The following article is based on research conducted under the State Department’s Title VIII Fellowship, for the Frontier Europe Initiative at MEI.
An old Romanian saying contends that “Romania’s most peaceful neighbor was always the Black Sea.” This aphorism does not come from a romantic perspective, nor is it simply referencing the sheer, breathtaking beauty of the Danube-Black Sea Maritime Corridor. Rather, this saying is typically Romanian in that it is meant to be read jovially, as a way of internalizing centuries of tense, often bloody, historical memories linked to Romania’s past interactions with the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian/Soviet empires. Today, the Russian Federation, the de facto heir to the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, remains the only power in the Black Sea with neo-imperial inclinations; and with its extensive nuclear stockpile, Russia challenges the United States, its allies, and the rules-based order in the region and beyond. The second Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, has, thus, only validated old Romanian security concerns. But the difference between the past and the present is that now Romania is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a battle-tested strategic partner of the U.S.
Romania contributed to allied NATO and U.S.-led multinational missions even before 2004, when Bucharest officially joined the North Atlantic Alliance as a full member. During his visit to Romania, on Oct. 21, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin singled out Romania for its consistent contributions to European and global security. Due to its geographic location, Romania is a key strategic outpost within the broader European security architecture: It has a multi-segmented land and maritime border with Ukraine, shares a border with the Republic of Moldova, and is one of three NATO member states with a Black Sea coastline. This geostrategic position makes Romania a neighbor of the “post-Soviet space” and a critical pivot for deterrence, power projection, and military operations should the war in Ukraine spill over into NATO territory.
During my time spent in Bucharest and along the Black Sea as a Title VIII State Department Fellow, I could not help but observe the staunch local support for NATO. While the Romanian political class disagrees on essentially everything — something fully reflected in the frequent governmental turnovers over the last decade — policymakers’, politicians’, and their electoral constituencies’ shared preference for maintaining strategic closeness with the Alliance, and especially with the U.S. and France, was palpable. Culturally, Romania is “pro-American” as well. The people of Romania “waited for the Americans” after World War II, and they are grateful U.S. GIs finally came, two decades after the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, Romania, in addition to Moldova and Poland, was one of the first countries to receive and host Ukrainian war refugees, hundreds of thousands of mainly women and children, after Russia re-invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
So considering its centrality to European security and the economic hardship it has willingly undertaken, why is Romania still not in the European Union’s border-free Schengen Area? What has constrained the level of European investments in Romania, especially in the Black Sea littoral?
First, the Romanian Armed Forces and the Romanian navy, alongside fellow allies Bulgaria and Turkey, defend NATO’s southeastern flank. The Romanian Naval Forces conduct maritime patrol and de-mining missions in the Black Sea, protecting free lines of maritime transport and communication. Romanian military vessels are instrumental in the execution of the Ukrainian grain deal — helping to escort cargo ships to and from Ukraine’s southwestern Black Sea ports. As early as April 28, 2022, the first Ukrainian corn cargo left the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanța. The chief of the Romanian Naval Forces, Rear Admiral Mihai Panait, spoke in August 2022 about the intense level of commercial traffic: over 300 ships were present or transited through Romanian sea- and riverine ports. This translated into a substantial effort on behalf of the maritime authorities to ensure the safety of navigation in Romanian waters. By the end of August, 25 mines had been de-mined in the Black Sea, in addition to the continuation of standard de-mining activities for World War II-era unexploded ordinance. While the bulk of the de-mining is on the Ukrainian side of the maritime border, some mines laid over the past year made their way to Bulgarian, Romanian, and Turkish territorial waters. This effort by Romania and its Black Sea allies is ongoing, and it comes at a price: the Romanian minesweeper Lieutenant Dimitrie Nicolescu with 75 crew aboard was hit by a mine in the Black Sea in September 2022.
In addition to contributing, alongside Turkish and Bulgarian fleets, to removing the mines, the Romanian navy is providing situational information to civilian authorities as well as commercial stakeholders, and it established safe maritime access passes to the ports of Constanța, Mangalia, and Midia. Naval forces additionally created an alternative shipping route in the Romanian military’s area of responsibility (AoR), namely, between Mangalia and Sulina.
In the bigger picture of the strategic confrontation between Russia and the collective West, Russian officials and foreign policy commentators speak extensively about how the Romanian Naval Forces and Romanian Special Forces play an important role in effectively countering so-called “hybrid” threats, which have included Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian seaports to try to cripple the latter country’s economy. The high-intensity traffic through Romanian ports of ships carrying Ukrainian goods seen over the past year is, thus, a testament to the effectiveness of the West’s counteraction. Nevertheless, success in this would not be possible without the Romanian navy.
The leadership of the Romanian Naval Forces has committed to modernizing the fleet and reforming the curricula at the country’s naval universities; moreover, it has opened additional higher education programs for technical specialists and officers. At the same time, the Romanian navy is actively looking to gather support for developing the Danube as an alternative transport route for commercial and military purposes. The Romanian experts I interviewed as part of my Title VIII fellowship field research echoed this sentiment. One, in particular, challenged me to imagine how things would have worked differently from the beginning of the war in Ukraine if the Danube had been fully integrated into European transit infrastructure as a major shipping route connecting the Black Sea to Central and Western Europe (Germany). Further, several experts I sat down with underscored that developing the Danube would not only serve obvious military goals but could potentially lower transportation costs for all merchandise traded and transited through Romania. Unfortunately, in line with this train of thought, not only is Romania not benefitting from EU or foreign investment on the Danube but the denial of admission to the Schengen Zone (something Austria singlehandedly prevented in December 2022) slows commerce. Coincidentally, several Romanian experts I interviewed indicated — and my own research confirmed — that Russia has engaged in lobbying against developing an integrated, EU-based Danube Strategy. In the overarching geopolitical frame, developing the Danube makes strategic sense because there is a very high potential for dual use. Russia believes it is fighting a “hybrid war with the collective West”, therefore, NATO and EU member states need to be active, not reactive, in reinforcing transport routes, deepening their economic ties, and cultivating socio-cultural bonds. The Danube River Convention is clear on this: “Navigation on the Danube shall be free and open for the nationals, vessels of commerce and goods of all States, on a footing of equality in regard to port and navigation charges and conditions for merchant shipping.”
So how is all this relevant to U.S. foreign policy, NATO’s posture, and European security? Markedly, in July 2022, a bipartisan bill to establish a U.S. strategy toward the Black Sea Region was introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). It is good to see this initiative. Nevertheless, it is a reaction to Russian strategy and foreign policy. It is important to build the America’s Black Sea strategy from a position of proactive, informed awareness of Russian strategic conduct. Additionally, while the U.S. and its NATO allies figure out how to proceed with policymaking, some immediate, natural next steps for Washington would be to continue the deep cooperation with the Romanian Armed Forces, to encourage the Romanians to build up their capabilities, and to support the Romanian military leadership’s plans to establish leadership development programs for the officer corps. In a multipolar world, solutions will need to be first and foremost regional — and in the Black Sea region, the Romanian Naval and Special Forces are a solid anchor for European stability.
Dr. Olga R. Chiriac is a researcher and professor of political science. She is affiliated with the Joint Special Operations University as an Associated Researcher and Project Europe Head of Engagement with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.
Photo by MIHAI BARBU/AFP
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