U.S. officials view the war in Ukraine as a way of achieving geopolitical objectives in the Black Sea, an energy-rich region that connects Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
At two recent Senate hearings, State Department officials portrayed the war as a means of transforming the geopolitics of energy in the Black Sea. As long as Ukrainians keep fighting, they said, there remains a potential to transform the Black Sea into a new market for the European Union. The officials envisioned a new energy corridor that provides Europe with oil and natural gas from Central Asia.
“The United States has long recognized the geostrategic importance of the Black Sea region,” State Department official James O’Brien told the Senate in a written statement. “Not only does the Black Sea border three NATO Allies and several NATO partners, but it is also a vital corridor for the movement of goods – including Ukrainian grain and other products bound for world markets – and hosts significant untapped energy resources.”
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, officials in Washington have seen the war as an opportunity to weaken Russia. While they have mobilized military and economic support for Ukraine’s defense, they have worked to impose major costs on Russia’s military and economy. As U.S.-backed Ukrainian forces have imposed major losses on Russian forces, the United States and its allies have worked to isolate Russia economically and limit its revenues from the sale of oil and natural gas.
So far, the United States has provided Ukraine with $43.9 billion in military assistance, and a U.S.-led coalition of some 50 nations has committed an additional $33 billion in military support.
The support of the United States and its allies has proven critical to Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, which “starts with the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian fighters,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged last year. “But what we’ve been able to provide them – the United States, Germany, and many other partners and allies – is what is making the difference.”
While U.S. officials have been open about their intentions of using Ukraine to weaken Russia, they have been careful about claiming that they are making hardheaded geopolitical calculations. Typically, U.S. officials have remained sensitive to the Ukrainian position that the war is a matter of resisting Russia’s military occupation, especially given that so many Ukrainians have died fighting in the war.
“We brought together a coalition of more than 50 countries to help Ukraine defend itself, and it’s critical,” President Biden said in September, as he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
When O’Brien spoke to a Senate committee on October 25, he provided a blunter explanation of U.S. goals. Not only did he portray the war as “a very good bargain” for the United States, citing the fact that “Ukrainians are paying the bulk of the cost” by doing nearly all the fighting, but he also described it as an opportunity for the United States to achieve major geopolitical objectives, ones he indicated were “incredibly exciting.”
One key objective, O’Brien explained, is to strengthen NATO’s presence in the Black Sea. Given that NATO is present in the Black Sea through member states and partner countries, O’Brien saw an opportunity to use the war to increase NATO’s military presence across the region’s lands, airspace, and waters. In terms of the weapons involved, he said, “that will be something that NATO will dig in on.”
Pulling the Black Sea Westward
Another key objective, O’Brien noted, is to pull Ukraine and other Black Sea countries away from Russia while integrating them into the European Union, where they will be required to follow its rules of trade and production. The entire region, he envisioned, “becomes a place where we’re in very good position to control what happens as the rules get made,” he said.
In another major admission, O’Brien acknowledged that Washington aspires to create oil and gas pipelines that lead from Central Asia to Europe. Claiming that Central Asia relies too much on China and Russia to export its energy resources, O’Brien reviewed multiple possibilities for alternative pipelines to run through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.
“Whatever path we take leads us to the Black Sea,” he said.
The senators who convened the hearing supported O’Brien’s vision, agreeing that the Black Sea remains an area of great geopolitical importance. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who has been pressuring the Biden administration to devise a formal strategy for the Black Sea, praised its efforts to create a “new east-west energy corridor that would go under the Black Sea and provide an alternative for energy coming out of Central Asia into Europe.”
For decades, in fact, the United States has been pursuing geopolitical opportunities in the Black Sea. Years of analysis by U.S. diplomats, as captured in leaked diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, show that U.S. officials have attributed a great deal of importance to the region, especially as it concerns energy. One of Washington’s major goals has been to strengthen NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region, regardless of warnings that such moves could provoke Russia.
Earlier this year, Defense Department official Mara Karlin spoke about the “critical geostrategic importance” of the Black Sea region, characterizing it as a major frontline for the transatlantic alliance, a major link between Europe and the Middle East, and “a key node for transit infrastructure and energy resources.”
The Senate has been active in considering the geopolitical factors at stake. Not long after holding the hearing on October 25, the Senate convened an additional hearing on November 8 to revisit the reasons for the war in Ukraine. O’Brien testified once again, this time joined by additional colleagues who helped him reinforce his message about the geopolitics of energy in Ukraine, the Black Sea, and the broader region.
Redrawing the Energy Map
State Department official Geoffrey Pyatt, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now leads U.S. energy diplomacy, explained that the United States is facing extraordinary opportunities in the Black Sea region, which he described as “one of the fulcrums of the energy map of Europe today.”
One of the most significant regional transformations, Pyatt explained, is “the redrawing of the energy map around the Black Sea that’s taking place.” It includes “new pipeline infrastructure,” such as “the Southern Gas Corridor to bring gas from Central Asia to European consumers.”
While the war has created new opportunities to transport natural gas from Central Asia to Europe, it has also made it much more difficult for Russia to export natural gas to Europe. Whereas Russian natural gas made up 45 percent of the EU’s natural gas imports in 2021, it is now down to 15 percent.
“As we look to the future, you’re going to have a Europe which has decoupled from Russian energy supplies,” Pyatt said.
So far, the major winner in the geopolitical contest has been U.S. energy companies. As Russian exports to Europe have decreased, U.S. exports have increased, positioning the United States to become one of Europe’s major suppliers. If Europe can acquire more natural gas from Central Asia, then Russia could potentially be excluded from the European market altogether.
As O’Brien noted, the situation is putting Russian President Vladimir Putin in a tough position. “It’s a long-term strategic loss for him, and it creates a great opportunity for us in a number of important sectors,” he said.
But a major question remains: how long will U.S. officials continue viewing the war as “a good deal for America,” as O’Brien described it? Although Ukraine is paying the bulk of the cost in terms of fighting, the number of deaths keeps rising, and there is no end in sight.
“It’s difficult to get a decisive battle, so what we need is what’s in the supplemental,” O’Brien said, referring to the Biden administration’s request for more money to help Ukraine fight the war. It will provide “the ability to fight this fight over some time,” he said.
This piece has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.