic and the Black Seas, that were once part of the communist bloc, to be turned by NATO into ‘buffer states’; a contrary result would enable NATO to take control over the Russian Federation’s European Rimland.[4]

The Russian Federation changing its stance with regard to the Pontic-Baltic Rimland implies an aggressive rhetoric that contains accusations of violating air-space[5] and even incidents that limit the freedom of navigation[6] in the Black and Baltic Seas.

The Baltic Sea, an area where the Russian Federation may exert its influence, is inextricably linked to the Kaliningrad enclave, situated between Poland and Lithuania, which has access to the Baltic Sea. Over time, Kaliningrad was a strategic area, where the Russian fleet used to dock, as it was the only European/Russian maritime gateway with waters that did not freeze during winter, allowing it to keep its borders impenetrable to Germany or Poland.[7]

Once the Russian Federation interfered in Ukraine, NATO became aware of the fact that it was facing a different geostrategic context, where the Russian Federation jeopardised the security of NATO’s members and allies in the Pontic-Baltic Rimland.

Hence, NATO has strengthened its presence in the Pontic-Baltic region in order to counter the Russian Federations’ potential aggressions, making sure at the same time that it kept to the security guarantees offered to its members in the region.

www.nato.int

Besides, the 2016 Warsaw Summit was a turning point on how NATO saw its members from the Pontic-Baltic Rimland, as it adopted a different approach regarding the security risks of the countries in the Black and Baltic Seas. “Even though following the annexation of Crimea the Alliance promised to increase its availability in Europe and strengthen its Eastern flank, the 2016 NATO Summit in WarwaW focused mainly on the Baltic Sea.[8]

Another reason might be that in the Baltic region, “geography is not on NATO’s side. The Baltic States are on Russia’s western border, near Russian bases, supplies and reinforcements, while NATO forces are mostly in Western Europe and the United States. […] which means that NATO can’t be counted on to relieve the Baltic nations before Russia has time to entrench.[9]

Besides, “the shallow waters and narrow straits of the Baltic Sea make it easy to lay mines and hard to manoeuvre warships. Western military experts fear Russia could block the free movement of NATO ships, making it impossible to support the tiny Baltic states in case of a war”.[10]

Not in the least, “the Russians, with the advantage of having significant Russian minorities in the Baltics, can play a probing game similar to the one in Ukraine, if they deem this necessary or useful”.[11]

With regard to the part played by the Black Sea in the Pontic-Baltic equation, this geopolitical area was described as being a ‘buffer zone that awaits to be taken into account by the Great Powers’, and a ‘strategic synapse’[12], concepts that suggest that the Black Sea’s significance depends on the interests of the Great Powers present in this ‘security complex’.

Therefore, over centuries, the strategic importance of the Black Sea was set according to the roles the region played simultaneously – as a ‘bridge’ and as a ‘border’ between former powers and empires and as a ‘buffer zone’ and a ‘transit area’ between Europe and Asia.[13]

Its ‘key position’ as a ‘geopolitical connection’ is given by the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, which facilitate the navigation from a ‘closed sea’ to the oceans of our world, and to the Crimean peninsula, a genuine ‘maritime stronghold’.[14]

It is worth mentioning that up until 1991, the Black Sea was very close to what we may call a ‘Russian lake’ - the launching point of the Soviet naval power to the Mediterranean or the gateway to the warm southern seas.[15]

The collapse of the USSR changed the balance of power in the Black Sea, as the newly-formed countries reduced the coastline of the newly-founded Russian Federation which sought to preserve the pivotal geopolitical part that the USSR played in building and maintaining the ‘architecture of the shores during the Cold War’.[16]

Statements such as ‘the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are in Russia’s area of strategic interest’, or ‘the Black Sea gives the Russian Federation direct access to the most important global routes’ can only highlight the fact that the Russian Federation does not want anyone to interfere with its geostrategic interests in the Black Sea basin.[17]

On the other hand, the Euro-Atlantic geopolitical policy aims at making the Black Sea international by involving extra-regional players (NATO, the EU and the USA), both politically and militarily, and by promoting multilateralism in matters regarding regional security.[18]

Romania and Bulgaria having become NATO members, along with US support for pro-Western, anti-Russian elites in Ukraine and Georgia, make the Russian Federation feel ‘under siege’ and determine this country to act as if it wishes to ‘tear away’ this newly-created component of the Rimland from the Euro-Atlantic influence and draw it under the Euro-Asian sphere of influence.[19]

To the Russian Federation, having an influence on Ukraine and Georgia – given the fleet in the Black Sea, in the Port of Sevastopol, the naval base in Ochamchire (Abkhazia) and the military bases in South Ossetia – represents the strategic stakes of a well-established plan. 

Therefore, speaking from a geostrategic perspective, the separatist region in Eastern Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, Transnistria (‘a bridgehead’,[20] or ‘a Russian knife in Ukraine’s back’[21]) and the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are parts of a ‘security corridor’ that the Russian Federation has to the Black Sea.[22]

The Black Sea is a “very important geostrategic hub for the Russian Federation[23] because, if it is to claim that it is a Mediterranean power, it must first and foremost prove that is a great Black Sea power”.[24]

This is why “Russia couples its naval superiority in the Black Sea with growing political and military influence in the surrounding states. […] Increasing political power combined with a strong military position makes Russia the virtual regional hegemon at this point.[25]

To achieve this goal, the Russian Federation “is interested in Ukraine losing its access to the Black Sea”[26], and as a consequene, the annexation of Crimea becomes extremely important within the Russian Federation’s power equation in the Black Sea region. 

In fact, Crimea has been turned by the Russian Federation into a real strategic place d’armes in the Black Sea. The strategic objectives followed by this country when annexing Crimea comprised unconditional control over the Port of Sevastopol – a major hub being used by the Russian Federation to display its naval power to the world, which has proved efficient for naval blockades during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War and for the reinforcement of its military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War[27] – but also to intimidate Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey as a way of discouraging the access of NATO’s naval forces in the Black Sea.[28]  

President Vladimir Putin watching a military exercise in the Black Sea, aboard the missile cruiser ‘Marshal Ustinov’ (Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters)

A great challenge for NATO is represented by the current legal status of the Turkish Straits, which does not allow the formation of a major NATO fleet in the Black Sea - a fleet that as of now could not expect significant input from NATO non-coastal countries due to the current provisions of the Montreux Convention.

According to Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski and Peter Doran, “the Black Sea is thus unique in the modern world, being the only open, international body of water where the U.S. Navy accepts the logic that sailing here requires the permission of another.”[29]

In his turn, James Carafano believes that “the US government has concluded that Moscow’s military build-up and expansive diplomatic, political and economic efforts are intended to establish the Black Sea as a power projection platform for the Russian armed forces.”[30]

Besides, according to Alexander Vershbow, “taking into account the political, economic and human rights implications of Russia’s destabilising policies, all NATO members are stakeholders in the security of the Black Sea region. […] Cooperation between Allies will be the key to coming up with an answer to the security challenges we are facing.”[31]

This is why the US should advocate to strengthen NATO’s presence from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Black Sea: “All this is vital not just to show Putin that America is on watch, but also to show the Europeans that the US will walk the walk when it comes to remaining tough on Russian influence.”[32]

In this scenario, Romania is in a ‘pole position’ to become NATO’s hub in the Black Sea, insofar as ports, navy and missile defence is concerned.

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[1] Claval, Paul: Geopolitică şi geostrategie. Gândirea politică, spaţiul şi teritoriul în secolul al XX-lea, Corint Publishing, Bucharest, 2001.

[2] Friedman, George: The next 100 years. A forecast for the 21st century, The Doubleday Publishing. Group, 2009.

[3] Bădescu, Ilie: Tratat de geopolitică, Mica Valahie Publishing, Bucharest, 2004.

[4] Guşă, Cozmin: Imperialism în postcomunism. Geopolitica dezordinii în fostul lagăr socialist, Adevărul Publishing, Bucharest, 2011.

[5] Russia Says It Intercepted U.S., Swedish Spy Jets Over Baltic Sea, 11th of June, “The Moscow Times”, 2019.

[6] Larter, David: Russian Military ‘Harassed’ US-Flagged Merchant Ship in the Baltic Ahead of Exercises, “Defense News”, 27th of June 2017.

[7] Diener, Alexander; Hagen, Joshua: Geopolitics of the Kaliningrad Exclave and Enclave. Russian and EU Perspective, “Eurasian Geography and Economics” no. 52, 2011.

[8] NATO, Warsaw Summit – Declaration, www.nato.int, 9th of July 2016.

[9] Peck, Michael: Want to Stop Russia from Invading the Baltic States? Turn Poland Into a Military Powerhouse, The National Interest, 23rd of March 2019.

[10] Siebold, Sabine: Germany Strengthens Baltic Naval Alliance to Counter Russian Buildup, Reuters, 26th of October 2018.

[11] Laird, Robbin: European Direct Defence: The Case of the Baltics, Second Line of Defence, 25th of January 2019.

[12] Văduva, Gheorghe: Pivot sau margine?, „GeoPolitica” nr. 14-15/2005.

[13] Maior, George Cristian: Noul Aliat. Regândirea politicii de apărare a României la începutul secolului XXI, ediţia a doua, revăzută şi adăugită, Editura RAO, 2013.

[14] Ionescu, Mihail E: Regiunea lărgită a Mării Negre. Delimitări geografice, geopolitice şi geostrategice ale unui concept, „ISPAIM Occasional Papers”, vol. I, nr. 10/2007.

[15] Brzezinski, Zbigniew: Marea tablă de șah, Univers Enciclopedic Publishing, Bucharest, 2000.

[16] Serebrian, Oleg: Geopolitica spaţiului pontic, Second Edition, Cartier Publishing, Chişinău, 2006.

[17] Ionescu, Costin: Marea Neagră – un pivot geopolitic în dispută?, „GeoPolitica” nr. 1/2005.

[18] Maior, George Cristian; Konoplyov, Sergei: Cunoaşterea strategică în zona extinsă a Mării Negre, RAO Publishing, 2011.

[19] Dughin, Alexandr: Bazele geopoliticii si viitorul geopolitic al Rusiei, Eurasiatica Publishing, Bucharest, 2011.

[20] Chifu, Iulian: Opţiunile de securitate ale Republicii Moldova, IDIS Viitorul, Chişinău, 2009.

[21] Serebrian, Oleg: Despre geopolitică, Cartier Publishing, Chişinău, 2009.

[22] Russia Has no Intention to Withdraw Its Fleet from Crimea, For-UA, 22nd of February, 2012.

[23] Toucas, Boris: The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, February 2017.

[24] Policy Paper: Emerging Importance of Wider Black Sea Area Security, in Proceedings:” Emerging Importance of Wider Black Sea Area Security”, Global Studies Centre, Sibiu, 2018.

[25] Celac, Sergiu et al.: Why the Black Sea Matters, New Strategy Centre, Bucharest, 2016.

[26]Policy Paper: Emerging Importance of Wider Black Sea Area security, in Proceedings: “Emerging Importance of Wider Black Sea Area Security”, Global Studies Centre, Sibiu, 2018

[27] Yuhas, Alan and Jalabi, Raya: Ukraine Crisis: Why Russia Sees Crimea as Its Naval Stronghold, The Guardian, 7th of March 2014.

[28] Celac, Sergiu et al.: Why the Black Sea Matters, New Strategy Centre, Bucharest, 2016

[29] Hodges, Ben; Bugajski, Janusz; Doran, Peter: Strengthening NATO’s Eastern Flank – A Strategy for Baltic-Black Sea Coherence, Centre for European Policy Analysis, Washington, 2019.

[30] Carafano, James: US Foreign Policy in the Mediterranean Region and How it Affects Other Actors, in European Institute of the Mediterranean, Geographical Overview Yearbook 2019, 2019.

[31] Vershbow, Alexander: Alexander Vershbow: ‘Black Sea Is Where Russia’s Aggression against Ukraine Began’, in Kyiv Post, 4th July 2017.

[32] Carafano, James et al.: Preparing the U.S. National Security Strategy for 2020 and Beyond, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, 2019.