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Blind Spot Black Sea: Regional Identities Versus Great-Power Aspirations

The Russian war has foregrounded naval security of Ukraine and the Black Sea region in everyday news. To understand what the Black Sea means to the region and what role it might play in the cultural and political future of its six neighboring countries, it is worth taking a look back into history.

A New Global Order? History and Power Politics

By Ayşe Zarakol, University of Cambridge

In usual times, the Black Sea doesn’t get much attention or coverage. It is not a region that seems to have mattered much in recent decades, especially in great power calculations. As the Bulgarian writer Dimitar Kenarov observed in a 2019 essay called “In the Back of the Beyond”: “The Black Sea is the most remote section of the world’s oceans, the ultimate dead-end of the global aquatic system. From the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, from the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara, from the Sea of Marmara through the Bosphorus: the Black Sea is the most isolated room in the house – the cobwebbed garret rarely visited … In a sense, the Black Sea does not really exist. Despite being located at the crossroads of several different regions – the Balkans, Anatolia, the Caucasus, the southern steppe-lands of Russia and Ukraine – it is part of none.” Even in our everyday imaginaries, the Black Sea is usually more of an absence than a presence.

Early imperial legacies

But of course, these are not usual times … Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has suddenly foregrounded the Black Sea and Ukraine’s naval security in everyday news. But will that change be long-lasting? Will we be thinking more about the Black Sea in years to come? To answer that question, we will first to need to think about whether the Black Sea has always been neglected. As we look at history, we quickly realise that it was not always so. There have been periods where empires have been quite active in the region. Originally a “back of beyond” region for Ancient Greece, by the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Black Sea had become quite active. The Byzantine Empire fragmented after the 4th crusade into various regional empires. And the Genoese were given exclusive trading rights in the Black Sea. In the thirteenth century, Genoese settlements started to crisscross the region. The Mongols arrived around this time as well. What later came to be called the Golden Horde sieged Kaffa, the main Genoese trading post on Crimea several times during the 14th century. It is during one of these sieges that the Black Death is supposed to first have spread to Kaffa from the invading armies, and then to Europe via merchant ships escaping from Crimea.

20th century power shifts

For some centuries after, the north of the Black Sea region was under the control of khanates, first the Mongol Empire, then the Golden Horde and then the Crimean Khanate. The Byzantine Empire and its offshoots hung on in the south well into the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, two new major powers had emerged: the Ottomans in the south, Muscovy (and later the Russian Empire) in the north. The Crimean Khanate was initially a significant ally of the former and a major threat to the latter, but by the seventeenth century, what was left of it had been informally absorbed by the Ottoman Empire, the initially ascendant power after the decline of the Mongols. In the eighteenth century, the control of the area passed to the Russian Empire, the next rising power and on a southern expansionary track. By contrast, Ottoman power was shrinking, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries new states emerged around the Black Sea, as the Ottomans became weaker and weaker and eventually collapsed after WWI. Many were reabsorbed (formally or informally) in the twentieth century by the Soviet Union. The successor state of the Ottoman Empire became a NATO outpost in the region, perennially on a defensive watch.

The Black Sea as a border zone

In other words, it is only really since the collapse of the USSR that the region has been home to a multiplicity of countries. Six countries now border the Black Sea: Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. In the broader region, we could probably also include Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia. None of these countries really think of the Black Sea as a focal point, in culture or foreign policy. I would argue that this is because this sea has been a border zone for one empire or another successively for so many of the preceding centuries: the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Russians and finally the USSR. This has rendered the area a relatively inert zone, culturally, economically, socially. The fact that power among Black Sea countries is still not distributed equally makes it hard to think beyond that, with each country except Russia and perhaps Turkey looking elsewhere for safety and trade. Some look to the EU, some look to Russia, some to the US. Nobody really takes the notion of a Black Sea regional identity very seriously.

Opportunities for a common vision?

However, if Russia’s war on Ukraine ends as many people predict, i. e. with a Russia that has shrunk in ambition and capacity, there will be an opportunity that has not existed for centuries. The Black Sea countries will need to confront what this region can mean to them. And if such a day comes, the shared histories of the peoples around this body of water may be recovered in service of a more common vision of the Black Sea.

Asyse Zarakol
Asyse Zarakol Photo: Dmitri Jajich

Ayşe Zarakol

Ayşe Zarakol is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Cambridge and Fellow at Emmanuel College. Most recently she is the author of “Before the West: the Rise and Fall of Eastern World Orders” (2022). Her research is at the intersection of historical sociology and international relations, focusing on East-West relations in the international system, history and future of world order(s), conceptualisations of modernity and sovereignty, rising and declining powers, and Turkish politics in a comparative perspective.


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