Contrary to the Baltic Sea region, in the Caucasus the Great Powers have throughout history considered simple division as a solution to all problems.
Since 2012, Sulev Kannike has been the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine. He has previously served as vice chancellor for political affairs in the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has been director-general of the legal department, political department, and the policy planning division of the Foreign Ministry. From 1999 to 2003 Kannike was the Estonian ambassador to NATO and from 2003 to 2005 he served as vice chancellor of the Ministry of Defence.
Five years down the line, the shock and emotions related to the war of 2008 are on the wane and one can ask whether there is reason to compare the respective fates of Georgia and Estonia even if one excludes all the political factors inherent to the era. For instance, if one tried to forget the particular people in power (Mikheil Saakashvili vs. Vladimir Putin), conflicts of ideology (clashes of different nationalisms), and the broader conflict of values (democracy vs. autocracy, relations between the EU, NATO, USA, and Russia). Such an approach does not embody any trickery. Should we take any military conflict and reduce emotions, values, ideologies (even civilisations and their confrontations) and military-political particularities, we are left with the geopolitical skeleton of the region.
1. The skeleton of the Caucasus and the Baltic Sea region
Both the Caucasus and the Baltic Sea region – particularly its eastern shore – are characterised by the fact that such relatively small areas have throughout history been playgrounds to various foreign rulers, places where they could exercise their purposeful lust for power and conquest. That is why there is a definite temptation to look for parallels, and such comparisons do bring something valuable with them.
However, leaving aside the motives and distressful deeds of the regional big players, we can start delving into the topic from the other end, i.e. the end result that the conquerors and the rulers have achieved. In that case the Caucasus and the Baltic Sea region represent quite different models of securing a local balance of power. We can call them confrontational and shared control models.
In the regions that follow the confrontational model, both the big and the small regional powers act according to the principle of achieving maximum control – the crowning achievements of regional domination are maximised territorial conquests; a confrontational stance remains even in the case of secondary disputes. Such a region is characterised by the existence of puppet states and regimes throughout history, which goes to show that when direct conquest has been impossible, the next best thing has been the division of the region into clear-cut spheres of influence.
In the regions with shared control, circumstances have set boundaries to the activities of the Great Powers and forced them to achieve moderate instead of maximum goals. Emotional ambitions have been pushed to the background and the main goal is to obtain or retain military-political veto power over developments that threaten the particular country’s vital interests in the region. There is readiness to reach a compromise over secondary interests and the existence of satellite states in the region is more an exception rather than a rule. This means that instead of forming clear-cut zones of interest, critical spots of the region are controlled by means of agreements, some of which may even be informal. It must be stressed that even this model does not exclude territorial conquest. However, conquests usually remain limited and – regardless of how aggressive the initial impulse was – morph into underscoring a right to exercise regional veto powers rather than being a means and an expression of an unlimited desire to dominate.
Based on such criteria, the behaviour of the states in the Baltic Sea region has throughout history mostly followed the model of shared control. Examples can be found from any period of the region’s history; beginning with the fact that in recorded history no single great power alone has conquered all the shores of the Baltic Sea. The model of rivalry between Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the Holy Roman Empire and Russia which emerged in the region during the times of the Livonian war basically persisted (with alternating participants) until the beginning of and even during the Cold War. Wars were certainly waged during that time both at sea and on land and wars have logic of their own. With the re-emergence of peace, however, one can time and time again find examples and even in details, to which one would be hard pressed to find parallels from the Caucasus, be it the regulation of the Åland issue and multitudes of agreements from the year 1809 on, the contemporary voluntary maintenance of the 5+5 nautical miles wide corridor of international waters in the Gulf of Finland by Estonia and Finland, or Finlandisation and the following dispute over its nature, which characterises the vagueness of the local politics of spheres of influence.
This is how our neck of the woods differs from the Caucasus. Over there, the Great Powers have throughout history considered simple division as a solution to all problems. That policy ultimately crystallised during the Cold War when state borders were drawn so clearly between Turkey/NATO and the Soviet Union that there was not even any need for spheres of influence. An expansive desire to dominate in the region, inflexibility even in second-rate and third-rate issues, and relying on the winner-takes-all principle still haunt the region to this day. Needless to say that this does not apply solely to Russia’s attitudes and activities. Anybody can easily find the same pattern repeating itself over and over in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Abkhazia, and so on and so forth.
The longevity on the shared control model around the Baltic Sea has a number of geographical-political reasons and looking for them brings our attention back to the sea (see Section 2). The particularities of the Caucasian region on the other hand are deeply continental in nature despite the closeness of the Black Sea. This can be reduced to the fact that looking from Russia’s perspective, it is impossible to descend the Caucasus Mountains step by step. From there it is only possible to fall down head over heels and the concussion can be so severe that the 21st century state finds itself reduced to the strategic space of the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
A glance at the geographic map explains what constitutes the core of Russia’s fears. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has only been able to defend its access to the Caspian, Azov and Black Seas by remaining in the Caucasus mountain range and preferably by nudging its border towards the southern edge of the range. Retreating from the mountains among the simmering Islamic autonomous regions threatens not only Krasnodar, access to the Black Sea and the Volga estuary, and Astrakhan. More daring writers (for example George Friedman) have opined that should Russia be forced to leave the Caucasus, the political-military inertia of the setback could push the border 500 to 600 kilometres northward across the plains. This would bring Russia’s border and defence boundary to another already sensitive bottleneck between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. It is only about 400 kilometres from Lugansk, Ukraine to Volgograd and the Kazakh border right across the Volga River as the crow flies. Should Russia allow its influence in the Caucasus to be diminished, it would mean risking a geostrategic nightmare.1 Taking the above into account, there is no real substance to the sometimes presented speculative idea to divide Chechnya into two, i.e. into mountains and plains, with the border running along the Terek River. Were we to slightly exaggerate, it could be said that geopolitically speaking, Russia would possibly rather give up Siberia up to the Ural Mountains than retreat from the Caucasus. The sad fact remains that as long as Russia avoids the nightmare, it means an equally horrible reality for our Georgian friends.
Political inflexibility and the tendency to engage in confrontation over the minutest of issues in the Caucasus Mountains is therefore a function of historic-geographic conditions and not really a question of the players’ free will or political morality. Analogy with the situation on the shores of the Baltic Sea does not apply in any way. Russia can allow itself to abandon the Baltic coast as long as St. Petersburg stands – something it has done more than once – and still remain within the borders of the days of Peter the Great and not Grand Prince Vasili III (Ivan IV conquered Astrakhan in 1556). It is hard to tell whether Estonia`s choices here would be possible without Lake Peipus as a natural border. Luckily, the Chudes have their border lake.
A separate topic is favouring the confrontational model for interpreting changes in the security environment. Shaping security policy is an activity with paranoid undercurrents, because in order to avoid tragic surprises one tends to overestimate risks rather than underestimate them. For example, this is why in a region with shared control (moderate) trust and transparency can disappear much earlier than the actual balance would imply. Events external to the region can also have an influence over it. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, that is the reason why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have interpreted the military exercise Zapad, the deployment of the Iskander missiles in the region, the regularly waxing and waning rumours about tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad etc. more according to the logic of confrontation rather than along the lines of the other possible version – that Russia is imposing its regional veto power.
2. The valuable friendship of the master of the seas
The geography of the Baltic Sea region gives an additional boost to the shared control model. This is exemplified by the historic importance of the open sea and free navigation (in later times – international waters) in shaping the region’s politics and its fate. On the contrary, the Black Sea has in no shape or form acted to soothe the sharp conflicts that simmer on land (and especially in the highlands). The fate of the Black Sea itself has been subject to various continental interests and the balance of power on the Mediterranean Sea. The status of the Bosporus Straits cannot be compared to that of the Danish straits and the 1936 Montreux Convention that remains stubbornly in force is the legal affirmation of that fact. However, interests arising from the sea and the land have given rise to a remarkable new lateral force. It can be said that in the Baltic Sea region, the open sea has functioned as a contrary factor to the politics of spheres of influence.
That is why Estonia’s fate in particular has always been hanging by the thread of the interest that the region’s/world’s dominant maritime power expresses toward the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Every time there has been such interest, the maritime power has usually been able to support the Eastern shore’s aspirations for independence and separateness. We can find evidence for this from the importance of the Hanseatic League and its fleets in the history of Estonia and Livonia, from the arrival of the British fleet in Tallinn in December 1918, and the support that the United States lent to the independence of the Baltic states after 1991. Support for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, situated in the backwaters of the Baltic Sea, would have been considerably less credible if the United States Navy were not the ruler of the oceans.2
All the examples mentioned above conform to the rare moments of independence in our history.3 One should hardly be astonished by the fact that in a way, this notion about such a nuance of interconnectedness between Estonia’s hopes and its location is reflected in the nation’s subconscious. That is why the well-known song declares right at the outset, ‘Stay free, Estonian sea…’ and since the days of the Prophet Maltsvet, the ‘white ship’ (and not a ‘white horseman’ or a ‘light-blue tank’) has become the most powerful poetic-political image in Estonia.
The primary task of the navy of the Republic of Estonia is to keep access to our harbours clear of mines, and our diplomatic corps is vigilant to ensure that the Baltic Sea not be closed under any pretence.4 While making long-term security prognoses for Estonia, it is at the same time unavoidable to keep an eye on what is happening on more distant seas and in the world of admirals. First, this is important for the reason that while the United States continues to be the dominant maritime power, there is a factual basis to the official statements from Washington that the reduction of the number of America’s land forces in Europe can be offset with the capabilities of the United States Navy.
Second, the opening up of the ice-free Arctic Ocean, which may happen during the next generation, could herald a new phase in the race to develop military and civil fleets. The Baltic Sea and its shores would then gain a new geopolitical significance. We could theorise about its exact nature, but ripples from the new balance of power will probably arrive here from the Arctic sooner rather than later. This means that it is improbable that the entire attention of maritime powers (and future maritime powers) will then focus on the northern boundary of Eurasia, and the Baltic Sea will fall into a long and pink geopolitical slumber.
In connection with this (or without associating it with the problems in the Arctic), the possibility that a country like China could become a major maritime power sometime during the next 30 years belongs more or less to the realm of science fiction. However, should a new hegemon appear on the oceans (whoever that may be), the new crop of security politicians of the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea would have to really rack their brains to work out a way to engage it and lure it to support our region’s security. Just like all the previous powerful maritime powers have more or less fulfilled that role before.
Summing it up and looking another generation forward to the future – it is quite impossible to predict whether future space powers will ever be able to replace the historic role of the maritime powers in our region. Just in case, though, we should keep open the vertical axis to the space ocean in addition to the nautical horizontal axis, and the disputes among the Great Powers over missile defence systems already involve that aspect even today. The white (space)ship will have to reach our grandchildren even in a hundred and two hundred years if necessary, and with stronger certainty and faster than its predecessor across the blue waves in the mouth of the Gulf of Finland.
Translation from Estonian to English by Raivo Hool.
1 The described danger area in the Russian Federation is encompassed entirely in the dedicated Southern Military District, which indicates that Russia is well aware of the risks.
2 Because of the closed nature of the Black Sea, such credibility was lacking during the war of 2008.
3 Not to mention the days of yore when the ‘Eastern Vikings’ themselves tried to domineer on the Baltic Sea from time to time.
4 During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, acting under the pretext of enhancing maritime confidence, made repeated proposals to other Baltic Sea nations that would have led to shutting the sea down to other navies. The Russian Federation has continued to pursue that tradition and it is no coincidence that it is the United States and the Baltic states in particular that have expressed the most pronounced distrust towards so-called maritime confidence and security building measures.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.