Pillar of NATO: Romania’s Ambition in the Black Sea Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 118

(Source: YouTube)

United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).

Judging from present trends—which continue a 15-year basic trend—Romania is on course to become the most important provider of stability and security between the Black Sea and the Western Balkans. Of all the countries in the Black Sea region, the Balkans, and the Danubian basin (all of which this country straddles), Romania is the most proactive member of the North Atlantic Alliance in terms of strategic initiatives; and it hosts the only significant NATO and US military presence in the Black Sea–Balkan–Danubian spaces. There, Romania is also the only country independent of Russian energy supplies; and it is the only country wary of the lure of Russian business generally. Romania maintains tension-free relations with all neighboring countries (Russia is not a neighbor); and Romania is the country where the highest public approval ratings of NATO, the United States and the European Union are recorded (or where the Trump effect and Euroskepticism have done the least damage).

Seemingly by default, Romania has become the most reliable pillar of stability and security among NATO’s members and partners along the frontline in the Black Sea region. These are variously besieged or distracted. While partner countries Ukraine and Georgia are targets of Russia’s aggression, NATO member Bulgaria shows only a limited interest in the Alliance (see below). Meanwhile, Turkey—NATO’s mainstay on the Black Sea in decades past—has grown deeply alienated from the US and finds more common interests with Russia than with the Alliance in the Black Sea basin (see EDM, August 2).

It is also by default that initiatives regarding the southern part of NATO’s eastern frontline tend to devolve to Bucharest. The Romanian presidents and governments have sought more actively than any country to interest NATO and the EU in this region, ever since Romania joined these two organizations. NATO membership and the bilateral strategic partnership with the US helped to raise the Romanian military’s planning capacity. And since 2014, Russia’s threats have surged. Consequently, Bucharest’s initiatives have gained more persuasiveness, if not yet full traction within NATO. For its part, Romania’s political system, with all its flaws, does back up the strategic vision with resources.

Following a consensus decision by the parliamentary parties in 2015, Romania is committed to spending 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product on defense each year for 10 years—2017 through 2026 (see EDM, March 19). Defense spending rose from 1.4 percent of GDP in 2015 (the year of that decision) to the 2 percent benchmark in 2017 (keeping the overall state budget deficit within the 3 percent limit), and a projected 2 percent again for defense in 2018. Within those allocations, the share of procurement of major weapons systems is estimated at 33 to 35 percent both for 2017 and 2018, far higher than the NATO-recommended share of 20 percent for major acquisitions (Calea Europeana, July 11).

Romania’s nationally financed arms procurement programs aim to strengthen deterrence and defense both nationally and region-wide. The country’s defense budget also covers most of the costs of NATO’s multinational division headquarters and multinational brigade that are stationed on Romania’s territory.

The majority of Romania’s major weapons acquisitions are oriented toward the US. The Romanian parliament and government have approved the funding for purchases of:

– Patriot medium-range anti-missile and air-defense systems, from Raytheon (seven fire units, or three and a half batteries), with the first fire unit due in 2019.

– High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Lockheed Martin. The Patriots and the HIMARS are being acquired through the US government’s Foreign Military Sales program (Defense News, July 27).

– 227 Piranha armored personnel carriers, to be co-produced in Romania on license from General Dynamics (these vehicles are expected to equip the NATO-affiliated multinational brigade based in Craiova).

– Two squadrons of US-made, second-hand F-16 fighter planes (at 12 planes per squadron). The first squadron has been acquired from Portugal and is currently in the process of being operationalized. Romania is seeking a seller for the second planned squadron, and envisions eventually acquiring 48 F-16s (Hotnews, July 18).

Starting in 2019, Bucharest envisages the start of acquisition programs for coastal defense artillery (anti-ship missile batteries) and construction programs for building four multi-functional corvettes and modernizing two old British-made frigates, at Romanian shipyards, in cooperation with as yet unidentified Western partners.

NATO’s out-of-area missions and operations might be a distraction from the top priorities of territorial defense, but are nevertheless regarded by eastern frontline countries as investments in earning and retaining US confidence and a more persuasive voice in NATO. Following NATO’s latest summit, Romania’s Supreme Council of Defense of the Country (CSAT—the top national security decision-making body) has approved an increase in Romania’s contributions to NATO out-of-area missions and operations in 2019. The manpower increase amounts to 12 percent over the preceding year, bringing the total number to just over 3,000 personnel, including 2,100 Army personnel and 930 Interior Ministry personnel (gendarmerie and police). Almost one half of the total will be available for deployment to Afghanistan (Adevarul, July 19, 27). The message from President Klaus Iohannis and the government is that Romania complies with all elements of NATO’s CCC motto (Cash Capabilities Contributions).