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Long Neglected, Romania Could Be NATO's Achilles Heel

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea, NATO has reinforced its presence eastward — but the Baltic countries and Poland were the prime beneficiaries. But Romania, which shares the longest border with Ukraine, may be the country most directly in Vladimir Putin's path.

photo of soldiers marching with helicopters overhead

NATO troop exercises last year in Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania

Cover Images via ZUMA
Carolina Drüten

BUCHAREST — For many years, NATO has underestimated the importance of Romania. But the war in Ukraine means Romania is taking on a new geopolitical importance, and NATO has been stepping up its military presence in the country due to its strategic position on the Black Sea and its shared border with Ukraine.

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Now the country may be vulnerable, watching nervously to see how far Russian troops will advance in Ukraine. A visit to Bucharest last week by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris underlined NATO’s commitment to defend its southeastern flank, potentially exposed to Moscow's advances.

For Romanians, the Russian invasion of Ukraine ultimately came as no surprise, confirmation of a long-held fear. Professor Armand Gosu, a Romanian expert on Russian geopolitics, puts this down to a “historical fear of Russian imperialism.”

 New geopolitical significance

Of all the NATO countries, Romania has the longest border with Ukraine, longer than Poland, Slovakia or Hungary. Its position on the Black Sea means that it is directly confronted with Russia’s operations there. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has maintained a strong naval presence there.

The balance of power in the region is tipping towards Moscow.

Romania has also strongly supported Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. “The Romanian people are aware that an independent Ukraine that works closely with Europe and the U.S. is the strongest guarantee of security in Central Europe,” says Gosu.

Romania along with Turkey, another NATO country with a Black Sea coast, are both concerned that the balance of power in the region is tipping towards Moscow. That is clearly Putin’s aim: his troops in Ukraine are trying to gain control of the south of the country, including strategically important port cities.

The Kremlin's red line

NATO has now recognized Romania’s strategic importance, as well as its vulnerable position, and is sending a French-led battalion to the country. Up until now, these multinational units have only been stationed in Poland and the Baltic states. France and Belgium have already confirmed that they will be sending troops, while Italy and Germany are sending additional fighter planes.

In February, the U.S. sent fighter jets, tanks and soldiers that had been stationed in Vilseck, in southeastern Germany. In Deveselu in southern Romania, there is a missile shield base built and operated by the Americans; there is also a U.S. military base at Mihail Kogalniceanu Airport, near Constanta, on the Black Sea. Russia has demanded all foreign troops, weapons and military equipment be withdrawn from Romania.

NATO may well have to act on its mutual defense guarantee in Romania. On Sunday, Russia’s defense ministry warned Ukraine’s neighboring countries against allowing Ukrainian fighter jets to be stationed on their territory. It is believed that has already happened in Romania.

A spokesperson said that an attack on Russian troops launched from these countries’ territory could be “seen as these countries involving themselves in the military conflict.” In other words: if Romania crosses what the Kremlin sees as a red line, it would classify Bucharest as a combatant. This would force NATO to enter the war to defend its member state, something the Alliance wants to avoid at all costs.

Refugees from the war in Ukraine disembark from a ferry at Port Isaccea in eastern Romania

Robin Loznak/ZUMA

Reshuffling in Bucharest

In the first days of the war, a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-27 landed in Romania, then set off for Ukraine a few days later. However, analysts think it unlikely that Ukrainian planes will be allowed to land in Romania or other neighboring countries in the near future.

From a Romanian perspective, this reshuffling of NATO troops on the Alliance’s southeastern flank is long overdue. At his meeting with Harris, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis suggested that his country had been neglected for some time: “If one part of the eastern flank is strong and another part is weak, it’s obviously a weakness on the eastern flank.”

The greatest threat was on the Black Sea.

There are currently 2,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Romania, compared to some 10,000 in Poland. Gosu explains that after the annexation of Crimea, NATO’s eastern members had to compete for Western troops, and Poland and the Baltic states largely won out.

This is despite the fact that “the greatest threat was on the Black Sea, near Romania,” he says. “It is only now that NATO’s military leaders and some Western governments seem to be recognizing the importance of strengthening the Alliance’s military presence in Romania.”

Gosu says NATO must now rethink its presence on its eastern flank, send allied forces to Romania and assemble the battlegroup quickly. But the biggest danger may lie elsewhere: in the influx of refugees. If Russia attacks the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, we could see tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians forced to flee the region – and Moldova and Romania are the only countries they would be able to reach.

Gosu says the EU must urgently offer support. “I don’t think that (these countries) would be able to cope with such a large influx of refugees because they are not prepared for it,” he says. If the countries were to become unstable, it would be detrimental to the West. Gosu adds: “I hope that I’ll be proven wrong.”

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