The Black Sea region connects Europe with Asia and the Eurasian land mass to the Middle East through Turkey on its southern rim, which borders Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The northern Balkans lie on its western shores and the Caucasus on its eastern end, the latter a land bridge to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.
Ukraine, Russia and the strategic Sea of Azov are on its northern perimeter.
Given its central location the Black Sea has been coveted for millennia by major powers: The Persian and Roman empires, Greeks and Hittites, Byzantines and Huns, Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia, even by Napoleon's France and Hitler's Germany in their wars to unite Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
The famed Trojan War was fought for control of Troy/Dardania/Ilium, the entrance to the Sea of Marmara which connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. The strait connecting the two is still called the Dardanelles after ancient Dardania.
Going back to antiquity a third continent has also been involved, Africa; the Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Black Sea city of Colchis, now in modern Georgia, was founded by Egyptians and in Virgil's if not Homer's account of the siege of Troy Memnon, king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), is slain by Achilles fighting in defense of Troy.
A Romanian news source recently reiterated the importance of the region for the modern era:
"Through the Black Sea, the European area strategically meets Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, hydrocarbon production and transit areas."
(Nine O'Clock News, May 14, 2008)
Allusions to the Black Sea's importance for not only energy and transit but for world military purposes will occur frequently in citations to follow.
Prior to the breakup of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 and the Soviet Union two years later the Black Sea was mainly off limits to the West in general and to the Pentagon and NATO in particular. Until 1991 only four states bordered the sea, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and the Soviet Union.
Turkey as a key NATO member state was the West's sole beachhead in the region with Bulgaria and Romania, the second more nominally than in fact, members of the Eastern bloc and the Warsaw Pact.
In the intervening eighteen years the situation in this region, like so many others, has been transformed and a new battle for control of it has emerged.
There have arisen two new littoral states, Georgia and Ukraine, with Abkhazia added last August, and every past Warsaw Pact nation outside the former Soviet Union is currently a full member of both NATO and the European Union - Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the former German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia - with three former Soviet republics on the Baltic Sea - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - also dual members.
As an Indian commentator, Premen Addy, described it last summer:
"NATO's noose is drawn ever tighter round the Russian neck. American military and missile bases are already ensconced in Romania and Bulgaria - two states once in harness with Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and the invading Nazi legions into the USSR - in a bid to strangle the possible emergence of a rival centre of power in the Black Sea...."
(Daily Pioneer, August 16, 2008)
A year earlier the online intelligence site The Power and Interest News Report in an analysis called "Bulgaria, U.S. Bases and Black Sea Geopolitics" summarized the situation regarding one key Black Sea state in the following words:
"Geographically speaking, Bulgaria provides the U.S. (and N.A.T.O.) a greater presence in the Black Sea, through which there are plans to build oil and gas pipelines.
"Also, it is close to the former Yugoslavia, a place of constant tensions, particularly in the last decade.
"The [new Pentagon] bases allow the U.S. to keep increased control of the country and the Greater Middle East region, as Washington now has a military presence in the south (America's 5th fleet is based in Bahrain) and will have a presence in the north through nearby Bulgaria."
(August 29, 2007)