Romania’s New National Defence Strategy - A Call For Greater Black Sea NATO Presence?

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 2.7.2020 10:29

Until recently, the Black Sea region lacked the recognition it deserved from NATO. Yet, the occupation and militarisation of Crimea have allowed Moscow to establish a heavily fortified base for military power projection into the Levant and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Western States within the Black Sea and beyond. To counter this threat, NATO will need to make use of one of its most reliable allies in the region, Romania, which has long advocated for a permanent NATO presence in the region.

Romania recently unveiled its 2020-2024 National Defence Strategy - which still awaits Parliament endorsement -  in which the US, the EU, and NATO remain the country’s main foreign and security policy pillars, while Russia is designated as a security threat to stability in the Black Sea region. The document reportedly cites Russian “aggression” and its “violation of the rules of international law” as some of the country's main security concerns today.

The new Strategy has been shaped by the deterioration of NATO-Russia relations in recent years, as well as the proliferation of terrorism, and of both hybrid and cyber threats, while it also refers to Russia’s “aggressive behaviour” and “actions to militarise the Black Sea region”.

Moscow, in return, denounced the move accusing Romania of serving third parties’ interest, while claiming that the latest strategy would “be used to intensify the military presence of the US and NATO in the Black Sea”.

 

Hinting at a Larger US/NATO Contingent in Romania

Romania currently enjoys the presence of a small NATO military presence as part of the alliance’s “tailored Forward Presence” (tFP) in the Black Sea region which contributes land, sea and air forces to the country. The mission aims at reinforcing both Romania’s and Bulgaria’s efforts to protect NATO airspace while further strengthening the defence and deterrence potential of the North Atlantic Alliance in the region.

However, whether within a NATO or bilateral framework, there have been over the past few years growing calls by the Romanian government and experts on both sides of the Atlantic for a greater, possibly permanent and no longer rotational, US/NATO military deployment to the country. This would ultimately re-energise President Bush’s 2002 NATO welcoming message “Should any danger threaten Romania, should any nation threaten Romania, the United States of America and NATO will be by your side”. 

The country already hosts US troops deployed on Romanian soil in and outside of the NATO framework, but it greatly differs to the Polish model which has seen an increase of US military personnel over the years to bolster NATO’s Eastern flank defences against Russian aggression. 

 

“Romania's National Defence Strategy could signal a call for a enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea region”

 

One could argue that NATO has been focused too much on building up its Enhanced Forward Presence in Central and Northern Europe - led by Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States - to secure NATO’s eastern flank at the expense of the often overlooked Black Sea region in which Romania could become the next centre of gravity of the alliance’s regional deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Russia.

The deployment of multinational battle groups and of other defensive measures in Poland and the Baltics States is a result of NATO member States’ fear of a possible Russian attack. Romania’s recent official document outlining the country’s National Defence Strategy could signal a call for a similar enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea region.

 

Building Up Towards A Greater Allied Deployment?

Romania already hosts several hundred US and NATO military personnel at the Mihail Kogalniceanu  air base as well as at the Deveselu Aegis Ashore Missile Defence Facility. The country has also hosted various combined NATO exercises and operations, and is home to some NATO structures that include one of its eight Force Integration Units, the Headquarters Multinational Division South-East and the Headquarters Multinational Brigade South-East.

As an incentive for permanently stationing US and/or NATO troops on its territory, Romania has been heavily investing on its own military infrastructure. Over the next 20 years, Romania’s Defence Ministry has pledged to extend and modernise the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base - which has been hosting American and NATO military personnel on rotation - to NATO standards capable of hosting up to 10,000 troops. Such a project would come at an approximate cost of €2.5 billion. Plans for the air base to become a “mini-city” with living quarters, sport facilities, schools, a military hotel, and a hospital at the disposal of troops further hints towards a permanent NATO presence.

 

Russia’s destabilising activities in the Black Sea have led Romania to become a model NATO member State”

 

The RoAF 71st Air Base (which has also temporarily hosted foreign forces) located near the city of Campia Turzii is going through a similar makeover process involving investments running to several hundred million euros from both the Romanian and the US governments.

Lastly, Russia’s destabilising activities in the Black Sea have led Romania to become a model NATO member State by being in 2019 one of eight countries to spend 2% or more of their GDP on defence thereby demonstrating the country’s commitment to burden-sharing. This military spending and the country’s latest infrastructure and weapons modernisation projects can only flatter US President Donald Trump who has long criticised Europe’s NATO members for not spending enough to support the alliance and leaving the US to bear the burden alone.

Having now approved a plan to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany, there is speculation that the Pentagon will be moving some of these troops to Poland following comments made during a meeting between President Donald Trump and Polish leader Andrzej Duda at the White House. Nevertheless, given the Black Sea’s strategic importance and recent Russian activities, there is a real possibility that Romania will be one of the “other places”  where American troops will be redeployed to enhance deterrence.

 

The Strategic Importance of the Black Sea

The adoption of Romania’s latest National Defence Strategy by the Supreme Council of National Defence suggests that Bucharest is hoping for a stronger US and NATO focus on the Black Sea which is a crucial yet vulnerable part of NATO’s Eastern flank stretching from the Arctic to the Caucasus.

Russian aggressive activities have only increased over the years. Following the invasion of Georgia in 2008, Black sea littoral States have witnessed first-hand the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the 2018 Kerch Strait incident, the growing militarisation of the Crimean Peninsula, as well as Russia’s worrying rapprochement with Turkey.

And yet, there is a concerning disequilibrium in NATO’s European deployment which seems to presume higher threat levels from Russia against North and Central Europe than the Black Sea … which is inherently false as one could deduce from observing the events listed above. While NATO and Russia do not share a land border in this area unlike in Northern Europe, they do share a de facto maritime border in the Black Sea.

 

“The 2014 events have greatly impacted Romania’s approach to regional security and, in response it has further embraced its strategic partnership with the US in addition to its NATO commitments in terms of spending, military cooperation and modernisation.”

 

Moscow has over the years demonstrated its willingness to use force and intimidation tactics in a region which lacked until now a serious strategy which would focus on NATO’s Eastern flank in its entirety. Furthermore, the heavily militarised and fortified Crimean peninsula constitutes a tremendous power-projection platform for Russian geopolitical and geo-economic aspirations in the Black Sea as well as the Mediterranean.

The Black Sea region is home to three NATO member States (Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey) and two NATO partner countries (Georgia and Ukraine), which means that any destabilising or aggressive activities will have implications on the North Atlantic Alliance. The 2014 events have greatly impacted Romania’s approach to regional security and, in response it has further embraced its strategic partnership with the US in addition to its NATO commitments in terms of spending, military cooperation and modernisation. 

Romania has become one of NATO’s most trustworthy and respectable member States. The country has also become the de facto centre of gravity in the Black Sea for the West in countering Russian hostile activities. But to successfully assume this role, Romania will need significant military reinforcements.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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