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December 3, 2021

On dangers at the Black Sea

For well over two years now, the security picture to the east of Romania has changed dramatically. The Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March 2014 was the signal of this change’s acceleration. Obviously, today, Russia is on the geopolitical offensive. Generating legitimate concern for its neighbours to the west, even for those like Romania, which no longer has a land border with Russia. Rightly so. Because these neighbours, basically all of them, were for half a century part of the sphere of influence established after the Second World War, “frozen” and hence re-legitimated through the Final Helsinki Act of 1 August 1975.

It is what the Russian grand strategy textbook calls the “security belt.” As documents evince ever more seriously today, the end of the Cold War came about through an agreement between the two systemic poles – U.S. and USSR – and not through a victory of the Western camp. In other words, these neighbours have all the right to wonder whether – despite being members of NATO and with the Warsaw Pact gone – the new Russian geopolitical offensive is directly threatening their independence or geopolitical fragility through pronounced internal instability (in the Baltic states’ case). Especially since, following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 – to give only the most recent example, but without forgetting Moscow’s recognition of the two self-proclaimed republics on Georgia’s territory in 2008 too –, it is very legitimate to ask: does Russia dispute the agreement that prompted the end of the Cold War?

Some Russian actions seem to give an affirmative answer to what is an unsettling question for Eastern European NATO member states, especially since scenarios on a new Yalta are circulating ever more insistently now that we have entered the “Trump era.” Firstly, in some of these states – almost exclusively in former Soviet Republics – there are significant Russian minorities, and the “hybrid war” started by Russia can reactivate them at any time, just like it did in the spring of 2014 in Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. Secondly, the militarisation of the Black Sea, following the annexation of Crimea, took place at a rapid rhythm, so that the peninsula has rapidly become not just a springboard for the Russian fleet to enter warm seas and ensure the logistics needed for the Russian presence in Syria (since September 2015), but also an inexpungable outpost to militarily threaten neighbouring countries, from the Balkans and Central Europe and up to the Baltic Sea.

The Black Sea has taken on a different geopolitical appearance in less than a year. Thirdly, Russia’s obstinacy to tergiversate the solving of the Ukraine crisis is a permanent reminder of the danger for neighbouring states. Ukraine is a large state, bordering almost all Eastern European states, a state whose destabilisation and geopolitical reorientation raises significant regional problems and would have unpredictable consequences at continental level.

Last, but not least, Russia has multiplied the signals that it is expecting the West’s agreement to re-discuss Europe’s new security architecture, being obviously displeased with the balance of forces on the old continent. Among others, it has deployed in Crimea warships and submarines equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles (operational range of over 2,000 km), and Russian experts have already started to openly discuss dropping out of the 1987 international treaty on medium range missiles; likewise, in Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave in-between NATO member states, Iskander ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and an operational range of 480 km (and even greater) were deployed, “covering” many of the NATO or non-NATO states of Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO’s reply (at the two previous summits in 2014 and 2016) was not late in coming and it was tailored to make Russia understand that Article 5 will be enforced regardless of the context, the response scale including the initial stage of “reassuring” allies, as well as the next stage which aims at “strategic deterrence.” In the latter case, particularly because of Russian actions in Ukraine and of its force deployments or unannounced military exercises involving tens of thousands of soldiers on Russia’s western borders, the North Atlantic Alliance has deployed permanent military forces for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Although their operational level is low for the time being, this deployment of allied forces in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania represents a first in NATO history and proves its decision to meet its obligations.

In this security picture in Eastern Europe, Romania represents a significant case. Firstly, independent Romania’s strategy textbook features a historical constant that Crimea’s situation imposes. Every time Russia tried to become overbearing toward the South – as it is today, when it carries out military actions in Syria and has built for itself a base of operations at the Black Sea – Romania was directly threatened and had to take appropriate measures to preserve its national, political and economic interests. How it historically acted is abundantly proved, whether we are talking about the Crimean War in 1853-1856 (when it accelerated the union of the Principalities), the War of Independence in 1877-1878, the First World War or the Second World War in 1939-1945. What comes off, as a historical lesson learned, is that the problem is not specific to Romania, but it overwhelmingly involves the great systemic powers. Obviously, the latter’s role was and is just as ample in identifying the solutions, whether it meant war with Russia or agreements such as Yalta-1945 (on spheres of influence).

Lately, after Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, there is very open talk of the possibility of an agreement between the West and Russia, and various scenarios are circulating in this regard. The future, both in the short run as well as in the medium and long run, is unpredictable. Basically, we do not know what will happen, including in Eastern Europe.

Maybe the “Trump era,” as the future over the next four or eight years has started to be called, will bring about an agreement with Russia, like renowned analysts are ceaselessly warning us. Just as probable as it is for this new period to mean a worsening of the confrontation with Russia, the nominations that the U.S. President-elected has made for the most important governmental positions (among them the Pentagon and national security) being signs in this sense.

Very many analysts are warning that Russia is not capable of maintaining a confrontation with the West in the long run, but this probability contains an even greater danger. Namely that, faced with a predictable failure of its current strategy, Russia would amplify and expedite the attainment of its targets. One should not neglect, from this perspective, that the Russian ruling elite is one imperially educated, and the absorption of this trait can take place over generations. However, what is important for Romania is that, bearing in mind this unpredictability of the future, it should take the measures it can take at this moment so that events do not catch it by surprise. National security is first of all a national responsibility. This however does not mean designing and hastening actions on our own, in the idea that thus we would avoid being included in a possible new Yalta, nor adopting a damaging balancing act at international level, which in the end would exact its revenge.

On the contrary, it means standing firmly within the current security agreements, militating for the maintenance of the current global order and, especially, preparing for the worst possible scenario too. The current security situation in Eastern Europe, on the continent in general, does not at all call for self-reassurance and isolationism or a lack of vigilance. On the contrary. In short, consistency in geopolitical orientation and energetic activism, domestic and external.

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