Romania boosts Nato role as Black Sea tension rises

Russia’s rapid militarisation of annexed Crimea alarms neighbours in the region

A Russian navy missile boat of the Black Sea Fleet prepares for a voyage at the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

A Russian navy missile boat of the Black Sea Fleet prepares for a voyage at the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

 

Romanian defence minister Mihnea Motoc has warned that Russia is causing a “constant degradation” of security on Nato’s eastern flank, but expressed confidence that US president-elect Donald Trump would not weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia has deployed thousands more troops to the peninsula along with attack aircraft, additional warships and high-tech missile systems, to the alarm of states in south-eastern Europe.

Analysts say Russia is militarising Crimea in the Black Sea and its Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltic, to prevent potential adversaries accessing and sending reinforcements to these strategic areas during any future crisis.

Motoc spoke of “a constant degradation in the security climate throughout the eastern flank of Nato” over the last two years.

“Advanced, even strategic, weapon systems are deployed, probably even as we speak, in Crimea. And this is just one component of what is obviously a heavy military build-up of Russian presence in the Black Sea,” he told The Irish Times.

“Illegally annexed Crimea is potentially turning into a ‘Kaliningrad-plus’ under our eyes, and into a springboard for force-projection as well, primarily into the eastern Mediterranean.”

Military response

Russia has made no secret of its military build-up in the Black Sea, calling it a response to growing threats from Nato that include a nascent US missile defence system for Europe, composed of radar and interceptor-rocket stations in Romania and elsewhere.

“It used to be said that Turkey was virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything’s different,” the chief of the Russian military’s general staff, Valery Gerasimov, declared in September.

He said Russia’s forces in Crimea could destroy any threat “no matter where it came from”.

“Today the Black Sea Fleet has everything it needs to do this: intelligence tools that can detect a target 500km away, and the means to destroy.”

This year, Russia announced the deployment to Crimea of Bastion coastal defence missiles with a range of 350km, and S-400 rockets that can strike air and ground targets 400km away. Moscow has sent the same systems to its forces in Syria.

When Ukraine’s military conducted missile tests near the Black Sea this month, it said Russia threatened to destroy the launch sites of any rockets that flew close to Crimea – highlighting the constant danger of escalation in the region.

While Baltic and Scandinavian states often raise the alarm over nearby Russian military exercises and incursions by Moscow’s warplanes into their airspace, it is near the Black Sea that Motoc sees “an arch of potential de-stabilisation”.

From Abkhazia in Georgia, through southeastern Ukraine, to Transdniestria in Moldova – close to Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and to Romania – Russia provides vital military and other support to separatist-held regions carved out through war.

“Romania, like Nato and the EU, remains open to dialogue with Russia . . . However, and at least for the short term, we have to factor in very seriously and responsibly the grave altering of confidence and the complex security environment we live in,” Motoc said.

US warplanes

As well as hosting the US missile defence site, Romania has welcomed US warplanes to its Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, where they are due to be joined next year by British and other aircraft as Nato boosts reconnaissance over the Black Sea.

Romania plans to contribute troops to one of four multinational Nato battalions that will be deployed in Poland and the Baltic states next year, and has offered to command a Black Sea brigade made up of troops from several Nato allies.

“Romania is not only in the front line of Nato countries, but it is one of the most important pillars on the southern flank of Nato,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“It is also hosting one of the most sensitive military installations,” he added, referring to a missile defence system that Russia sees as a strategic threat.

“Some think that for the incoming Trump administration, this could be one of the areas that could be traded off as part of a new deal with Russia.”

Motoc played down concerns that the billionaire could sharply reduce US involvement in Europe’s defence, and said “the Romanian-American strategic partnership is too strong, and too deep, not to be carried on and made even stronger.” Romanian troops have participated in US-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Sunday’s election in Romania, won by the Social Democrats, is unlikely to have any impact on its defence policy.

“On national security and defence matters, there is wide political consensus,” said Motoc, who has served in a cabinet of technocrats since 2015.

“There is an all-party common perception of the security challenges Romania is confronted with,” he added, “and an all-party common view on the ways and means to address them.”

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