The Black Sea is crucial for EU’s and NATO’s security, yet placed low down on Europe’s agenda. Romania attempted to take the lead in the past and act as a vector for rapprochement – but without EU substantial involvement, the region will turn into Europe’s Achilles’ heel.
So, it is going to be on 24 June. With an Orwellian touch, the Kremlin deletes timelines in order to fit a reshaped narrative. The Victory fête has to shine and be a renewed expression of Russia’s projection of “power”, of “respectability” and capacity to “inspire fear”.
While this policy sets the country’s resources and international reputation on fire for decades, it also comes, needless to say, as a provocation. It coincides with a time when Europe’s political metamorphosis is generated by the impact of international changes (centred on the US-China rivalry) and of a triple catalyst: a nationalist-populist American presidency, a France-induced impetus for EU sovereignty and a change in the German mindset.
Lack of concrete proposals
Adding to previous episodes, the defence ministers of France, Germany, Italy and Spain (a sort of EU-4) jointly signed a letter on 29 May for the attention of their colleagues from the other 23 Member States and of Josep Borrell, EU’s High Representative for FASP. The call was again about the reinforcement of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) of the EU’s security and defence policy.
These are, militarily, the strongest countries of the EU, with the largest defence industry (and subsequent interests). Despite pleading for a European pillar of NATO, the letter lacks concrete proposals in this field; and while the four countries involved might wish to see it as a “new step towards (something)”, the very lack of propositions makes the letter little relevant to those who must cope with potential hybrid aggression from Russia.
Seen from the Baltic and the Black Sea, the text might be criticised as another example of the “happy few” acting unilaterally “in the name of Europe” while aiming at their own interests. Was the letter an invitation or just a notification?
There was not a single word on the EU and broader-East interaction, most probably left to NATO. The focus is on the South. This is fair only if the East is corollary not expected to contribute in that area, consecrating not only the divide between the two parts of Europe but also a PESCO reduced ad usum Occidentis.
Europe’s East is a composite area. To the Russian pressure the entire region feels via Ukraine (with Belarus not eager to become a new Kremlin dependency), the Black Sea adds Turkey’s double-edged position within NATO, Moldova’s vulnerability and tensions in the Caucasus and the Middle East.
This is Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, included in the Eastern Partnership. The limited success of the latter arises not only from the insufficient instruments the EU used in the area, or the traditional hostility of Russia but also from the fruitless experience of the “Black Sea Forum for Partnership and Dialogue” (2006). Following this, Romania and Bulgaria refrain from engaging in the volatile Eastern vicinity.
Black Sea cavalier
After joining the European Union in 2007 and benefitting from a few years of economic growth, Romania attempted to play the card of the lone ranger and build its own network at the Black Sea, in connection to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Known for his staunch anti-Russian position, a reliable Atlanticist, President Traian Băsescu’s offered to open Romanian trade and infrastructure to Georgian business and Azeri petroleum as an alternative to the Russian markets.
This is how project AGRI (Azerbaijan–Georgia–Romania Interconnector) was born in 2010, a competitor for Nabucco, the White Stream, the South Stream, the Trans Adriatic and Turkey–Greece–Italy Interconnector, all destined to diminish EU dependence on Russian gas.
As designed by Bucharest, AGRI would have been mutually beneficial, linking the Caucasus and Central Asia to the EU, turning the Romanian city of Constanţa into the EU’s largest eastern seaport and aligning Bucharest to the US-UK policy of Kremlin containment. (In reply, Russia promoted in Kyiv and Chișinău a media narrative about irredentist Romania, according to which Bucharest was acting in an imperial manner, hunting for territories from Ukraine and Moldova.)
Turkey’s position was ambiguous: a sign of what was going to come a decade later. The reticence to join the Black Sea Forum seemed initially determined by the wish to appease Russia’s aching suspicions after the Orange Revolution, but in 2010 it became clear that Turkey considered Romanian initiatives at the Black Sea as incompatible with its interests.
The reasons were less related to the pipeline competition and more to Ankara’s concern of seeing the US become an actor at the Black Sea via Bucharest, diminishing Turkey’s influence, next to losing importance as NATO member in the region.
The Romanian offer to conclude a strategic partnership between the two countries was at first watered-down by Ankara, before accepting an “Action Plan” for its implementation in 2011. It also gave birth to a Poland-Romania-Turkey trilateral in 2012, with regular consultations but no strategic coordination.
Today’s context is much more demanding. While Romanian home affairs are as troubled as before, international context after 2014 hardly encourages external action. The safe decade of 2004-2014 is gone.
With Russia occupying Crimea, an equivocal Turkey, fragile countries (Ukraine, Moldova) in the immediate neighbourhood and the EU-4 tempted by a Mediterranean focus, Bucharest chose an unprovocative position, with a double sense of patience and of limited resources.
The National Security Strategy adopted in May 2020 endorses it; it does not nominate Russia as a threat (like Poland did in 2014) but takes into account the deterioration of NATO-Russia relationship. This turns the Black Sea into an area of vigilance that – compared to the Baltic – Bucharest would like to see better defended, in order to avoid asymmetry on the Eastern Flank.
A few steps were taken. The enlargement and development of two NATO basis are envisaged, one in central Transylvania, the other at the Black Sea, 390 km west from the Russian-occupied Crimea. An increased military presence of the USA in the country is being discussed, while Romania was chosen to host NATO’s Multinational Corps South-East (HQ MNC-SE) in Sibiu.
Already in possession of Patriot missiles, the country is interested in additionally acquiring Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities and face up to the Russian similar system in Crimea. While the government and the presidency of Romania are aware of structural weaknesses, think-tanks emphasise the outdated concepts used and stress upon the need to revise the approach of power the country has.
Romania should not be regarded as a country in seek of military might; it hardly matches the nation’s own perception of itself, its ethos and historical experience. Yet, the country is willing to bulk up in order to dissuade and be a reliable security provider.
In doing so, Bucharest needs responsible partners. Poland and the Baltic States are a like-minded group, engaged in a similar effort; the US constantly contributes. But there is no political and military acknowledgement from the very EU-4 that call upon solidarity and sovereignty.
All of this rather demonstrates that even at difficult times the EU is far from building a common strategic culture and a common approach of threats – which only increases the risk of seeing weak spots exploited by rancorous rivals. Just like Achilles’ heel.