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The US And The Black Sea: A Troublesome Year Ahead – OpEd

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The US is increasingly looking inwards as internal political problems, coupled with the ongoing election campaign, shifts Washington’s attention away from some regions in the Eurasian continent. One such region is the Black Sea.

Being under considerable pressure from Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia looked to the US and NATO for security considerations. Though there was no direct military help in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and recognized the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions as independent, several agreements on military cooperation (one signed just a few days ago) and economic aid have been signed between Washington and Tbilisi.

Many in Georgia criticized the Obama Administration for initiating isolationist policies and looking away from the Black Sea. However, it is in recent years that the US policy has grown more inward-looking, which is having a continuous impact on vulnerable Tbilisi.

Impeachment hearings in the US are also shifting Washington’s attention from the Black Sea region. US’ ties with Ukraine are also being harmed and Georgians have already started asking “if the 40 million population strong Ukraine could be left alone, so can a tiny 4 million Georgia”.

And it is not only about the impeachment. Many believe that the shift in US interests is also reflected in the case of the faltering Anaklia port project. Located on the Black Sea coast, the new deep-sea port will be capable of receiving large container ships and perhaps, as many suggest, even military ships.

In the age of increased US-China geopolitical competition across Eurasia, when there is essentially a battle going on to control crucial railways, roads and ports, Anaklia has become a focal point. This is not to say that the US is not interested in the port. In fact, Americans were behind stopping the Chinese from becoming sole investors in the port. In June this year, Mike Pompeo even said that Anaklia port’s “implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China. These imaginary friends are not driven by good intentions.” However since that time, American companies have withdrawn major investments from the port and there is a noticeable reduction in the attention being paid to the project.

More worrisome is that Russia might be the reason. Moscow is building its own deep-sea port in the Kerch Strait and there have been instances when the US chose to avoid raising Russian fears in the Black Sea. For example, during the latest congressional testimony in Washington, it was reported that a Navy freedom-of-navigation operation in the Black Sea with visits to Georgian ports was cancelled earlier in 2019 after Trump complained to then-national security adviser John Bolton that the operation would irritate Russia.

There is more to this. As the impeachment hearings continue and the US moves into an election year, ever less attention will be paid to the Black Sea region, and Georgia in particular. Moreover, in the longer run, US competition with China will further limit Washington’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to rising problems in the Black Sea region.

This is also complicated by the absence of an appointed US Ambassador in Georgia, at a time when the country is experiencing demonstrations of various intensity ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections, as a result of which major repercussions might be seen from Washington.

From South Korea to the Kurds in Middle East to Ukraine, everyone feels how unpredictable the geopolitical situation in the world has become, leading to many among the political elite questioning how long-lasting dependence on US support can in reality be.

Like other states across Eurasia, the Georgian political elite is also starting to look into various possibilities to balance the US’ lack of attention. Talking directly to Russians is one such solution. No wonder the Georgian foreign ministry held its first meeting (since 2008) this September with the Minister’s Russian counterpart. Though diplomatically there is nothing wrong in this scenario, overall, however, it signals that Tbilisi now has fewer cards to play to evade Moscow’s increasing pressure in such crucial issues as energy, security, etc.

As a result, Moscow’s influence is bound to grow in the Black Sea region – a borderline between Russia and NATO. Moreover, as Russia has heavily militarized the annexed Crimean Peninsula and uses the latter as a jump point for control of the Kerch Strait, US support for the construction of Anaklia’s deep-sea port could serve as a good balance to Moscow’s Black Sea strategy.

This article was published at Georgia Today

Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the former Soviet sphere.

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