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-à-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 belongs.