The Ukrainian crisis has returned the Black Sea to the center of a struggle for geostrategic influence between major powers.

The Crimea crisis may fuel tensions in the Black Sea. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Repeated violations, in recent years, of treaties designed to respect the European balance of powers, have forced the imperial cabinet to try to understand their importance in relation to the political situation in Russia.” This is how Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov began his famous circular note in 1870, which brought back the right of the Russian Empire to keep a naval force in the Black Sea.

During the entire 19th century, this body of water, with an area of about 430,000 square kilometers, was one of the most important sites in terms of the strategic plans of seafaring nations. The Black Sea region was where the boundaries were being formed between two powerful empires on Europe’s eastern borders -- the Russian and Ottoman Empires. In addition, Austria-Hungary, France, and the global superpower of the time – Great Britain, also had interests in this region.

The Crimean Campaign of 1853-1856 was only one of the many episodes of great power rivalry for supremacy on the Black Sea. The main prize in the struggle was control over the strategic Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and influence over the division of control over populations of the decaying Ottoman Empire.

The peak strategic importance of the Black Sea occurred in the 19th century, while in the 20th century it started steadily declining. Although this sea was one of the theaters of both world wars, battles in this theater were not decisive ones. In the second half of the 20th century, the world’s strategic waterways became the Persian Gulf and the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean. In the beginning of the 21st century, this role passed to the Pacific Ocean, where, following the shifting center of economic growth to Asia, the potential for global conflict is now growing.

Today, the East China Sea (especially in the area of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) and the South China Sea have become perhaps the most explosive areas for conflict of the world oceans, where interests of the strongest military powers and the largest fleets can come into conflict.

However, events in Ukraine have returned the Black Sea region once again to the strategic map of the world. The word “Crimea” in the headlines of leading global media, so reminiscent of the 19th century, is a reflection of a long-term trend, regardless of the final outcome of the current conflict.

Why is this?

Starting from the 1990s, the Black Sea region, which was one of the most peaceful theaters of the Cold War, saw major changes happening. The end of a sharp confrontation between the two blocs and the dissolution of the USSR launched into action a number of processes that are in effect today.

First, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflict between its former republics, as well as within them, led to the emergence of several “frozen conflicts.” One of these is the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict – which is directly related to the Black Sea, as both countries have a coastline and a maritime border. Naval ships participated in the war in the early 1990s, and then during the conflict in August 2008, Russian military vessels blockaded the Black Sea coast of Georgia.

Not that far from the Black Sea coast, there appeared other “frozen conflicts” – South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Also located near the coast are Transnistria and Gagauzia. The presence of unresolved territorial disputes has led to an overall increase in tension and militarization of the coastal zone.

The second important process is the conversion of the Black Sea into an important region for the transit of hydrocarbons to Europe. In 2003, an underwater gas pipeline project was launched from Russia to Turkey – the Blue Stream. In 2014, Gazprom intends to begin construction of an even more ambitious project – the South Stream.

At the same time, near the Black Sea coast, other alternative delivery routes for hydrocarbons pass from the Caucasus to the EU, bypassing Russia – the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzurum gas pipeline. In addition, a pipeline will be built that will connect the Shah Deniz Gas Field on the Caspian shelf of Azerbaijan with consumers in Europe.

The third important process is the change in the overall geopolitical balance in the region. In 2004, during a NATO summit in Istanbul, Romania and Bulgaria were accepted into the alliance. Thus, half of the Black Sea came under the control of NATO forces. After the color revolutions of 2003-2004 in Georgia and Ukraine, the new governments in Tbilisi and Kiev also announced their intentions to join the alliance, triggering Russian opposition. Finally, after Islamists led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Turkey, Ankara developed into a strong regional power with a very active diplomacy and its own interests.

Prior to the current conflict, a considerable conflict potential had already grown in the region, with accumulating tensions over the past 20 years. Conflicting geo-economic interests (especially in terms of pipelines) of major powers led to antagonisms between Russia, the EU, the U.S., and, to a certain degree, Turkey. This competition is taking place in a region with a highly unstable political and economic situation.

For a long time is seemed that Ukraine was not actively involved in this ongoing “big game” in the region. The value of the country as a transit hub for the transportation of Russian gas (about 150 billion cubic meters per year) decreased after the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline.

Moreover, if the South Stream is implemented, the importance of Ukraine will grow even less, given that shipments from Gazprom to the EU are hardly growing, while investments into expensive pipeline projects by the Russian monopoly could redirect gas flows.

However, the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and subsequent events have shown that Ukraine, with its 45 million people, is perhaps the most vulnerable state in the region. Regardless of the outcome of the crisis in the Crimea, the split of the country between the west and center on the one hand, and the southeast on the other, has become apparent.

Contradictions between the two parts of the country, kept below the surface, were suddenly made very real. And although not all residents of the southeast seek to secede from Ukraine, it is obvious that in these regions, people and businesses are heavily dependent on Russia – economically and ideologically.

Obviously, this division will be one of the important factors determining the course of events in the region. Today, at the hottest point – Crimea – interests of many regional players have come into play – besides Ukraine and Russia, Turkey is having a significant impact on the community of Crimean Tatars.

Stabilization of the region will be possible only under the condition that the key regional players come to a compromise on the future of their countries and the entire Black Sea basin. A key factor will be the ability for the West and Russia to find a compromise – they will determine the new rules of the game and the new rules of peaceful coexistence.

This story is abridged from the original version published in Kommersant-Vlast magazine