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As NATO summit looms, Romanian official urges more focus on Black Sea
Diplomatic Pouch / July 7, 2016

By Larry Luxner

Just days ahead of NATO’s scheduled 2016 Summit in Warsaw, the foreign policy adviser to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis says the security of the entire Black Sea region is at stake.

Bogdan Aurescu delivered his comments during a June 30 speech at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a Washington-based think tank. Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at CEPA, moderated the event.

“There is no more important question than national security, especially when Putin’s Russia is resurgent in the region, the EU is suffering a prolonged multidimensional crisis, NATO’s future is being questioned —even in Washington — and the danger of an even more isolationist America looms on the horizon,” said Bugajski, speaking on the eve of the Warsaw summit, set for July 8-9.

“Moscow is determined to turn the Black Sea into a Russian-controlled lake, following its annexation of Crimea, its intervention in eastern Ukraine and its longstanding division and destabilization of Moldova,” he continued. “Russia’s objective is to neutralize Romania from challenging the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. Will the NATO summit rise to the challenge?”

Romania joined the U.S.-led alliance on March 29, 2004, along with half a dozen other formerly communist countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Home to 20 million people, it is also one of six nations bordering the Black Sea. The others are Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Aurescu told the expert panel at CEPA that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has irrevocably changed Romania’s security calculus for the Black Sea.

“Romania has a de facto maritime border with Russia, since it now controls the waters off Crimea,” he said. “We also face major challenges from the south, especially terrorism and migration. Against this backdrop, we need to have a coherent response from both the EU and NATO.”

To that end, said Aurescu, Romania has established a regional naval maritime framework for security cooperation along with neighboring Bulgaria and Turkey. The new multinational brigade became operational July 1.

Yet dangers loom, said Aurescu, noting that recent Kremlin aggression in its immediate neighborhood.

“We are pleased to see that more attention is being dedicated to the Black Sea, but it’s not enough. Russia continues to see NATO as an adversary, although we have extended our hand of cooperation,” he said, adding that Romania is “open to dialogue” with Moscow.

“Whenever we discuss dialogue with Russia, defense and deterrence should come first. It will prove essential for Euro-Atlantic security,” he said. “It is important that all partners have the same assessment of threats in the Black Sea region. We need to show regional cohesion. NATO is not just a military alliance; it is a community of values. If NATO is strong, then our values are better protected.”

Looking to the Warsaw summit, Aurescu said a more concrete U.S. presence in Romania “is extremely important from a psychological point of view” since it “shows we will never go back under the Russian sphere of influence. This is why Russia is so upset about our Aegis offshore missile defense system.”

That system, inaugurated May 12, is “purely defensive” and is “a tangible reality with concrete benefits for the security of Romania, the U.S. and the alliance as a whole.”

“The Black Sea is the most complex security environment on NATO’s doorstep. We must go from reassurance to deterrence,” he said, praising the Brussels-based alliance for accepting Montenegro as its 29th member — but expressing regret that the former Soviet republic of Georgia still does not belong to the club. “It’s obvious we need more NATO presence in the Black Sea, and we have the full support of the U.S. for this initiative.”

Yet Margarita Assenova, a Balkan program director at the Jamestown Foundation, complained that Russia is undermining Bulgarian politics, rendering that country incapable of responding to Moscow’s threats.

“The Baltic countries and Poland have been working together in a coordinated manner in view of what Russia is up to, while the Black Sea countries have been completely divided,” she said. “Only Romania is pulling toward more NATO cooperation, while the other countries are more hesitant and have their own pressures to consider.”

Aurescu assured his colleagues at CEPA that Bucharest will boost its defense budget from the current 1.7 percent of GDP to the NATO target of 2 percent in 2017, “a figure we have committed to keep for the next 10 years.” Adding that Romania now has 650 troops in Afghanistan and 50 military trainers in Iraq, he said, “I hope our efforts will be an example for other allies.”

He also urged “more concrete cooperation between NATO and the EU,” and suggested that the British decision June 23 vote to leave the EU will have no long-term impact on regional security.

Responding to a question from Peter Doran, vice president of research at CEPA, about how regional security might be affected by the June 28 suicide bombing at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport which killed 44 people and injured nearly 250, Aurescu said threats to Romania’s east and south must be treated separately. He insisted that “Putin asked NATO to choose between Assad and ISIS” in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels earlier this year.

“You can’t compare terrorism with what Russia does in the Black Sea region. If Russia wants to contribute to fighting terrorism, it’s a very good thing,” he said. “But there is no tradeoff between the two. It doesn’t mean we’ll close our eyes to what’s happening in eastern Ukraine or waive the sanctions.”

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