Russian-Romanian relations at another Black Sea crossroad

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by Radu Albu Comănescu, Assistant Professor at the European Studies Faculty, Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania; member of the Raţiu Forum Advisory Board and Visegrad Insight Fellow (Warsaw)

Photo credits: wikicommons

Last June, Emmanuel Macron was letting Central and Eastern European countries know that the rejected proposal to hold an EU-Russia summit (following the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva) was designed for those who, according to France’s understanding, have no open channels of communication with the Kremlin.

Intended to enable – against an alleged ‘brain-dead’ NATO – an architecture of ‘trust and security’ with EU’s most hostile neighbour, the dialogue with Russia from 2018 to 2020 blackballed France’s relations with most of the countries of former Communist Europe, as it increased distrust in France’s future designs for the EU. Seen from NATO’s Eastern Flank, the Paris-Berlin initiative was thrice flawed: it assumed that the EU has the same leverage as the USA in an exchange with Russia; it ignored key geopolitical players from the eastern parts of the continent who chose not to engage with Russia; and thirdly, it enforced a view on most of the countries of NATO’s Eastern Flank (neighbours of the former Tsarist empire and of the Soviet Union) on how relations with the Kremlin should be conducted. Something these states did not look kindly upon.

In Romania’s case, these flaws were even more evident. When receiving the letters of credence of Romania’s new ambassador earlier in May, Vladimir Putin directed a message to Bucharest:

“We believe in a mutually advantageous relationship … and are ready to intensify our political, economic and humanitarian ties. We consider there is good potential for collaboration in the Black Sea region.”

The timing and content of this message was unexpected. It occurred one week after the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from Bucharest, in solidarity with the Czech Republic, and a year after the publication of Romania’s National Defence Strategy (NDS) for 2020-2024, a document acutely criticised by Moscow.  

When the NDS was made public in June 2020, the Kremlin accused Bucharest of servility, plagiarism and ‘betraying its own interests’, as the document identified and described Russia ‘an aggressive threat’ to regional stability. In what became an unprecedentedly outraged comment, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reproached Bucharest of serving third parties’ interests (NATO, that is) in seeking confrontation with Moscow. Russia’s ire, usually camouflaged in dismissive sarcasm, was provoked by two aspects. Firstly, since the Second World War, no official document of the Romanian state had described Russia in this manner; in addition, it was a sign of the changes that Romania was willing to pursue regarding the Black Sea, using its NATO membership.

The Kremlin accused Romania of ‘a lack of independent thinking among its politicians’. Increasing US military presence demonstrates, allegedly, Romania’s ‘readiness to serve the intentions of others regarding Russia’ and ‘even at the expense of [Romania’s] own interests, which are based, among other things, on our common belonging to the Black Sea Region’. In an answer to the paragraphs targeting Russia’s ‘violations of the rules of international law’, Moscow defended their ‘positive record’ and called Bucharest’s argument ‘a trick often used by the West’ in order to ‘accuse others of their own faults and mistakes.’

The NDS additionally underlines Russia’s contribution to the deterioration of regional stability because of its ‘aggression’ and the increase of ‘offensive military capabilities in the Black Sea’, which create a system capable of restricting access to the Black Sea to counterbalance the development of NATO capabilities on the Eastern Flank. Moscow rejected the accusations, claiming that Romania uses the new NDS ‘to intensify the military presence of the US and NATO’, therefore ‘instead of acting as a provider of stability, [it] contributes to further increasing tensions and distrust in the region’.

With Romania repeatedly condemning Russia’s occupation of Crimea and demanding Moscow to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, there is no room left for mutual receptiveness. A difficult historical relationship with the Russian empire – spanning over three centuries, ultimately ending in territorial and demographic losses – adds to the distrust. After 1989, Bucharest became a staunch ally of the United States and an unwavering member of NATO. In such a political landscape, of Russian anger and Romanian coldness, the words of Vladimir Putin were received with a considerable degree of cautiousness. Bucharest did not react.

Moscow’s different attitude was renewed in June. During a session of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in May 2020, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a reset of relations around the Baltic Sea using platforms for political dialogue. At the end of June 2021, a similar message was sent to the countries bordering the Black Sea as Romanian Lazăr Comănescu (ambassador, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, presidential counsellor and head of mission to NATO) had been elected secretary-general of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation (BSEC). Lavrov suggested using a pragmatic, depoliticised dialogue, focused on economic cooperation, mentioning Russia’s preference for ‘interconnectors for international trade and transportation development’. Moscow’s offer is modelled on the Three Seas Initiatives’ objectives; but while these are complementary to EU structural policies, economic exchanges between Romania and Russia are limited, with trade fluctuating around US$ 3 billion in 2018-19 (less ever since).

However, goodwill signalling did not exclude the Kremlin embracing an anti-Romanian historical thesis in the long ‘letter to the Ukrainians’ ghost-written by Vladimir Putin, where Romania is called the ‘occupier’ of Ukrainian and Russian lands, Bukovina and Bessarabia respectively.

After more than three months, President Klaus Iohannis addressed Russia’s statements indirectly, noting that Romania places any meaningful bilateral dialogue in the frame of Russia’s respect for international law, and of predictability. By comparison, the relationship with China is to be conceived in ways compatible with Romania’s national interest in security and economy, in correlation to the 2020 NDS where Bucharest identifies the American global pre-eminence – not the Chinese – as compatible with its own national interests. The presidential message is that Romania supports a channel of dialogue, but not at the price of altering the international law-based system. Yet, this means asking precisely for what the Kremlin does not wish to offer, because neither predictability, nor international law play to its advantage.

One of the main problems in the Russian-Romanian exchanges after 2014 was the possibility of establishing a common agenda; signs of Kremlin willingness were absent. Russia refused to discuss topics of interest for Bucharest, such as the situation at the Black Sea, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine or Russia’s opposition to the US missile defence system located in Deveselu. The Kremlin preferred criticising Romania’s position in public statements or to third parties, but never with Bucharest directly. Russia’s increased military activity at the Black Sea, the militarisation of Crimea, provocative airspace and territorial waters violations, are a source of concern because, aside from creating a high tension environment, collisions and accidents can lead to rapid and uncontrolled escalation.

If Bucharest were to accept Russia’s offer as honest – interpreting it as a sign of accessibility – it would have to assume that Russia moved a step away from the zero-sum perception of relationships with countries in the Black Sea region (Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova excepted). However, the political suspicion generated by the most recent history of disagreement (not to mention the troubled past) is unlikely to change. From both sides, the dialogue would come with preconditions which would make mutual acceptance implausible. It is less a matter of topics per se, and more a matter of approach and attitude.

In promoting pragmatic dialogue, the Kremlin invites the Baltic and the Black Sea countries to rationally assume a policy of ‘neighbourliness’, based on geography. This is defined by Russian experts as ‘falling short of partnership’, but helpful in putting an ‘end [to] unchecked hostility’. While ‘disagreeing bitterly about many things’, this policy would seek to

Manage conflicts and disagreements in order to prevent a war that neither side wants or needs; desist from provoking their neighbours; give neighbours a modicum of respect, no matter how grudging; find niches, however small, for productive dialogue and even cooperation, including on environmental protection, climate change, (…) and the like.

Critics, however, perceive this new concept with mistrust and look on it as a divisive tactic, as many concepts before. ‘Lack of provocation’, for example, could translate into a diminishment of legitimate military activity, conveniently considered otherwise as ‘provocative’ by the Kremlin. Terms like ‘respect’ have an emotional fluidity which makes them volatile: Moscow (or Bucharest) could easily claim to feel ‘disrespected’, either by acts or by promoted narratives. These unstable concepts, with sensitive undertones, cannot be the reliable basis needed for building a relationship that could genuinely evolve. It is more recommendable, in this case, to retain elements that help in managing existing fractures and in diminishing suspicion. After all, honest opposition and agreeing to disagree is a most honourable position.

With conventional high politics unavailable as a platform of détente, the pragmatic dialogue with Russia could be directed towards soft power. But Russia’s understanding of soft power, and the lack of investment in it, make it an inconsistent instrument, with reduced effects (despite being cherished by the Russian academic community). To this, one has to add the limitations that the Kremlin puts on civil society, both local and foreign, whose initiatives remain under implacable political scrutiny.

Russian-Romanian relations cannot regain any sort of pragmatic dynamics if cold-shouldering and the cultivation of images delegitimising one another is a constant practice. What the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs identifies as potential ‘issues of common interest’ (climate change, youth, academic and cultural cooperation, city governance and sustainable development) will remain on paper, most probably for decades to come, annulling BSEC’s potential to become a vector of change for regional progress.

Windows of opportunity are in fact very narrow, fragile, unclear and overshadowed by suspicion and security concerns. But it might be that the best ‘content creators’ of any renewed Russian-Romanian relations were, even if minimal, the person-to-person contacts: literati and travellers, art and cuisine connoisseurs, history aficionados and academics in search for objective judgement, ad minimum cultural events and private meetings. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this is all that can be salvaged from a relation whose yesteryear positive moments can serve as a wise reminder of its depth and potential.

Radu Albu-Comănescu, PhD in History and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of European Studies, the Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Teaches “EU Governance and Theories of European Integration”, “European and International Negotiations” and “Cultural Heritage Management”. Member of the Ratiu Forum Advisory Board; Visegrad Insight Fellow. Fields of research extend to the history of Europe; history of political and religious thinking; cultural, economic and public diplomacy, as well as governance, state-building and networks of power. Active in various NGOs and think-tanks dedicated to public policies. At times, columnist for “Ziua de Cluj”, Romania’s largest regional newspaper.