Romania: NATO's Next Strategic Frontier?
By JD Fuller
So far, the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border has had the opposite effect President Putin had been hoping for.
His demand that NATO scale back its deployments in Eastern Europe has led to even more troops being sent to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, whilst NATO itself has been injected with a new life and purpose not seen in a generation. Far from sowing disunity, Putin’s actions have focused minds in Western capitals more than any annual NATO conference could have achieved, leading to new conversations about the future direction of the alliance.
Such conversations are already leading to action. Not only have additional NATO resources been dispatched to countries where permanent battle groups were already established like Estonia and Poland, but whole new operational theatres are to be opened up in the coming months as a result. On 11 February NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, announced plans for a permanent deployment of a French-led battle group to Romania, along with commitments in Bulgaria, Czechia and Hungary.
The announcement may come as a surprise to some. After all, Romania does not share a border with Russia nor is it a former member of the USSR meaning Putin does not view it as being inside Moscow’s direct sphere of influence, unlike Ukraine or the Baltic states. However, a quick glance at Romania’s neighbours shows why Western diplomats are so keen to establish a long-term footprint in the country. With long borders shared by Ukraine, Serbia and Moldova - three of Europe’s most unstable countries – Romania provides an important buffer against instability as well as a central piece in the jigsaw puzzle of European security.
Start with Serbia. Romania’s western neighbour has caused alarm in recent months by supporting the efforts of Republika Srpska, the Serbian component of neighbouring Bosnia, to break away from the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. In response, the European parliament recently called for sanctions against the Republika Srpska leader, Milorad Dodik, who regularly incites nationalist hatred on social media whilst labelling the long-term peace agreement null. Meanwhile, the relationship between Serbia and Russia grows ever stronger with the Kremlin providing the Balkan nation with 60 armoured vehicles last month and a promise for more military support in the future.
Then there is Moldova. Its breakaway regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia have been enclaves of pro-Russian sentiment for twenty years, allowing Moscow to place military assets throughout their territories in exchange for financial and diplomatic top cover. Transnistria in particular is a haven for criminality and arms smuggling and is the location of one of Russia’s largest intercept listening posts in Europe. Although most Moldovans favour stronger ties with Romania and the EU, Moldova itself will remain unstable so long as its breakaway regions and the criminal networks that thrive there are supported by Moscow.
Finally, with 245km of Black Sea coastline, Romania holds a large stake in what is fast becoming the most militarised littoral space in the world. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Black Sea has seen an exponential growth in naval manoeuvres, including several recent stand offs between NATO and Russian fleets. Although Romania has a relatively small navy, with its largest warship a Type 56 frigate, its enormous port at Constanta is regularly used by allied forces as a strategic hub to launch operations into the Black Sea and beyond. In addition to its coastline Romania also enjoys unrivalled access to the Danube River, the largest in Europe, and a key artery used since Roman times to transport troops and equipment. The deployment of a permanent NATO garrison to Romania may lead to increased investment in this mobility corridor encouraging more trade and access along the river.
Even if a diplomatic agreement is reached (as we all hope it will be) and Putin orders his troops to withdraw, the security architecture of Europe has been irreversibly changed by the experience. Yet with challenges come opportunities. In his attempt to bully Ukraine, Putin has inadvertently brought NATO closer together as well as speeded up the permanent deployment of troops to Romania; something that could bolster security in the region and forge even closer bonds between the western and eastern halves of Europe.
Such an outcome would be both welcome and overdue.