NATO Can Refloat Romania’s Black Sea Naval Initiative (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 130

Bulgarian frigate takes part in NATO Black Sea exercise Breeze 2014

*To read Part One, please click here.

It was a summit of modest expectations and modest results for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Warsaw on July 8–9. These results are of an interim nature: building blocks for further decisions at upcoming ministerial meetings, not waiting until the next summit. The Warsaw results do not, as yet, correlate with the growth in Russia’s capacity to threaten, intimidate, or subvert the Alliance generally and its eastern—now “frontline”—member countries in particular.

NATO’s summit communiqué and a post-summit statement by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicate that the Alliance’s next meeting of defense ministers will reconsider Romania’s initiative to establish a framework for joint naval exercises by riparian and non-riparian NATO allies in the Black Sea. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has announced that Romania will persist with this initiative (see EDM, June 24, July 15, 18).

The riparian allies Bulgaria and Turkey did not support Romania’s initiative at this summit. Their support would have been a minimal precondition to approval by the Alliance. For a successful reconsideration down the road, a pre-coordinated stance of the three riparian countries will be required. This would in turn enable the United States to support the initiative. Bulgaria’s reasonable concerns need to be addressed (which seems feasible) while the ramifications of Turkey’s internal and external crises will need to be circumnavigated (a daunting task after the July 15–16 coup attempt there).

Bulgaria’s head of state and its foreign affairs and defense ministers had apparently endorsed Romania’s proposal in general terms, until Prime Minister Boyko Borissov overruled them shortly before NATO’s summit. From June 16 onward and continuing after the summit, Borissov came out squarely against the proposal. The other three aforementioned officials, however, called for a proposal with NATO’s direct involvement, as reinsurance against possible Russian counteractions. These Bulgarian pro-NATO officials are wary about a “regional,” i.e. trilateral format (Romania-Bulgaria-Turkey) of the riparian allies. Instead, they seek a wider format with the participation of NATO allies and a political link to NATO.

Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev went on record with these positions:

  • The proposed framework for joint naval exercises must first be considered at the NATO level (press conference—BTA, June 16).
  • As a sign of Alliance support, experts from NATO staff should participate in planning joint exercises. Any new initiatives should be implemented under NATO’s umbrella, not as a “regional” effort (briefing—Novinite, June 17).
  • Bulgaria has not made a commitment to participate in “trilateral” or “regional” initiatives with Turkey and Romania (parliamentary hearing—Novinite, June 24).
  • Given Russia’s military buildup in the Black Sea, “NATO should offset the imbalance and demonstrate that it will protect all its members” (government meeting—Novinite, June 24).
  • (Dismissing Borissov’s idea that demilitarizing the Black Sea is preferable to NATO exercises): “Everybody can dream about peace” (press briefing—Novinite, July 12).

Foreign Affairs Minister Daniel Mitov expressed these views publicly:

  • NATO as a defensive alliance has obligations to protect its allies and provide deterrence. “Bulgaria has always advocated for enhanced allied presence and exercises in the Black Sea, but under the flag of NATO. NATO has long debated the format of an enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea, but no concrete decisions have been made yet” (interview—BTA, June 18).
  • Bulgaria is open to exercises in the Black Sea, but not in a “regional format.” NATO must show its resolve to defend member states, reacting to the imbalances created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military buildup (briefing—Novinite, June 22).
  • The Alliance needs a balanced approach toward the northern part and the southern part of NATO’s eastern flank (government meeting—BTA, June 24).
  • From Georgia 2008 to Crimea 2014, “the power balance in the Black Sea region has been upset dramatically. [However,] NATO has responded mainly with training events, aiming to ensure greater transparency. Bulgaria favors a stronger presence of NATO in the Black Sea in order to deter and prevent conflicts” (parliamentary hearing—BTA, June 29).

President Rossen Plevneliev (who will step down when his term expires in October) also went on record as follows:

  • “Bulgaria will support it [Romania’s proposal] only in a NATO format.” “Any decision must be made on the political level in NATO” (press conference—BTA, June 16).
  • Bulgaria “will insist that the Black Sea should not be left out of focus, while NATO’s efforts concentrate to the north and to the south [of the Black Sea].” Bulgaria needs more presence, more exercises in the Black Sea (briefing—BTA, July 8).
  • To address Russia’s militarization of Crimea and the power imbalance, NATO should develop a proposal on enhanced forward presence in the Black Sea. This “should not be a trilateral initiative,” but “is possible only under the aegis of NATO, and open to all allied countries” (press conference—BTA, July 10).

In contrast to those carefully considered views, Prime Minister Borissov’s response sounded improvised in content and emotional in form. Apparently he had not attentively studied the Romanian proposal ahead of President Iohannis’s June 16 presentation of it in Sofia. Borissov’s spontaneous responses:

  • “I want to see sailboats, yachts, tourists, peace and love in our Black Sea resorts. I do not want frigates criss-crossing the sea, [this] would be risking a military conflict.” However, “no one should doubt our pro-NATO position.” Bulgaria hosts U.S. troops, conducts exercises with U.S., is ready for exercises with Romania (press conference—BTA, June 16).
  • “I do not want Bulgaria to be Russia’s enemy and to be bypassed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev on their Balkan visits.” Bulgaria needs [from Russia] energy projects, travel visa facilitation and market access (press conference—BTA, July 1).
  • “Better a good peace than a good war. I would even go to extremes in this regard. The Black Sea should be declared a demilitarized zone without missiles, ships and submarines, a zone where we hope to obtain natural gas, with more opportunities for trade and tourism” (remarks during visit in the countryside—BTA, July 9).

An emotional and colorful style is a Borissov characteristic regardless of the topic at hand. In this case, his remarks were hasty, not well prepared and, therefore, possibly open to his reconsideration. Borissov is one of the most pro-Western prime ministers in Bulgarian history, opposes Russian influence in the country, and has (albeit reluctantly) liquidated Russia’s largest-ever energy projects in Bulgaria (Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, Belene nuclear power plant and South Stream gas pipeline), at considerable political risk to his government and himself. At present, his Western-oriented government holds a fragile parliamentary majority, could hardly risk pre-term elections, and cannot be certain that Plevneliev would be replaced by a similarly pro-Western head of state.

It would be wrong to blame Bulgaria’s response on traditional Russophilia in the country, although the government must take that sentiment among voters into account when setting foreign policy. The defense and foreign affairs ministers, as well as the head of state, have actually called for greater NATO involvement in the proposed joint exercises, as a reinsurance measure vis-à-vis Russia (see above).

All this suggests that Romania’s initiative has fair chances of success with Bulgaria, if the government’s views are duly tested and taken into account.

*To read Part Three, please click here.