This story is over 5 years old.


Romania Is Starting to Freak Out About Russian Designs on Transnistria

Romania, a NATO member, is reversing years of military neglect, spurred by fears that it could end up with front-row seats for a Transnistrian replay of last year's events in Ukraine and Crimea.
Imagen vía Flickr

Romania is taking dramatic steps to modernize its military. Driven by fears of Russian aggression, worries about older weaponry and equipment, and a not-completely-altruistic desire to protect neighboring Moldova, the government is committed to increasing its defense spending over the next decade.

A document recently obtained by the Romanian news site reveals that the government is planning to use a national emergency procedure that will allocate more state funds to domestic defense companies. The document argues that the country's lack of investment in its defense industry "could significantly injure the basic interests and security of the Romanian state." This is the same style of rhetoric used in spring 2014, when Romania canceled the debt of 15 defense companies to keep them out of bankruptcy.


In short, Romania wants to be ready should Russia attempt to repeat its shenanigans in Ukraine and Crimea on Romanian territory, in Moldova, or in Transnistria. Romania was former member of the Soviet bloc and now belongs to NATO. Moldova was formerly part of the USSR, but is not a NATO member. Separatists in Transnistria — an unrecognized breakaway republic that splintered from Moldova after the dissolution of the Soviet Union — are supported by Russia, and observers worry that the Kremlin might eventually annex the territory from Moldova as it did Crimea from Ukraine.

Russia "has resorted to force [in order] to redesign its borders and all these serious things are happening next to us that we can't ignore," Romanian President Klaus Iohannis declared earlier this year in Bucharest. "The respect we all have for our troops and the nice words we say at ceremonies can't compensate for the lack of equipment."

In order to safeguard itself against nearby political instabilities and the threat of Russian aggression, the country's parliamentary parties signed an agreement earlier this year to boost Romanian defense spending to two percent of its GDP by 2017 and maintain that percentage for the following decade. This was the first time since the fall of communism that Romanian parties came to an agreement on a defense issue.

Related: Could One of the World's Biggest Bank Scandals Be Good for Russia?


Because of rivalry and corruption, such consensus is rare in Romanian politics and quite tenuous, noted Dr. Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and research associate at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Prime Minister Victor Ponta recentlysurvived a no-confidence vote in parliament and, along with other members of both of Romania's major political parties, is in the middle of a corruption trial.

"If corruption erodes and corrodes military production and supply and associated activities, that can only weaken Romania's posture," said Braun. "So it is very essential for Romania to address issues of corruption to ensure that this very rare consensus on the need to increase military expenditure and make the military more effective is more operational. Rhetoric alone is not enough."

This surprising consensus signals just how worried Romania's government is.

"Romania is the [European Union] and NATO country which has the longest border with Ukraine, and it is also the country which is closest to Donbas and Crimea," said Paul Ivan, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels. "So there are serious concerns regarding instability and insecurity in the region."

Romania's long northern border with Ukraine is interrupted by Moldova, a small country that is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. Moldova has been the site of several "soft power" moves on the part of Romania to counter Russian influence, such as establishing an ambulance service to serve the country and donating to the Moldovan educational system. This past August, on the 24th anniversary of Moldova's post-Soviet independence, Romania gifted its neighbor over $120 million in financial support.


Both countries speak Romanian and were briefly united from 1918 to 1940, until a Soviet ultimatum forced the Romanian administration and army to withdraw from Moldovan territory. Romania's overtures of support reflect its interest — at least rhetorically — in the possibility of reunification with Moldova.

"Cooperation between Romania and Moldova has increased, has improved, including in the military," said Ivan.

Moldova's contested Transnistria region is seen by some as a target of possible Russian annexation. The breakaway region — which ethnically is primarily Russian — has long asserted independence from Moldova, seceding in September 1990 as the Soviet Union crumbled and Moldovan nationalism rose. With Russian help, Transistrian separatists fought a war for independence that ended in June of 1992 with a ceasefire but not a resolution. The region has since been considered in a state of frozen conflict.

Related: What the Hell Is Transnistria, and Is Russia About to Invade It?

It may be that those living in Transnistria are engaging in wishful thinking in their hopes to be the second Crimea, but Moscow's bold international actions over the past two years have triggered a sense of fear and vulnerability within Moldova.

Moldova and Ukraine aren't the only regional areas of concern for Romania. The Black Sea is a site of possible tension as well. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia now has control of a vastly larger portion of the Black Sea, gaining sovereignty over an estimated 36,000 square miles of maritime zone — more than double its previous holdings. This is thanks to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, which grants coastal nations dominion over the watery territory (aka "exclusive economic zones") extending 200 nautical miles from their shores.


Russian and Romanian exclusive economic zones in the Black Sea, once separated by Ukrainian territorial claims, are now adjacent to one another. This, Braun observes, will put Russian and Romanian oil exploration excursions into close proximity with one another, creating yet another venue where things could get dicey between the two countries.

With all of this going on around them, small wonder that Romania is looking to up its defensive game. But unsurprisingly, Romania's recent actions have caused Russia to don cranky pants. NATO shows of force in Romania, such as the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system at the Deveselu base in southern Romania, have angered Moscow. In April, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman posted a statement accusing Romania of "being gradually turned into yet another US and NATO base near Russian borders."

Watch the VICE News documentary The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier:

"If they like being targets because of the US rearmament system, that is their choice," threatened Yevgeny Lukyanov, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, in a statement to Interfax in June.

Regardless of such implied threats, Romania seems determined to modernize and boost its military capacity. For a country like Romania that has already struggled to come as far as it has, this will be a challenge. The country is one of Europe's poorest, and is only a quarter century on from the end of the oppressive dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

"We should never underestimate how tough it has been to make progress," Braun said.

The effects of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the separatist war in Ukraine's Donbas region continue to reverberate throughout the politics of Eastern Europe. Small wonder that Romania, which sees itself unnervingly close to regional instability, feels the need to generate a political consensus, amp up its defensive capabilities, and reestablish historical ties with Moldova. Insecurity and survival often make for strange bedfellows.

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett Photo via Flickr