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STUTTGART, Germany — The security conference that brought together U.S. ambassadors from Black Sea nations was long-planned, but for Adm. James Stavridis, Monday’s suicide bomb attack in Moscow underscored the volatility of the greater Caucasus region and the need to bolster military partnerships in the east.

“When I look at the [Caucasus region] in general, as we see with the recent subway bombings ... I’m worried about that as a zone of terrorism,” Stavridis said following meetings with diplomats Thursday at his U.S. European Command headquarters.

Russian authorities suspect that the bombers in Monday’s attack and in Wednesday’s attack in a Muslim region of Dagestan, were from the Caucasus Mountains. In the southern Caucasus region, meanwhile, where a war between Georgia and Russia was fought in 2008, tensions persist.

Though there are no shots being fired, it remains a “frozen conflict” and continued area of concern, Stavridis said. Escalating tensions in the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan also are troubling, he said.

During Thursday’s conference, Stavridis and his diplomatic counterparts looked for ways to better coordinate efforts to promote cooperation in the region.

The flow of narcotics, particularly heroin from Afghanistan, human trafficking, and weapons smuggling are some of the factors that contribute to growing instability in an area where regional rivalries have historically limited cooperation.

For instance, he said, more needs to done regarding heroin flowing into the region from Afghanistan. Stavridis said that heroin is to blame for the deaths of some 30,000 Russians last year between the ages of 18-24, Stavridis said.

“That in and of itself is a humanitarian disaster,” Stavridis said. “And the profit and the money from that goes right back to the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Heroin made from Afghanistan poppy crops generates from $100 to $400 million each year for the insurgency. And though poppy production has declined in the past year, the situation “is a long way from good,” Stavridis said.

Security challenges in the Black Sea region are numerous, with competing interests and long-standing historical grudges making cooperation on security issues difficult to achieve. International institutions need to do a better job of pursuing programs that emphasize cooperation over competition, according to the Commission on the Black Sea, an organization that includes academics from across the region.

“The lack of cooperation has created a security vacuum exacerbating global and regional rivalries,” wrote Black Sea Commission member Mitat Çelikpala in a 2010 report on security threats. “Despite EU and US promotion of democracy and the rule of law, authoritarian governing styles are common across the region.”

From EUCOM’s perspective, promoting security through closer military partnerships with countries across the region, including Georgia and Russia, is crucial.

The U.S. relationship with Russia, the most important player in the region, has been complicated in recent years. Military relations between the two countries were at a standstill in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war. But now, the U.S. and Russia are once again conducting senior level military visits and noncommissioned officer exchanges as well as sharing lessons learned in Afghanistan, Stavridis said.

The Russians also are concerned with poppy production in Afghanistan. Russian officials in recent weeks have been increasingly critical of the U.S. and NATO, say a more aggressive eradication strategy against poppy growers is needed.

Stavridis says he intends to speak with his Russian counterparts in the near future to discuss NATO’s counternarcotic efforts, which in large part are focused on getting farmers to grow alternative crops.

“We’re going to have to help Afghanistan solve that problem,” Stavridis said.

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