After Syria Withdrawal, NATO Must Turn Its Attention to the Black Sea—and Georgia

U.S. allies along the Black Sea have their confidence in America's security assistance weakened after President Donald Trump cancelled a U.S. freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea.

An associate of the former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker stated in a Congressional testimony on Tuesday that the White House canceled a routine US naval deployment in the Black Sea after Trump complained to then-national security adviser John Bolton that the operation is "anti-Russian."

This comes at a time when the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan and, partially, from Syria, leave the U.S. facing a strategic challenge: how to shore up its positions in the Gulf and in Europe's south-eastern frontier, and to ensure access to Europe's heartland.

To keep Russia and Iran in check, to secure land and sea trade lanes, and to provide redundancy for the U.S. bases in Turkey, NATO needs to develop and pursue a comprehensive strategy for the Black Sea. The Alliance needs more frequent presence of out-of-area NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, which were originally limited by the 1936 Montreux Convention, and are currently limited by tonnage and number.

Georgia, with its ports Batumi, Poti, and Anaklia (under construction) can play a major role in the developing Black Sea security strategy. The Black Sea and the Caucasus, connecting Europe and Asia, have been one of those North-South and East-West strategic crossroads for over two millennia. There came the ancient Greeks in search of the Golden Fleece and reaching the coasts of Colchis (today's Georgia), the Romans challenged the Parthians, and Rome's heir Byzantium fought for centuries with the Persian Empire, the Arabs, and the Turks. The Caucasus—Georgia and Armenia—is also the east-most reaches of Christianity.

Since the Middle Ages, Persians, Turks, and Russians all invaded, occupied, and conducted power struggles against Georgian and Armenian resistance. In 1918, at the end of World War I, the British Empire briefly occupied the Georgian cities of Tbilisi and Batumi, and the Azeri capital, Baku, only to betray and abandon the independence of the Trans-Caucasus countries into the hands of the Soviets in 1921. Hitler's mad dash for the Baku oil on the Caspian in 1942 demonstrated Caspian oil's importance. The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991, which temporarily loosened Moscow's iron grip on the region, triggered wars in Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s, in which Georgia lost territory.

Georgia plays the role of the Caucasus the gateway, controlling East-West access from Central Asia and the Silk Road via the Caspian to the Black Sea and the Atlantic, and in reverse, from the West inland, including a vital supply route to Afghanistan. It is also on an important North-South axis, controlling Russian access to Armenia and Iran. Georgia is an example of how small countries can play an outsized role in global security, a factor that Washington sometimes forgets.

Today, the Black Sea and the Caucasus are in the eye of a gathering storm: after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the 2014 Russian-Ukrainian war, Moscow is building up its Black Sea fleet as a tool of power projection to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Russia recognized the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent "states", and has turned them into armed camps to threaten its neighbors. Russian soldiers regularly move border posts deeper into the Georgian territory, continuing an active policy of aggression and annexation.

The small post-Soviet democracy—Georgia—has proven that it is willing to be a friend in times of need to the U.S., having sent thousands of soldiers to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the U.S., and suffering proportionally heavier losses than our NATO allies. Georgians dream of joining NATO and the European Union, with which they signed an Association Agreement in 2016.

Recognizing the importance of the security of the Black Sea and the Caucasus region, the U.S. Congress adopted the bipartisan Georgia Support Act on October 23, 2019. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA), the Act's sponsor and head of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), its Republican co-sponsor, stressed that the U.S. should play a role in supporting Georgia's security in the face of Russian threats. The Act is now before the Senate – a unique opportunity for the American people to demonstrate solidarity with a small, crucial and besieged nation.

The Act calls for an assessment of threats to Georgia's sovereignty and independence, enhanced measures to counter them, and sanctions on Russia if it continues to threaten Georgia's territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence – which it is constantly doing.

Boosting us the U.S. and NATO presence in the Caucasus and the Black Seas, strengthening ties with NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria, as well as with Georgia, a strong U.S. ally in the Caucasus, and deploying a permanent NATO squadron in the Black Sea, would boost U.S. and allied security. Such steps would send a strong signal to friends and foes that the U.S. is serious about protecting NATO's flanks and NATO partners, Georgia first and foremost.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center. He is the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Greenwood Praeger, 1998) and travels to Georgia and the Black Sea region regularly.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​