Romania Reacts to the Ukraine Crisis

8 MINS READMay 9, 2014 | 09:01 GMT
Romania Reacts to the Ukrainian Crisis
(Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Romanian President Traian Basescu (R) speaks with U.S. Navy officials on April 14.

The events in Ukraine are a concern for Romania. Bucharest fears that unrest could reach neighboring Moldova and also is worried about Russia's growing presence in the Black Sea. Romania's reaction to the Ukraine crisis will be threefold. First, Bucharest will try to keep Moldova within its sphere of influence. Second, Romania will keep pushing for closer military ties with the United States and Poland. Third, Romania will intensify its efforts for energy diversification, but progress in this area will probably be slow. Although Romania's relationship with Russia will remain cold, Bucharest will try not to escalate tensions to the point where its security interests in Moldova and the Black Sea could be threatened.

Romania has two key sources of concern when it comes to Russia. The first is Moldova and its breakaway territory of Transdniestria. Moscow supports Transdniestria financially and politically, and approximately 1,400 Russian and other Moscow-aligned troops are stationed there. Bucharest fears that Russia could use its links with Transdniestria to generate social unrest in Moldova, which could overflow into eastern Romania. The second source of concern is Crimea. With Russia consolidating its presence in the Crimean Peninsula, Bucharest is afraid that Moscow will become more active in the Black Sea.

Recent events in Odessa have added to Romania's concerns. It is one thing to see pro-Russian groups and violence spreading in eastern Ukraine or Crimea. It is more alarming for Romania to see these groups attempting to destabilize Odessa, which is only 170 kilometers (106 miles) from Chisinau and roughly 200 kilometers from the Romanian border.

Romania's Political and Security Plans

Romania's reaction to the events in Ukraine will take three forms. First, Bucharest will try to keep Moldova within its sphere of influence. A little more than half of Moldova's trade is with the European Union, but one-third of Moldova's exports go to Russia. Russia is a very important political and cultural force in Moldova, with a significant part of the population supporting closer ties with Moscow instead of Brussels. This explains why Romania and the European Union have recently stepped up their efforts to bring Moldova closer to the European Union. In late April, the European Union granted Moldovans visa-free travel, and in early May it said it will give an additional 30 million euros ($41.7 million) to help Moldova "seize the benefits and opportunities" of its upcoming association agreement with the European Union. Romania has said repeatedly that it will support Moldova's eventual membership in the European Union.

Western Black Sea

Western Black Sea

In late June, the European Union and Moldova will likely sign their free trade and association agreements within the framework of the Eastern Partnership initiative. As the date for the summit approaches, Romania's fears of Russian destabilization efforts in Moldova will grow. Small pro-Russian demonstrations are already taking place in Chisinau. Russia has several tools to destabilize Moldova, which means that the region will remain volatile in the coming months.

Second, Romania will keep pushing for closer military ties with the United States and with key regional players. Domestically, this means making more promises to boost military spending. At the international level, Romania will try to exploit its strategic position by the Black Sea to attract U.S. interest. Romania is already offering the White House assistance in the transit of U.S. troops coming from Afghanistan. Next year, the U.S. missile defense system will be deployed in Romania. Bucharest will use these agreements to seek a greater U.S. presence in the country, or at least stronger signals of commitment to Romania's security (such as the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Bucharest).

Romania will also seek closer political and military ties with Poland. Bucharest and Warsaw have similar strategic views. Both believe that a U.S. presence in Central and Eastern Europe enhances their national security. Both are interested in expanding the European Union's influence eastward and contributing to political stability in Russia's traditional spheres of influence, particularly in Ukraine and Moldova. In the coming months, Warsaw and Bucharest will push the European Union for additional financial and political support for these countries. Moreover, from a strategic point of view, closer ties between Romania and Poland would create an alliance of the two largest countries in the region, ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Recently, Romania and Bulgaria have been included in some of the summits of the Visegrad Group (which comprises Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). This opens the door for potential regional cooperation on infrastructure projects to more deeply integrate these countries' energy markets and on other common interests, such as the preservation of a strong Common Agricultural Policy in the European Union.

Turkey could eventually become an important piece of Romania's foreign policy, as stronger bilateral ties could counterbalance Russia's presence in the Black Sea. However, Bucharest and Ankara have shown limited interest in such a relationship; during the last decade Romania oriented its foreign policy to the West (the European Union and NATO) while Turkey was more focused on the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Common concerns about greater instability in the Black Sea could bring both countries together.

Romania and Turkey did sign several partnership agreements between 2011 and 2013, and Turkey is Romania's main trade partner outside the European Union. However, bilateral trade has remained relatively stable in recent years, and their agreements on joint research and exploration on Black Sea offshore natural gas and oil exploration have yet to translate into concrete action. Romania and Turkey have also participated in the development of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, but both seem more interested in developing bilateral ties with Washington than with each other. It will probably require greater pressure from the United States for Romania and Turkey to tighten their links.

Bucharest's Quest for Greater Energy Diversification

Romania's third move will be to try to boost its energy diversification efforts, but progress in this area will be very slow. Romania, which produces roughly three-quarters of the natural gas it consumes, is not as dependent on Russian natural gas as its neighbors. However, Romania has failed to diversify its imports, as almost all of its imported natural gas comes from Russia. This means that a disruption in Russian natural gas supplies could significantly impact Romania.

Romania was one of the main supporters of Nabucco West, a pipeline project that would transport natural gas from Azerbaijan. However, the future of this project is in serious doubt after the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline — which does not cross Romania — was chosen over Nabucco. Romania still has additional options: exploration of its shale gas resources, development of offshore natural gas fields in the Black Sea and development of interconnectors with neighboring countries. Most of these initiatives, however, are unlikely to have a significant impact this decade.

According to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Romanian shale gas reserves total 1.4 trillion cubic meters. But Romania has a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome (including popular resistance to hydraulic fracturing) before these resources become available for consumption. Meanwhile, Bucharest is seeking to develop the conventional offshore natural gas fields discovered in the Black Sea, where some international companies are already exploring for natural gas. However, the real size of these reserves is still unclear, and there are no prospects of significant production until at least the end of the decade.

This does not mean that Romania is willing to abandon this project — quite the opposite. One of the main reasons for Romania's concern about Russia's presence in Crimea and Odessa is that Bucharest fears that Moscow could interfere in its plans for energy exploration in the Black Sea.

In the meantime, Romania has made some progress in the construction of interconnectors with its neighbors. Completed in 2010, the Arad-Szeged interconnector between Romania and Hungary operates in one direction to import natural gas from Hungary. A Romania-Moldova interconnector — a key project for Moldova's political and economic integration with Romania — is expected to become operational by year's end. The construction of the Giurgiu-Ruse interconnector between Romania and Bulgaria, which started in October 2009, is facing some delays, though. Originally, completion was scheduled for early 2013, but its current status is unknown. None of Romania's neighbors is a natural gas producer, so these interconnectors would provide diversification in terms of routes but not in terms of the energy source.

Influences on Romania's Actions

Romania traditionally has been surrounded by larger powers, which at different points in history included Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Russia. This has shaped Romania's view of the world. One of Bucharest's main foreign policy goals has been to link itself with an external power to reduce its vulnerability. This explains why Bucharest will seek to remain closely aligned with the United States to help it deal with an uncertain regional environment. But Romania also wants to develop security guarantees at the bilateral and regional levels, which explains why Bucharest is interested in keeping close ties with Poland and potentially Turkey.

Romania has some degree of insulation from the events in its neighborhood, but its energy needs make it vulnerable to Russia in the near term, and it is worried about instability close to its borders. This will influence its actions in the coming years. Bucharest will keep pushing for a greater U.S. presence in the region while trying to bring Moldova closer to the European Union. It will also continue its energy diversification efforts while maintaining awareness that these efforts will not reduce its dependence on Russia substantially in the short term. This means that Bucharest will maintain relatively cold relations with Moscow but will be careful not to generate a substantial deterioration in their bilateral ties that could threaten its security concerns in Moldova and the Black Sea.

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