Power perception and conflict prevention in the Black Sea region: the EU, Russia and Turkey

Crossroads Europe |

Welcome to our third UACES Graduate Forum podcast in this series. We welcome Neli Kirilova PhD Candidate in Security Studies, Doctoral School of International Relations and Political Science, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary & PhD Fellow at the Doctoral School on CSDP / CFSP, European Security and Defence College in Brussels, Belgium.




Welcome Neli, and congratulations on your recently submitted PhD thesis. This is fantastic news and must be a relief after all of the work that went into your research.

Thank you so much, Niall! I am really happy that I have finally submitted this dissertation and it gives me an amazing feeling and I am happy to share more bout the research with you.


Your research topic is on the ‘Power perception and conflict prevention in the Black Sea region: the EU, Russia and Turkey’. So, first of all, could you tell me what relations do you see between your research and the current global situation?

We are currently facing a war in Ukraine which is in the black sea region, but I started my research before that. The current security crisis in Ukraine shows two main facts. First, the Black Sea region is still a zone of competition for influence, which leads to crisis escalation with devastating consequences as we observe nowadays. Second, the reactions of the international community happen too late – instead of waiting until a crisis escalates, the conflicts should be prevented in advance. This is why I focus my research on regional conflict prevention.


This definitely shows us the value of understanding conflict prevention. Did you have any particular reasons why you selected this topic?

Yes, the Black Sea region is in close proximity to the European Union. Another such region is the Western Balkans. The EU needs stability and security in its surrounding regions. As a researcher of Bulgarian origin, I have personal motivation to work on the EU preserving regional security in both, the Black Sea region and the Western Balkans. Bulgaria is also a new member and it is located just between these two crisis-intensified regions.


Thank you! Can you tell us what you found in your research?

Of course. The Black Sea region has been a zone of competition for regional dominance over centuries. The main regional competitors in relatively recent history have been Russia, Turkey, and the West – comprising of both NATO and the EU. I do examine the regional security crises and conflicts as a result of this competition for influence.

The main literature my research steps on is related to conflict prevention and power measurement in international relations. The classical theories of IR, which I find relevant to the regional competition, are two – balance of power and security dilemma. According to the balance of power theory, conflict is the result of unequal amounts of power and, therefore a lack of balance. According to security dilemma theory, conflict is the result of a misperception of the intentions of the other. Therefore, there are two main problems with these theories. First, a clear classification of the meaning of power is missing, which is needed for measuring power as Baldwin points out. Second, each regional context requires a specific approach, to be relevant to the participating actors, so that a conflict can be prevented before crisis escalation. This is suggested by Lund in 2009 when he speaks about conflict prevention and the necessary regional context.

On this background, I identify a classification of six power elements. These are the basic values that can be measured as suggested by Baldwin. Then, I assess their application by three regional actors as suggested by Lund. The regional competitors I have selected in the Black Sea region are the EU, Russia, and Turkey.


Could you tell me more about how your theory was applied to this case?

Of course, I basically analyse power in IR and created its measurements so I could apply it. After a thorough analysis of power in international relations, which I based on the main concepts of hard, soft, smart, and sharp power, I made a new classification which is a theoretical innovation in the field. The newly organised six power elements which I suggest include: Military/Security, Economy/Investment, Energy/Climate, Diplomacy/Politics, Governance/Society, and Information Exchange/Access. These are later applied to the perceptions of competing actors and I suggest could be used in other regions as well.


That is very interesting. I understand that you also made conceptual innovations through your research. Could you tell me about that?

It’s my favorite! My conceptual invention is that identifying the perception of power by regional competitors early enough can contribute to conflict prevention in a selected region. There are several criteria for that: a classification of power elements so that it could be applied to all actors who compete. Secondly, the competitors shall be selected as actors with equal status, in my case I call them regional powers and base this on a number of criteria. And Thirdly, a specific time shall be selected, and I selected a time between regional security crises in 2016 and 2021. The assessment of the perceptions of power is based on measurable values in the foreign and security policy concepts of the competing regional actors for the selected time. This conceptual innovation aims to contribute to the theory of conflict prevention. I empirically test it for the case study of the Black Sea region.


You focus on the EU, Russia, and Turkey. What practical results did you find about these international relations actors?

As mentioned earlier I asses their strategies between 2016 and 2021. The strategic documents I examine to assess their power perception are the foreign and security policy concepts, corresponding to that time period. My suggestion is that the higher perceived importance of a power element means a higher potential for this actor to trigger a conflict. Respectively, the lower perceived importance of a power element means open possibilities for cooperation.

The actual results for the EU, which I presented in a research paper published in 2022, in a series of annually updated strategies show change of the narrative from norm and governance to security and defence. The main contribution of the EU in the global competition to economic investment, as well as a growing narrative on climate change and energy. The diplomatic and political agreements widen its scope, aiming to manage evolving crises. The geographic interests of the EU change as well, trying to cover bigger world area. Disinformation and civil society grow as a priority.


That’s great. Would you tell me about your findings for Turkey?

The results for Turkey, which I presented in a research paper published in 2021 from its active foreign policy strategy show a double perspective. On the surface, it corresponds to the name of the strategy, focusing mainly on society and economy, followed by diplomacy, military, and information exchange power elements. However, the deeper textual analysis shows higher values to military security, diplomacy, and information exchange, only then followed by society and economy. This means that, first, Turkey is showing some power elements as more significant than the actually perceived ones. Secondly, as traditional for foreign policy actors, military security and diplomacy area leading, closely followed by the information and societal power elements. An unexpected factor found in the research was the attitude towards communities with Turkic languages or Muslim religion. Therefore, a reaction of Turkey on these power elements would not be surprising, as long as its regional interests are concerned. This is also shown by the recent name change of Turkey to Türkiye which means the length of the people of Turkish origin and it goes beyond the border of the territory of the country. 


That is very interesting! What about Russia?

Derived from the available strategies related to its foreign and security policy, there is a different meaning that I found in the volume of strategies and the content. So, there is a complete dominance in the energy security power element because there is a separate strategy for energy security of IR, and its size is double the strategy of the national security strategy and the foreign policy strategy. Apart from that, Russia also has dual meaning of the results. On the surface, the content of the strategies prioritises diplomacy, then military security, then society and economy, then information exchange. This is similar to Turkey and typical for a traditional IR actor. However, the deeper textual analysis of the combined strategies of national security and foreign policy shows major priority on the power elements of society and governance, only then followed by military security, diplomacy, economy, and information exchange. Finally, a textual analysis of the foreign policy strategy alone shows priority on diplomacy, followed by military, information exchange, economy, energy, and society. In these analyses, surprising is the focus on information exchange and on society perceived as belonging to the concept of Russianness. This means that a specific trigger for a reaction by Russia would be namely the society, information, and energy security as power elements.


Thank you for this detailed insight. It certainly seems like your thesis research has had a lot of work put into, and I’m sure you are glad that it’s finished to be able to share some of these very interesting findings. Am I right in understanding that the two papers are open-access?

Yes, this paper has been published and is available open-access and there will be a few more available soon. One will be related to the Russian foreign policy, the other one to the actual six elements of power, and the other one to the status of IR actors. So I will provide access to them as well when they are available and in this podcast, you’ll have access to the ones that are already published.


That is fantastic! To wrap up our podcast today, what contribution does your research make beyond academia?

As you mentioned, the first contribution of my research is to academia and to the general knowledge on conflict prevention. And the second one which I targeted EU diplomacy from the beginning, particularly I aim this research to strengthen the EU’s role as a conflict prevention actor in the Black Sea region. It can be particularly used by the European External Action Service.


Thank you, Neli, for taking the time to share your insights into your research with us. Congratulations again for submitting your dissertation and good luck with your next steps.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share the results of my research in this podcast. It has been a pleasure talking to you.


Thank you for listening and don’t forget to check the transcript of this podcast for a list of the research mentioned. If you would be interested in sharing your research with our graduate forum community on the podcast, please get in touch with me at nrobb03@qub.ac.uk or check the graduate forum section on the UACES website.



Additional reading :

Baldwin, D. A. (2016). Power and international relations. A conceptual approach. Princeton NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

Kirilova, Neli (2021). Elementite na vliyanie vyv vynshnopoliticheskata strategiya na Turciya – shest kategorii sila, sred koito obshtnostite i informaciiata se otkroiavat. Nauchna Konfereniia ‘Moreto – granica ili vrata’. pp.16-22. Chernomorski Institut. Burgas, Bulgaria: Izdatelstvo Bryag. [Кирилова, Нели. 2021. Елементите на влияние във външнополитическата стратегия на Турция – шест категории сила, сред които общностите и информацията се открояват. pp.16-22] Available online: blacksea.bg/site/templates/assets/img/the_sea-border-or-door-2021.pdf. Accessed: 15.03.2023.

Kirilova, Neli (2022). ‘Elements of power in the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy’. In: Monár A., Fiott D., Asderaki F., Paile‐Calo S. (Eds.). Challenges of the Common Security and Defence Policy. ESDC 2nd Summer University Book. pp.55-77. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available online: op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/e3706908-db0f-11ec-a95f-01aa75ed71a1/language-en?fbclid=IwAR2Q3z1U8cf-PBAPFlY51IiLGUNCuhBdlUntGG4NQBww0-raIYejzc3IyUM. Accessed: 15.03.2023.

Lund, M. S. (2009). Conflict Prevention: Theory in Pursuit of Policy and Practice. In: J. Bercovitch, V. Kremenyuk & I.W. Zartman (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution (pp.287-308). London, UK: SAGE.