By Corina Rebegea*
(FPRI) — Most countries in Southeastern Europe consider the Black Sea a more reliable ally than one another. This attitude speaks to the failure of many cooperation initiatives in the region. But recently, not even the Black Sea serves as a good neighbor, particularly because it is becoming heavily militarized by Russia. Russia’s militarization of the Black Sea points to two major challenges for Romania in the region: (1) a very assertive Russia—both militarily and informationally—and (2) a lack of regional alignment between littoral states. The latter challenge is made increasingly more complicated by Russia’s use of information warfare tactics and the distribution of narratives that are likely to undermine good neighborly relations.
After the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian Federation became a direct neighbor of Romania, augmenting the Romanians’ perceived security threat. The proximity of Russia’s military arsenal to Romania’s exclusive economic zone and offshore oil and gas fields creates anxiety in Bucharest. Romania aspires to more than just securing the stability and predictability of its own borders and environment. It also aims to become a provider of security and stability and a role-model for democratic development in the Southeast European region. The government aims to pursue “the transformation of its neighborhood in an area of democracy, security and prosperity” although it is still not clear the extent to which Romania is capable of becoming a regional actor on this scale.
In pursuing its goal, Romania has always pushed for further regional cooperation in the broader Black Sea area. But the various formats—some of which include Russia, such as the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)—have not produced concrete initiatives and have not aligned the interests of participating states. Most recently, Romania’s initiative to forge a common Black Sea naval presence by joining forces with Bulgaria and Turkey met opposition in Sofia. The initiative’s failure to strengthen defense cooperation is symptomatic of relationships in the area, further creating an environment of distrust that makes littoral countries less secure.
The current situation in the Black Sea is the consequence of the skillful Russian “divide and conquer” strategy whose aggressive use of hard power intimidates the more risk-averse littoral states. The circulation of narratives concocted by the Russian propaganda machine amplifies insecurity. The aim of this program is to hollow out the old consensus about the Euro-Atlantic alliance as the foundation of regional stability, foster animosity, and expand the rifts between partners in the region. Using information networks and tactics, Russia has established itself as the spoiler power par excellence, thriving on disorder and doubt about old certainties, particularly the credibility and trust in the transformative power of EU and NATO that for years embodied the modernization and progress in the region.
From a Romanian perspective, the threat in the information space has deepened since the Euromaidan in Ukraine. If Romania wants to achieve its goal of becoming a provider of security and promoter of democracy in the region, then it must pay attention to the extent to which its endeavors are weakened by Russian propaganda and disinformation techniques.