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January 19, 2022

Romania: geopolitical near abroad

Maybe it is a trait of human nature, maybe not, but often we pay no attention to what is very close to us. This does not mean we are not aware of the reality next to us, but we do not pay it the necessary importance, being preoccupied with others, less significant ones, and this is to our great detriment most of the times.

This also happens in international relations as they develop in regions that are well-defined geopolitically as units of evolution and reaction to the stimuli of change, as historically shown. For instance, we decry Eastern Europe’s fall under communism for more than one generation once the Soviet army advanced all the way to Berlin at the end of the Second World War, but we ignored that Eastern Europe’s near abroad at the time was closely linked to the overall evolution of the war, which the small and middle powers of the East were unable to influence on their own, even if they were not the ones that generated it.

Today the situation seems to repeat itself. It is not without reason that the often-quoted saying – “we learn nothing from the past and that’s why we repeat it” – is so often used precisely to justify our lack of understanding and action when it comes to developments that, once consumed, seem so clear in hindsight.

The regrets for not understanding them on time are of course belated. Most of the time we forget – attracted by the dynamic and heatedness of domestic disputes – that we are not alone in the world, that we are not living in a greenhouse. While it is important to discuss whether ‘Fiscal Statement 600’ is welcome or not, wrong or not, thus spending significant collective energies, we forget to ask ourselves what is happening in the near abroad, and this is harmful for our future.

Isn’t it important to know and assess what is happening in the neighbouring state of Ukraine, with which we have a long border and on whose evolution our own systemic status may depend to a significant extent, considering that the international situation is in an unprecedented fluidity? Basically, history has shown us that there is a clear regional dynamic, which is common, but it depends on us how we define this region. Is Eastern Europe – in this case – only the area between Russia (the former USSR) and Germany, or can it have a different definition – the Visegrad area plus the Balkans or only the area of Central Europe, or all of them together? Do we include the Black Sea region or the Caucasus in Eastern Europe or not?

Depending on the correct definition of the region we are in, we will be in the position to undertake sustainable policies in the external environment, to focus energies in essential areas of interest and to plan our short-, medium- and long-term future. However, no matter how we define the continental region we are in – Central European, Danubian, Eastern or East/South-East European –, and no matter what is happening in neighbouring countries such as Ukraine or Turkey – our close Black Sea neighbour –, our interest must be vigilant and constant.

What is happening now in Ukraine is very important because this neighbour of ours is at war. There is an entire dispute whether it is a civil war or Russia’s war against its neighbour, triggered by the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the destabilisation of the country’s eastern regions by separatist movements that followed on its heels.

When recently asked for his opinion on what is happening in Ukraine, Kurt Volker, an American diplomat engaged in bilateral negotiations with Moscow in this dossier, said: “Of course, this is not a civil war. /…/ Between the residents there is no conflict, there is no discrimination. /…/ So the conflict affected only one part of the east of Ukraine. Why? Because it began with a hybrid war, from the invasion of Russia into Ukraine. Various organizations were created there, which were empowered, and armed militia detachments, which Russia trains, fully supports and provides with weapons. This continues to this day.” According to Volker, Russia seeks – hence this is not a war between the two states either – to impose in Kiev politicians favourable to it, “to keep the country in the sphere of its influence,” something that has sparked huge indignation and has contributed to the consolidation of national identity in Ukraine. As a result of the military conflict that continues unabated, despite the international community’s attempts to reach a peaceful solution, around 10,000 people have died and more than one million are internally displaced. Not only is a neighbour caught up in the turmoil of war, which has already become chronic, regardless of how we were to define it, but the goal sought by one of the belligerents, as specified by Volker, namely the expansion of Russia’s sphere of influence, is of crucial importance for Romania. Of course, precisely to deter this risk of Russian geopolitical expansion, NATO has adopted deterrent measures ever since 2014, deploying military assets from the Baltic Sea to and in the Black Sea.

Maintaining and consolidating these deterrent assets is a goal that requires the contribution of all NATO members, as well as a cohesive policy toward Russia on the part of NATO and EU allies. For the time being however, the ‘Normandy format’ and the Minsk agreement (February 2015) are working in a routine established almost two years ago, and the sanctions against Moscow, which seek to change its approach – although periodically renewed, and new ones being very recently added – are failing to attain the sought-after goal. Of course, between the U.S. and Russia there are periodical contacts in order to identify overall solutions – Volker is the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, his Russian counterpart being Surkov, who is close to the Kremlin –, but even these meetings are not having palpable results.

The American-Russian contacts, whose dimensions and agenda are not yet fully known, are a positive sign in the evolution of a situation at the eastern border of Romania and at the Black Sea, a situation that can evolve toward incandescence unless serious steps are taken toward a peaceful and durable solution. Bucharest must be interested in the rapid identification of such a solution. Especially since Russia has built up a veritable arsenal in Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 but deemed by Ukraine a full-fledged part of its territory –, Romania’s territorial waters being dominated from the immediate vicinity by the scale of these military capabilities.

It is difficult to say whether Turkey, one of the NATO members with armed forces of special capabilities, is showing certain signs of geopolitical reorientation because of this Russian military arsenal in Crimea, but Turkish experts consider that it is for the first time that their country has Russia physically present (militarily) both in the north and in the south. Because Russia indeed has bases in Syria, having been involved in this country’s civil war since September 2015. Basically, Russia is an imposing military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean – not just in Syria, but through large naval and air forces – and the possibilities of countering/deterring it are insufficient according to some experts.

Russia’s re-entry in the Middle East, after almost half a century of absence, did not come by chance. It took place against the backdrop of a deficiency of massive Western presence – first of all U.S. – in this volatile region of the world, hence of the unstable situation in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the rise of the Islamo-terrorist danger. Today, Turkey is engaged in a veritable war in the Afrin region of northern Syria, trying to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity, and the international reactions toward this action are varied and contradictory. Its impact on the overall situation of this country, including Turkey’s status as NATO member, are still difficult to elucidate.

Here are the geopolitical realities – hence unstable areas in the north, east and south – which are much more important for Romania and require far more preoccupation than other issues that excessively consume the attention and energy of the political elites.

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