The role of Romania on the background of the Ukrainian crisis

The role of Romania on the background of the Ukrainian crisis

Il Centro storico di Bucarest

Il Centro storico di Bucarest

Nel quadro degli approfondimenti sulla crisi dell’Ucraina si analizza oggi il ruolo che può avere la Romania sulla questione.

Il Direttore scientifico: Maria Gabriella Pasqualini

Since Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to NATO in 2004 and to the EU in 2007, the Black Sea has become subject of careful attention for the Euro-Atlantic community. The most important objective of this attention is of course controlling and monitoring the energy routes from the Caspian Sea area, along with the creation of a stability zone in the extended Black Sea area, which since 2007 borders with the European Union.

As of late, with the Ukrainian crisis growing into an epochal geopolitical clash between Russia and the West, the strategic importance of the Black Sea has taken on a new dimension. This is mainly because of attempts by Russia and its allies in Ukraine to gain possession of vast parts of the Ukrainian coast on the Black Sea. This is essential to ensure themselves a passage, a bridge to Crimea, and directly dominate the northern part of the Black Sea and the trade that takes place there. This appears vital both for Ukraine, which has crucial access to the Black Sea, but also for the EU, which considers the Black Sea area strategic and has consequently included it in its Neighborhood Policy.

To this we must obviously add the different potentials of military projection between the USA and the EU, which also involves Bulgaria and Romania. The military projection of the US is significantly strong. Together with NATO, from the Black Sea as a whole the United States also look to the Middle East, to the Southern Caucasus/Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

The EU, instead, is mainly interested in regional stability and the energy trade via the Black Sea. With regard to Ukrainian sovereignty, it is also interested in the inviolability of the borders of European states – in effect since the Second World War and ratified by the 1975 Helsinki agreements – which represents the primary condition of its existence as political and legal actor on both the European and extra-European scenarios. The war in Ukraine hence raises the fundamental problem of European and EU geopolitics: the EU’s rather weak military projection in extra-European theatres and even in European ones, as well as the rather ambiguous role played by Turkey in recent years, as discussed in the previous paragraph.

I shall now try to assess and analyze Romania and Bulgaria’s contribution to NATO presence in the Black Sea region, the so-called “Eastern NATO,” with regard to infrastructures, military and political capabilities and cohesiveness within the overall EU and NATO framework. Further subjects of assessment and analysis will be the political, cultural and economic relationships between Romania and, above all, Bulgaria, with Russia, the issues of Moldova and Transnistria, seen as a problem for the balance of power and the geopolitical stability of the Black Sea.

Romania has a set of unresolved territorial issues and irreconcilable historical memories linked to Russia, dating back to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. At present, these subsist with a territorial successor of the USSR, Ukraine. Memory counts: during the Second World War Romania was forced by the USSR to give up territories in Bessarabia and Moldova to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, although the majority of the population was Romanian speaking, a fact that also prompted Romanian intervention against the USSR during WWII. Apart from the historical grievances of that war, Romania is very interested in its role in the Black Sea community of states through the Black Sea Cooperation Group (Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia), whose main tasks are rescue operations, fighting trafficking and terrorism and which also serves as useful tool for enhancing cooperation between riparian states.

NATO, however, represents for Romania the best tool to implement its full security potential. It allows Romania to create a force and security intensifier against potential regional threats and for the enjoyment of Romania’s rights in the Black Sea. Over the last decade, Romania has thus become a sort of launching pad for the projection of NATO and the United States towards the Black Sea and its naval traffic, causing great concern in Russia, which considers the Black Sea an essential element for the security of energy imports from the Caspian Sea. This is particularly true at this moment in time, when Russian preponderance in the Black Sea may soon become a palpable reality that must be addressed by the riparian states to re-establish the abrupt shift in the regional balance of power in the wider Black Sea region. It is therefore easy to understand how Romania’s concerns about Black Sea instability are well grounded. What is at stake is not “only” the Black Sea, but potentially the entire southern coast of Ukraine from Mariupol to Odessa. This would of course lead to a severe escalation of tension between NATO and Russia. For NATO and the EU it would be the threshold, the “red line,” not to cross, both in political and military terms, as the Russian attempt to completely shut off Ukraine from the Black Sea would definitely have serious repercussions, transforming the conflict from regional one into one on a European scale. Russia’s encroachment of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast would transform the present conflict from a limited regional military and political one into a much broader one on a continental scale, also giving it an important economic dimension. Indeed, the Ukrainian Black Sea coast is also vital for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea region and the Middle East and for trade in general; for instance, the “Silk Road” stretch that reaches Europe from China through Ukraine bypassing Russian territory, and especially its main port, Odessa. This hypothesis would lead to a serious imbalance in world trade. This option, however, does not currently seem viable for the Russian President. A most alarming perspective for Romania were it to come true.

Romania’s specific role in NATO strategy for the Black Sea

Given this state of affairs, therefore, NATO could definitely rely on the country’s help, not only because of its commitment and obligations as a reliable NATO member, but also because it would be in Romania’s interest[i] to counter Russian predominance in the Black Sea and on the southern Ukrainian coast, especially the strategically sensitive harbor city of Odessa. In addition, the US may also have its own strategic interest in explicitly favoring Romania over Turkey. On the surface, Turkey would appear to be the most natural candidate for receiving US support, being the most prominent regional power capable of challenging Russian influence. But it could substantially reduce the influence of external actors and potentially lead to a marginalization of US influence in the area. Furthermore, Turkey, because of its military and economic might, could turn out to be a more assertive and difficult partner for the US. It is also quite possible that Ankara would actually see increased US presence in the Black Sea as a factor weakening its regional position and a potential constraint on pursuing its own independent foreign policy. Ankara may be willing to restrain and limit Turkey’s rights and widen other nations’ rights on access to the Black Sea, in this way considerably restraining its own rights deriving from the Montreux Convention, only in case of an actual military conflict with Russia. Bucharest, on the other hand, would not be in a position to challenge US influence. It would instead see it as a factor elevating and strengthening its position in the region as the third most powerful nation in the Black Sea after Russia and Turkey, filling the military gap recently created by Ukraine’s temporary naval weakness and inability to control its extended Black Sea coasts and therefore contributing to the reestablishment of the recently disrupted balance of power in the region. In this way, Romania may gain access to more U.S. financial aid in terms of regional military and civil facilities. Romania is spearheading a group of Eastern countries, notably Poland, that are insistently and uncompromisingly demanding a strong rise in defense-related expenditure and the setting up of a rapid reaction force against a possible Russian aggression.

Therefore, increasing military support to Romania, for instance with the Mihail Kogălniceanu US air base, would not only create a buffer against potential further Russian expansion[ii] but also help maintain a less concentrated balance of power in the region[iii]. In turn, this would help Washington maintain a more flexible and less restricted access to the area. Romania is also less dependent than other countries in the region on the Russian energy sector. Historically, as already mentioned, it does not have good relations with Russia (as its attitude during the Cold war shows, when Romania under dictator Ceausescu was relatively independent from Warsaw pact obligations or Moscow’s direct political will). This does not generally apply to other Orthodox countries in the region, for instance Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia or Moldova – a former Soviet republic with a sizeable Russian and Ukrainian minority – that share common cultural features (for one the political–cultural movement of Pan-Slavism, often used as political tool by Putin in reference to common Slavic origins with Serbia or Bulgaria and the Orthodox faith with Greece) or a historical legacy with Russia, as well as a substantial energy dependence. All these elements make Romania the most important country for the US and most important NATO member in the Black Sea area after Turkey.



[iii] – Riproduzione riservata


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