The other Middle Sea

The Black Sea is back at the centre of a new order of world geopolitics.

15th century map of the Black Sea.
15th century map of the Black Sea. Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

Earlier this summer Russia did something it had not done in over a century. It fired  – or so it claimed – on a British warship. The location was the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, a move met with condemnation by Britain and much of the rest of the world. For many, the shelling incident resembled more the ‘Great Power’ struggles of the nineteenth century than contemporary geopolitics, with an assortment of journalists – conveniently placed aboard the ship in question, HMS Defender – breathlessly reporting  what seemed increasingly dramatic versions of the event.

Since the end of the Crimean War in 1856, the Black Sea has largely slipped out of the Western mind. In a sense, the body of water has always been defined in relation to its nearest neighbour, the Mediterranean, which for centuries played the role its name suggests. In part, the Black Sea’s subordinate status is a matter of geology, with the sea literally flooded by its larger partner at the end of the last ice age, turning it from the modest ‘Neoeuxine Lake’ into the sea it is today.

In the ancient and early modern worlds the Black Sea was explicitly the edge of the known world: to the north and to the east dwelled the barbaroi of Greek myth and history; the roaming Tatar Khans; and the steppe-dwelling Cossacks, all of whom were viewed in their day as the great threat to civilisation. With the rise of the Ottomans, however, and subsequently the large Russian expansion into the south, the centre of the world map shifted east, with the Black Sea right at its heart. As trade routes blossomed, Istanbul and later Odessa boomed, the wealth of the world flowing to and from their harbours.

Over the last century and a half Atlantic geopolitics have been the world’s great focus, as the age of empires turned into one of superpower opposition. Today, the governments of Western Europe and the US talk of a new Indo-Pacific tilt to tackle the growing threat of China. But another look at the coasts of the Black Sea suggest it will play a considerable role in the new era of geopolitical struggle.

Where before it was bounded by two – or three, counting the Austro-Hungarian empire – powers, the sea is now hemmed in on every side. To the north is Russia, for whom the warm water ports of the basin are essential to its ability to project power. South sits Turkey, which in recent years has cooled on its European designs and showed it is willing to play a bolder hand in the affairs of its near-neighbours, first Syria, then Libya, and most notably in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict which broke out last autumn. The EU now straddles most of Europe, although at its core it remains a Western, Christian project, with little evidence that further enlargement in the Balkan states is imminent.

And then there is China, set on transforming the Eurasian steppe through its Belt and Road Initiative, the so-called ‘New Silk Road’. Benevolent or malevolent, there can be no denying that the Black Sea is at the centre of the plan, as a brief survey of investments made so far attests. China is currently in talks with Georgia about expanding the Poti Sea Port at the mouth of the Rioni river, the country’s largest port, as well as connecting Batumi to Baku, thus linking the Black and Caspian Seas – an infrastructure project often posited throughout history. Further, in recent years China has surpassed Russia as Ukraine’s largest trade partner, with plans to invest and upgrade a number of ports around the littoral. Across the sea lies Bulgaria, and the EU single market: plans to develop the port terminals at Burgas and Varna would give the Chinese yet another new foothold within the body of its largest trading partner.

But it is not just on the trade front that the Black Sea is back in the limelight. The UK-Russia incident was a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is far from over. The Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was brief but bloody, with the West watching as Russia and Turkey managed to dismember the latter. The two countries also continue to consolidate defence relations, with a further missile defence deal looking increasingly likely, much to the chagrin of the US. In the background, the regions of Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia continue to protest their independence.

In the ancient world, the Black Sea had a simple name: it was Pontus, ‘the sea.’ Today the linguistic root survives in the French ‘pont’, which means ‘bridge.’ For centuries this was exactly the role the basin played, whether as a means of facilitating trade, imperial ambition, or a route to conflict. Its time may yet come again.


Edward Thicknesse