The Kremlin wants the rest of the world to believe that it has a special role and set of rights in the Black Sea. Too many Western policymakers fall for this. In truth, the political, economic, and security development of the region is important in its own right.

Russia’s push on the Black Sea dates from the Tsarist era. During the Cold War, all littoral territory apart from Turkey was part of either the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact allies. Now Russia has a legal claim to only 10 percent of the Black Sea coast. The other littoral states, with a population of 150m, are independent, democratic, and seeking their own economic development and security. Three are NATO allies and the others are NATO partners. These countries are emerging democracies. They need to strengthen democratic institutions and fight corruption, boost growth, enhance energy security, and improve connectivity.

The first pillar of Western policy should be supporting democracy. Growing the zone of stable, law-governed political freedom in Europe is a strategic interest. Successful development in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova also sends a signal to the Russian people about the cost of kleptocracy.

Second is economic development. The legacy of communism is inefficient and often state-controlled industries, poor infrastructure, environmental degradation, rural underdevelopment, and heavy, often irrational, regulation, which creates a hotbed of corruption. When the countries of the Black Sea region become strong, growing connected participants in the transatlantic and global economy, everyone benefits — in the region, and elsewhere.

Third is justice. Corruption and the abuse of power benefits a few, at the expense of all. It hampers development at a national and regional level. Much of the corruption in the region involves accomplices in Western financial centers, laundering money, and creating anonymous shell companies. These operate with near-impunity. Finger wagging from the sidelines has failed. A positive, wide-ranging agenda would encourage strategic alignment and progress. The West needs to align itself as a friend both of the states of the region, and an ally of their people.

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Fourth is connectivity. Increasing the region’s engagement with the rest of the world is critical for rising prosperity, strengthens national sovereignty and independence, and builds stronger regional ties. Air, road, rail, sea, and data connections across and around the Black Sea all lag the rest of Europe. In past centuries, maritime routes were the mainstay of international trade. In this respect, the Black Sea now should be seen as a connector rather than a barrier.

Fifth is independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Prosperity requires peace and peace requires mutual respect. Every country in the region has a right to its own territory, destiny — and alliances. Russia’s occupation of parts of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova is designed to prevent these countries from exercising sovereign choices. Neither those countries, nor the West, should accept this Russian imposition.

Sixth is regional security. This is an extension of the rule of law, a principle of defending systems that protect sovereignty and territorial integrity, and good governance and economic benefits to society. It is not directed against Russia — or any other state. But prosperity, stable democratic development, economic dependability, and regional development are all predicated on security.

Rather than accepting Russia’s agenda and the provocative behavior that promotes it, the states of the region and their Western partners should focus on building the future that is right in front of them.

A former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at CEPA and Senior International Advisor at BGR Group.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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