Dealing with the Russian Lake Next Door: Romania and Black Sea Security


Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of a special series in collaboration with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Black Sea’s Back.”

The Black Sea is a body of many monikers: NATO euphemistically calls the sea an area of “strategic importance,” former Romanian President Traian Băsescu famously dubbed it “a Russian lake” in 2005 and the Russians, in response, labeled the body “a NATO lake.” While traditionally Romania has considered the Black Sea “its best neighbor,” these labels reflect today’s heightened threat perceptions in the region. Yet ultimately none of these nicknames, laden with geostrategic significance though they are, show the reality.

Romania sang the ballad of the Black Sea’s strategic importance long before Crimea’s 2014 annexation by Russia. In its efforts to join NATO (in 2004) and the European Union (in 2007), Bucharest sold itself as a key geostrategic player based on its seafront property, and a loyal ally. Bucharest offered the West territorial access to a region both vital in connecting Eurasia to the Mediterranean and Middle East and rich in energy resources. By establishing a Western foothold in the Black Sea basin, Romania sought to resolve its own security shortfalls.

Historically, Romania has perceived itself as being squeezed between empires and powerful neighbors. As a result, it developed a defensive strategic culture. Rhetorically, Romania still maintains the role of “bulwark of Europe against the Asian invasions.” Over the last century, Russia has been the greatest of these perceived threats. Russia’s actions in relation to Romania — whether the theft of its national treasury, which was sent to Moscow for safekeeping during World War I and never returned, or the loss of Moldova to the Soviet Union after World War II — have led Bucharest to consider Moscow its powerful “other.” This perception was sharpened by Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, which saw Romania isolated from the communist bloc, reliant on a guerilla doctrine that anticipated a possible Russian invasion. Romania’s 2007 National Security Strategy names the Black Sea as a strategic priority and links it to national “identity affirmation.” The country’s profile should be raised — so goes the document’s narrative — through the “promotion of democracy” and its inherent values in the Black Sea. Romania’s newfound goal to “democratize” the regions it is part of is further extended in the 2010 National Defense Strategy. Nowadays, Romania’s narrative of defending Western values makes sense in the context of the Crimean annexation and the reluctance of many NATO members to support sanctions on Russia, but “ensuring the security of the Black Sea” has been de-emphasized in the 2015 National Defense Strategy as a national objective without a clear strategy.

Shortly after its 2004 accession to NATO, Romania began a series of initiatives aimed at stabilizing the Black Sea region by increasing cooperation among neighbors and boosting its strategic profile. The Black Sea NGO Forum as well as various diplomatic overtures to improve strained relations with neighbors Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia offer several examples.

Bucharest proved unable to solve its perceived security problems with NATO and E.U. tools. Within both organizations, Romania warned of Black Sea insecurity. While both promised to listen, they failed to prevent the disastrous 2008 Russo-Georgian war. At the E.U. level, Bucharest proposed the “Black Sea Synergy” in 2008. Yet its attempts to transform the initiative into a regional E.U. strategy failed, and the union continued to view Russia as a partner even after Moscow invaded its southern neighbor.

Turned away by the European Union, Romania went knocking on NATO’s door. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war Bucharest insisted the Black Sea should become a NATO priority and in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea the alliance agreed to prioritize the Black Sea rhetorically, if not actively.

At the same time, Bucharest appealed to its most valued strategic partner, the United States, first securing an American air base on Romanian territory and then a ballistic missile defense system at Deveselu. These security investments made Bucharest prioritize the bilateral relationship above NATO and the European Union in the national security triad: Its strategic partnership with the United States comes first, then NATO, and lastly the European Union.

The annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas should not have been a strategic surprise to Romania and the West. Russia’s aggressive security policy in the Black Sea region was apparent with the launch of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Militarily unprepared for a regional conflict, Romania aligned itself with the Western bloc in trying to find a diplomatic solution and abstained from a clear anti-Russian stance with regard to Black Sea security.

After 2014, Bucharest added a new verse to its Black Sea ballad: “We told you so.” Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has acted aggressively in the Black Sea region. It has threatened neighbors with “frozen conflicts.” Moscow has also developed an effective arsenal of nonkinetic warfare instruments against post-Soviet states, discouraging most of them from joining the European Union and NATO. Russia’s 2010 State Armament Program placed a heavy emphasis on naval capabilities, which became fully exploitable after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moscow started expanding its maritime power in the Black Sea and used the Sevastopol base to project power into the eastern Mediterranean. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent military buildup on the peninsula thus only constitute, in Romania’s view, a continuation of Russian imperialism in the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Bucharest — which had invested heavily in expeditionary warfare to the detriment of territorial defense capabilities — was politically and strategically unprepared for the event. The consequences of Crimea’s annexation are enormous, still not fully known, and likely to reverberate throughout the region for years to come. Romania now finds itself in an entirely new and ambiguous geostrategic position, with questionable territorial defense capabilities and an uncertain energy outlook.

Crimea’s new de facto status as Russian territory makes Moscow and Bucharest maritime neighbors. This has both military and economic security implications. From a military perspective, bordering Russia comes with periodic threats of annihilation for hosting American ballistic missile defense, exercises simulating Romania’s invasion, and repeated violations of air space. The buildup of a Crimea-based anti-access/area denial bubble inherently restricts Romania’s freedom of movement in the Black Sea. Moreover, Moscow is now able to attack most of Romania from land and sea, and in the case of aggression, Romania’s NATO allies will have to get militarily involved to reinforce the country’s defenses.

These strategic shifts put Bucharest in a tough spot. Militarily unprepared and suffering a heightened threat perception based on a painful history with Russia, Bucharest fears not only Russian belligerence, but also isolation from its allies. This fear centers around the Article 5 debate. U.S. President Donald Trump came to power partly on a campaign of questioning NATO’s Article 5. Months later at the 2017 NATO summit in Brussels, the president still refused to commit to the alliance’s collective defense clause. It was not until Romanian President Klaus Iohannis managed to secure a meeting at the White House that a Romanian journalist finally wrested a reassuring answer from Trump: The United States would come to its allies’ defense. The journalist quickly became a national hero in Romania.

In response to the Crimean military buildup, Bucharest has reoriented its focus from expeditionary warfare to territorial defense. Though it moved considerably slower than Poland, in 2015, Romania built a cross-party consensus to raise the defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product for a decade starting in 2017. So far, the government has kept its promise. With this money, Bucharest is going on a shopping spree, dedicating 33 percent of its defense budget to acquisitions, the highest percentage among allies in 2017. Romania’s acquisition programs, worth more than $11 billion, cover territorial defense capabilities for all forces. Bucharest is buying primarily American capabilities (secondhand F-16 jets, new Patriot systems, mobile long-distance radars and Piranha armored vehicles) because of its strategic partnership with the United States, and secondarily German capabilities (armored vehicles built in Romania together with Rheinmetall) and Israeli equipment (Spike missiles). The Romanian government has two primary aims: the large-scale procurement of military equipment, such as armored vehicles, missile launchers, and urgently needed F-16 fighter jets, and knowledge transfer to help rebuild the formerly prominent national defense industry, which crumbled during the post-1989 transition period. While the current plans are ambitious, none have been finalized and the government has yet to assume an official timeline. Given the complex nature of the acquisition process, the Ministry of Defense underspent last year by $400 million.

Though NATO has slowly upped its commitment in the Black Sea from reassurance to deterrence since 2014, Russia’s military imperialism still poses a major challenge to Romania. Bucharest sees a significant imbalance between the northern and southern parts of NATO’s eastern flank. At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO members agreed to enhanced forward presence in the Baltic Sea (the northern part of the eastern boundary) and only tailored forward presence in the Black Sea. Concretely, this means that the southeast (that is, Romania), will not receive combat forces training and staff units. Rather, NATO’s presence in the region will remain non-continuous. Beyond the fact that both forms of forward presence represent mere tripwires rather than real military deterrence, the imbalance between the north and the south is striking, particularly given that all military conflicts  in which Russia has been involved along the eastern flank — frozen and active — have taken place in the Black Sea region, not the Baltics.

This imbalance comes as no surprise, however, as Romania is the only state to sing the ballad of Black Sea insecurity. Despite the fact that three out of six Black Sea countries are NATO members (and two others are partners), the Black Sea is anything but a NATO lake. Romania stands alone in pushing for a more significant NATO presence in the region. Turkey’s interests do not overlap with those of other NATO members, especially regarding the Montreux Convention and access to the sea. Meanwhile, Bulgaria is constrained by pro-Russian economic interests, a traditionally favorable public perception of Moscow, and energy dependence.

Beyond the Black Sea states, within the alliance itself there is little consensus regarding the region’s strategic importance. This became clear in the preparation for the 2016 Warsaw summit, when Romania proposed a NATO Black Sea fleet. The alliance refused to put the proposal under its flag, so Bucharest suggested a regional fleet, to which Ukraine, Turkey, and initially Bulgaria agreed. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov then unexpectedly took a U-turn and cancelled Sofia’s participation. Taking Romanian President Iohannis by surprise, Borisov declared that he wants “peace and love,” not war, in the Black Sea.

True, NATO members have committed to address the issue of Russia’s anti-access and area denial measures in the Black Sea. Yet the solutions proposed in the Brussels 2018 summit framework remain unclear. So far, the only concrete proposal with potential impact is the 4×30 Initiative, which promises to increase readiness by 2020. However, even with this proposal, members on NATO’s eastern flank would potentially have to wait weeks for military aid in the event of Russian aggression.

Ultimately, Romania’s security outlook remains murky, and both NATO and domestic leaders are to blame. While Bucharest requested to host the planned NATO 3-star Land Command Component and demands a NATO Black Sea fleet, national decision-makers have failed to draft a clear agenda of Romania’s security priorities for the 2018 summit. On the other hand, NATO promised to prioritize the Black Sea, but did not. In doing so, NATO has damaged its credibility, both in Romania’s eyes and on the world stage.

Beyond military issues, the annexation of Crimea and resulting anti-access bubble come with serious complications for Black Sea energy security and maritime freedom. Ukraine, of course, has suffered the most, losing the opportunity to develop unexploited offshore resources around Crimea and potentially achieve energy independence. After settling a dispute at the International Court of Justice with Ukraine about exclusive economic zones around Serpent’s Island in 2009, Romania recently started oil explorations in the region. However, Bucharest’s cumbersome win in 2009 is partially invalidated by Russia’s non-recognition of the court’s decision. Now that the two countries are maritime neighbors, bilateral disputes are far more likely: Russia has the capacity to obstruct explorations, force the withdrawal of Romanian companies, block commercial flow from the Danube River to the Black Sea, or even attack Romanian capabilities in the Exclusive Economic Zone. As the European Union has not prioritized the Black Sea energy route, nor has NATO put energy security on the agenda, Bucharest must fend for itself to preserve its energy independence and free movement in the Black Sea.

Romania is also vulnerable to hybrid warfare, particularly aimed at critical infrastructure — since corruption has stunted Romania’s post-communist modernization — and information warfare. Despite formulating national security policies independently of Russia, Romania remains susceptible to Moscow-launched strategic narratives aimed at sowing confusion and disunity within the Euro-Atlantic community. Though the national consensus that Russia constitutes a threat remains intact — unlike in many other European countries — Russian disinformation has managed to transform sources of security, such as ballistic missile defense, into perceived sources of insecurity. Russian disinformation has also tremendously hindered regional solidarity and Romania’s relationship with its neighbors.

When it comes to Romania’s ballad of Black Sea insecurity, nothing is what it seems. Unrecognized by the alliance for its strategic importance, the Black Sea is far from a NATO lake. Yet despite the wars of 2008 and 2014, it not yet a Russian lake, either. And given the Black Sea’s immense insecurity, it hopefully isn’t Romania’s “best neighbor.”


Iulia-Sabina Joja is a consultant for Euro-Atlantic security and a Hanns Seidel Foundation fellow on European strategic culture at the ZMSBw. She has successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis on Romania’s strategic culture, holds an M.A. from King’s College London in war studies, has worked at NATO and as an adviser on Euro-Atlantic security and defense in the Romanian presidential administration. Views expressed here are personal and not necessarily those of any institution with which she is affiliated.

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