Romania: poorly prepared to face Russian revisionism

Romania: poorly prepared to face Russian revisionism

George Visan

Research Associate at ROEC

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George Visan

Bucharest, Romania

by George Visan, June 5, 2015

Crimea’s annexation in March 2014 and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine brought shortly into discussion the topic of Romania’s security and its Eastern policy. Romania’s attempt to „reset” its relations with Russia was abandoned, while Black Sea politics became militarized. Crimea’s control allows Russia to effectively project power in the Black and Mediteranean Seas. Kremlin has already announced an ambitious modernization program for its Black Sea Fleet and introduced sophisticated weapon systems which could block NATO’s access to the region, in case of a conflict.

For the first time since Romania’s accession to NATO and the European Union (EU), national defense and security problems made a forceful comeback on the public agenda. In February 2015, polls showed that almost 40% of Romanians believe that a military conflict with Russia was imminent, while 25% thought that it was possible. The image of an Eastern menace was very strong 6 months after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, with two thirds of Romanians  perceiving Russia as a threat.

This concern of the citizens regarding the regional security climate is shared by the political elite in Bucharest whose response towards Russia’s revisionism was three fold:

–  on diplomatic level – re-emphasizing the partnership with the United States and the NATO member status, doubled by requests to station American or allied troops on national territory to reassure strategically NATO’s Eastern flank;

–  on defense level, president Iohannis negotiated at the beginning of this year an agreement between all political forces that pledged 2% of GDP for defense over the next 10 years;

–  on economic level, „energy independence” has been advanced as main instrument to counteract Russian influence.

Of all these measures, only the first one (re-valuing the strategic partnership with the United States and stationing American and allied troops in Romania) can be considered an efficient political and military measure in the face of Russian revisionism. The increase of the defense budget, although agreed by all political forces at the beginning of 2015 and hailed as a major step forward, won’t be implemented until 2017, by which time defense investments will still be below the 2% of GDP threshold. The actual amount of money that shall go to defense will depend not so much on political will as on two economic variables: the growth of Romanian economy in the 2015-2017 period and the ability of the state budget to stay within the structural deficit limits negotiated with the EU.

From a political point of view, the promise to increase investments in defense starting with 2017 lacks credibility because of the 2 year gap between the moment the decision has been taken and its implementation. Many things can happen, domestically and internationally, between 2015 and 2017. Romania will hold general and local elections in 2016, and by 2017 the Ukrainian situation may (hopefully) find a diplomatic resolution, or, on the contrary, may get worse. Delaying the implementation of this decision could be motivated by wishful thinking, the Romanian decision makers hoping that by 2017 the Ukraine crisis will be resolved, one way or the other, and these investments in defense could be reduced/redirected in favour of more electoral useful sectors (such as social services or infrastructure).

„Energy independence” has become one of the mantras of the current government. PM Victor Ponta has first talked about energy independence in 2013 in the context of the debate about shale gas, marking at the time a major change in the public discourse on energy in Romania by substituting the until then preferred phrase of „energy security”.

The nonsense of the „energy independence” concept in a globalized and interdependent world aside, the focus of the Romanian political elites on the energy dimension of the Russian threat represents a major strategic blunder. The danger that Russia currently poses is multidimensional: political, military, economic, and propagandistic. The means utilized by the Kremlin to undermine the current European order are multiple and include: diplomatic and economic pressures, propaganda actions, demonstrations of force, military actions, cyber attacks and espionage. These elements are used separately or simultaneously, and constitute the essence of „hybrid warfare”. The focus on one dimension alone, and a poorly formulated one, is a mistaken approach.

Romania’s answer to Russian revisionism and aggressiveness has to be structured on several levels. Romania should not over-focus on the military and energy components, but set a priority list based on its geostrategic competitive advantages. The strategy to counteract the Russian threat has to identify those components where Romania can contribute alone and those components where it has to act together with its allies. Moreover, Romania should show diplomatic initiative within NATO and EU and become one of NATO’s policymakers on Eastern European problems.

Stationing American or allied troops on national territory should not become an aim in itself of the foreign policy, but rather a way to influence NATO’s defense policy. The presence of these troops should not be considered an excuse for decision makers in Bucharest not to develop robust defensive military capabilities in accordance with the status of a NATO and EU member country. In case of an attack on its national territory, the American military will defend Romania, but it will do so along Romanian soldiers, who must possess the military means necessary to be interoperable with their allies.

The Russian Federation uses a complex and aggressive strategy to undermine NATO and the EU, and compromise the basis of the current international order. This strategy is not unbeatable, and Romania should not leave the effort of countering it entirely to its most capable allies. Romania represents NATO on the Eastern flank, meaning that in the event of a crisis or an aggression, we are in the front line, and consequently, we must develop those capabilities that will allow us to survive until the Alliance can mobilize and intervene. The development of these capabilities should not be seen as a burden or a process to be left to the „senior powers” of the North Atlantic alliance.

The lesson for Romania from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is that national security is guaranteed only to the extent a state is capable to take seriously the threats and risks that emerge in the international system and formulates adequate responses to these challenges.

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