Bridging Troubled Waters
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

Global powerbrokers have convergent interests in the Black
Sea region. They have more to gain by cooperation than

The 21st century is likely to be characterized by intensifying
competition and confrontation among the great powers, and energy
security is increasingly determining their prospects for
development, as well as bolstering national pride.

The wider Black Sea region is emerging as one of the key areas
in this new arena of conflict. Bordering on the Caspian Sea, it is
an important current and future source of oil and gas. The region
is also a significant transit corridor, with the potential to
connect resource-rich Central Asia to the world energy market.

All the major international players, including the United
States, China, Russia, and the European Union, are employing
different means of strategically positioning themselves in the
area, but they all share the same goal: to expand their influence
and secure an economic presence in the region.

The EU has based its strategy on a “soft power” approach,
involving integration policies developed during the process of
expansion. On the other hand, Russia and the United States have
employed more competitive means of exerting influence. But
differences in strategy vis-а-vis the wider Black Sea region result
less from ideological discrepancies than from the objectively
contradictory interests of the players involved.

The EU is convinced of the historical superiority of its
political model, and the same holds true for the United States. In
other words, in the West, there is the conviction that what is good
for Europe and America is good for everybody else, including the
wider Black Sea region, because the Western model is correct – a
belief strengthened by the collapse of Soviet communism and Western
leaders’ resulting sense of triumph.

But world affairs did not go the way Western cold warriors
supposed. We have not witnessed the end of history. Rather, what we
are now seeing is a new spiral of geopolitical competition that is,
in many respects, more dangerous than the confrontational stability
of the Cold War’s bipolar world.

Western politicians constantly repeat that it is necessary to
abandon zero-sum thinking and look for win-win models instead. But
at the same time, democracy-minded regional organizations, which
the West has been encouraging in the Black Sea region since late
1990s, are in fact based on the need to create alternative energy
roads bypassing Russia.

It is not surprising, therefore, when the West talks about
“anchoring” or “integrating” the wider Black Sea region and its
first instrument of choice for such a transformation is NATO, not
the EU. NATO is a politico-military organization whose goal was and
is defense against a common enemy, not the spread of welfare and
democracy. The reason why NATO is the West’s first choice is not
only because of the complexity of the EU, which cannot go on
enlarging endlessly, but because NATO also promotes the
geo-strategic interests of the United States.

The possibilities the European Union can offer the region are
indeed very limited, and its capabilities do not match its
ambitions. Many developments happening now in Ukraine are connected
to the fact that the EU has not been able to offer Ukraine any
clear prospect for membership after the Orange Revolution. It could
not do this because of the deep identity crisis affecting Europe.
Until this issue is resolved, it is suicidal to speak about further
EU enlargement.

As a result, the key player in the wider Black Sea region is not
the EU, but the United States, with NATO as its instrument. And
there is no ideological misunderstanding between Russia and the
United States, simply a well-established geopolitical competition.
This situation is even more obvious in Central Asia, where China
has also joined as a major player.


In the past two decades, the Black Sea region has experienced
various upheavals: wars, border revisions, ethnic conflicts,
political and economic crises, and “colored” revolutions. Of
course, these events were always initiated at a domestic level, but
the great powers have maintained a significant role throughout.

Any conflict in the region, no matter what caused it, features
elements of geopolitical competition – be it the revolutionary
confrontations in Georgia and Ukraine, or the struggles between
various political parties and politicians in any country. Western
perception quickly simplifies the conflict to a clash between
“pro-Western” and “anti-Western” or “pro-Russian” and
“anti-Russian” forces.

There is a serious contradiction here: at a rhetorical level,
the leading world players reject the former principles of
geopolitics and balanced interests. They speak of humanitarian
values and a new type of politics. At a practical level, however,
these countries are still guided by national interests, and they
are not ready to assume responsibility for formulating new rules of
the game that would suit everyone. This confusion, emanating from
the highest levels, has a negative impact upon the regional
political players, too.

No one wants to admit that the good old days of geopolitical
competition did not vanish with the collapse of communism. The 21st
century is a world where great powers and national interests,
coinciding or conflicting, play an increasingly important role. But
we have lost the habit of living in such a world. For half a
century, we lived under the rigid conditions of bipolar
confrontation and behaved accordingly. For another decade, the West
dominated while Russia temporarily fell out of international
significance, and Western ideas about the correct world order were
implemented without serious opposition.


Geopolitics can be an unpleasant thing. Europe knows this from
its own experiences over many centuries. This is why, in the second
half of the 20th century, Europe tried, once and for all, to turn
the page on this type of politics. The attempt was very successful,
but it depended on the context of the American security umbrella
and the presence of a serious external threat from Soviet
communism. The disappearance of that external threat destroyed the
balance of the system, and the world around the EU has since become
much less structured. Europe’s search for something to replace the
old order seems like the search for a new world.

There are many problems and contradictions between Russia and
the West, as well as between Europe and the United States. But none
of these grievances cannot be solved through agreements or, to use
the more politically incorrect language of geopolitics, through
deals. But to achieve such deals, both sides need to be prepared to
engage in serious dialogue and compromise, instead of focusing only
on ideology and claims of truth.

We need to consider each other’s geopolitical interests and
incorporate economic and energy competition into a civilized
debate. This is especially true when we realize that, over the long
term, the real threats to both Russia and the West come either from
the inside (demographic and social disproportions), or from forces
outside the European cultural matrix, where Russia genuinely

This article first appeared on Transitions Online

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