The sabre-rattling in Ukraine is heating up the Black Sea

As things heat up between Russia and Ukraine, George Vișan explains the stakes for each player and the strategic landscape in the Black Sea region.

Seven years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea and began a proxy war against Ukraine. These events marked the beginning of the most brutal and serious armed conflict in the Black Sea region since the end of World War II. The advent of war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 has had a negative impact on the regional security environment. Furthermore, subsequent events have changed the regional balance of force in Russia’s favour. 

Russia: projecting force within the Black Sea region and beyond

Since 2014 the Russian Federation has been engaged in a proxy war against its neighbour Ukraine. The purpose of the Kremlin’s military campaign against Kyiv has been to stop it from joining the West and thus bring Western influence closer to Russia’s border. Russia claims the former republics of the Soviet Union as its own sphere of influence.1Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 when it became clear that rather than joining Russia’s Eurasian Union, the country would have preferred to have closer relations with the West, by signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Russian elites construed Ukraine’s option for the EU as a further step towards NATO accession. Despite being a part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Ukraine’s NATO accession was not on the table in 2014 and seemed a very unrealistic possibility. There was no consensus in 2014 within Ukraine in favour of becoming a NATO member, and there was no consensus within the Alliance for Ukraine to join it. 

In February 2014, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms took over military installations in Crimea, as well as key civilian infrastructure. On 18 March 2014, Crimea was officially annexed by the Russian Federation after an illegal referendum. In parallel with its actions in Crimea, Russian-sponsored individuals started a breakaway movement in eastern Ukraine, in the coal-rich and mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region. When Ukrainian armed forces decisively beat back the rebels in Donbass, Russian forces intervened on their behalf, decimating the Ukrainian troops with precision fire and armoured assaults.

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and the ongoing Normandy Format talks, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine to this day. Russia is fighting a proxy war of attrition against Ukraine, the goal of which is to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to turn Kyiv away from its Western path. 

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “Russia’s strategic goals in the Black Sea include maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and facilitating the defense of the Russian homeland. In the Eastern Mediterranean Russia seeks to expand power projection capabilities, demonstrate expeditionary reach to potential partners and influence a variety of ongoing diplomatic issues in its favor”2

The value and relevance of the annexation was proven in 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in Syria using Crimea as the main staging ground for the operation. The only limitations regarding the use of Crimea as a power projection asset are geographical and legal: the Straits of Bosporus & the Dardanelles, and the Montreux Convention. In the Black Sea, Russia’s military presence is reinforced by its naval base at Novorossiysk and by the troops deployed in the breakaway ‘republics’ of Abkhazia and Ossetia, in Georgia. 

Over the past seven years Russia has managed to gradually overturn the military balance in the region in its favour. Moreover, the Kremlin has learned how to take advantage of the existing differences between NATO members and use it to its favour. Turkey’s grievances with the US, Greece and France have been exploited and used as a wedge against NATO.

One of the Russian Federation’s main priorities after it took over Crimea from Ukraine has been to revamp the military assets based in the peninsula: the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), air bases for naval aviation and the Russian Air Space Forces, as well as infrastructure for the land forces. 

Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has received six new Kilo class submarines and three new Admiral Grigorovich class guided missile frigates. It should have received six of this new type of guided missile frigate, but Ukraine cut off the supply of turbine engines. Nevertheless, until Russian industry can replace the Ukrainian turbines with similar products, in place of the three frigates, the Black Sea Fleet has received small missile corvettes capable of launching land attack cruise missiles. Moreover, the shipyards in Crimea have started building fast attack craft for the Russian navy. 

The Crimean peninsula has been transformed into a ‘strategic bastion‘ by Russia in order to protect its territorial acquisition as well as to project power. It has also become one of the places where Russia showcases its latest military technology, for both strategic reasons and marketing purposes. In Crimea the Kremlin has deployed S-400 Triumf long-range integrated air defence systems, as well as Bal & Bastion-P coastal defence systems3. It has created an area denial and anti-access (A2/AD) network  which secures the newly acquired territory, provides a good air and maritime picture, increases the cost to outside actors of projecting force, and allows it to blackmail neighbouring countries into submission during a crisis. In the near future Russia will improve its surveillance and awareness of the Black and Mediterranean Seas by deploying the Voronezh-SM long range radar in Sevastopol4.

Lacking new large surface combatants, the Russian navy has been forced to deploy Kalibr cruise missile on every newly commissioned submarine and surface combatant.5 This tendency towards ‘Kalibri-sation’, as the Military Balance has called it, is being used to compensate for the newer and larger surface ships which are now beyond the capabilities of the Russian shipyards, as well as for the cost of such vessels. It represents a trend for escalation dominance and operational flexibility, as the Kalibr missile in its land attack variant is capable of hitting targets as far as 2000 km away. 

Of particular note for the Black Sea region is the development and deployment of the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. This is likely an Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile adapted for launch from MiG-31K long-range interceptors6. Its stated purpose is to take out ballistic missile defence interceptor bases, such as the one at Deveselu in Romania. This particular combination of missile and aircraft was first deployed in the Southern Military District which encompasses the Black Sea region. This is a very potent combination of carrier and vector: the MiG-31 is a high-speed long-range interceptor designed at the height of the Cold War to deal with US SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The Iskander-M is equipped with an electro-optical guidance system which allows is to make terminal manoeuvres before hitting its target. The MiG-31K and the Kinzhal could be used to strike time-sensitive targets in the region such as air bases, naval bases and reinforced command centres. 

Russia plans to further escalate the arms race in the Black Sea region by deploying the first hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile in the world, the 3M22 Zirconwhich is currently undergoing operational testing. If the system works as advertised by Kremlin propaganda, it will provide the Russian Navy with a capability without parallel in NATO navies. Moscow considers hypersonic weapon systems as a major component of its conventional deterrence. 

Of particular concern for US planners is the so-called ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy, which is defined as “a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use”. The Kremlin could use this strategy in a potential conventional war against NATO to secure territory Russia seizes by threatening and even using tactical nuclear weapons. However, it must be noted that this strategy has not been mentioned in any Russian policy-planning document, but has been inferred by US military and nuclear weapons experts.

Although Russia seems to have achieved some sort of local military superiority, it has by no means overtaken NATO. Overall the Alliance, and the United States in particular, still have the lead. However, Russia is trying to use some of its few competitive advantages in missile technology to offset NATO’s military preponderance by trying to exploit its dependence on follow-on reinforcements.19 The process of modernising the Russian armed forces began in 2011, but has not yet been completed. Russia’s armed forces still depend on battalion tactical groups (BTGs, similar to Western battle groups) rather than standing operational military formations. Russian forces now have around 136 battalion tactical groups made up exclusively of professional soldiers; the target is 200 such groups20

Russia’s military posture may not be sustainable in the future for a multitude of overlapping reasons. First, Russia has overextended itself militarily over the past seven years: it has been involved in conflicts or has deployed troops to Ukraine, Syria and Libya. It maintains a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and has plans to build bases in the region. Losses from these conflicts have mounted over the years, sapping political support at home. Second, its economy has been affected by the cumulative effects of the sanctions imposed after 2014, the drop in oil prices and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, with access to Western technology being curtailed, Russian defence programs have stalled or been delayed7. Third, the pandemic is forcing the Kremlin to pay attention to domestic developments. The handling of the SARS-CoV 2 pandemic has not been stellar, Russian authorities being forced to acknowledge at the start of 2021 that more Russians have died of the pandemic than previously announced. Finally, the protests that have developed following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his subsequent arrest is forcing the Kremlin to prioritise the survival of the regime, rather than force projection.

In the ex-Soviet space, Russia’s reputation as an ally and security provider has taken a serious hit after Azerbaijan’s success in reclaiming some of its territory in the Nagorno Karabakh region, following a short but highly sophisticated war in 2020. Moreover, an outside power (Turkey) has been allowed to give military support to a client state (Azerbaijan) in Moscow’s ‘backyard’ (Central Asia) without visible consequences. The security guarantees provided by the CSTO and Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its near aboard have been called into question. In the case of Armenia, the Kremlin has sacrificed strategic credibility for dubious local political gains.

Russia presents a complex strategic picture of military and diplomatic prowess, but also of political fragility. This situation defines Moscow more as a regional actor, with some limited capabilities of power projection, than as a global player which could keep up with the US or China. However, this disparity between capabilities and status should not lead to underestimating Moscow’s will to generate instability in its near abroad. 

NATO: a two-speed approach for the eastern flank 

Seven years after the annexation of Crimea and five years after NATO’s Warsaw Summit, the alliance is maintaining a two-speed approach for the eastern flank: Poland and the three Baltic states are recipients of the Enhanced Forward Presence force-posture approach, while Romania and Bulgaria have to make do with the Tailored Forward Presence. A two-speed approach regarding the security and defence of the eastern flank is not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture. The Trump administration exacerbated this issue with a schizoid policy regarding NATO and a Janus-faced approach to Russia. Despite deploying more troops on the eastern flank and allocating more funds to the European Deterrence Initiative, the Trump administration did not fundamentally alter NATO’s military posture on the eastern flank.8 Moreover, it failed to articulate a new NATO strategic concept; also, President Trump’s instinctive distrust of multilateral alliances dealt a severe blow to the Alliance’s cohesion. The decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw troops from Germany, because Berlin was not meeting its 2% of GDP spending target and for supporting the ill-conceived North Stream 2 gas pipeline, has needlessly exacerbated relations with one of Washington’s most important allies in Europe and has called its commitment to Europe’s security into question.9 Overall, the American attitude towards NATO in the past four years has had a negative impact on the Alliance’s cohesion, and has contributed to what President Emmanuel Macron has termed NATO’s ‘brain death‘. 

If Washington exposed profound divisions between the president and the deep
administration over strategic directions and tactical execution, some Western European members have sent mixed signals that have negatively impacted NATO’s posture on the eastern flank. Germany and France have indeed deployed troops in the Baltic states and Poland; however, Berlin is still underinvesting in defence and cooperating with Russia in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Paris considers terrorism to be the greatest security threat it faces, and is mainly focused on the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.10 The eastern flank is merely an afterthought on the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay – or even a source of irritation, when the countries in the region acquire US military equipment11

Turkey: NATO’s linchpin in the Black Sea region

Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits combined with its military prowess, make it the most important alliance member in the Black Sea region. However, most of Turkey’s strategic attention has been focused on the Mediterranean Sea, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as far as the Indian Ocean. However, the main issue with Turkish foreign policy is not necessarily its reach, but its predictability. 

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus. Most debates concerning Turkey right now concentrate on its dispute with Greece over maritime exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean, the procurement of the S-400 Triumf integrated air defence system and its descent into authoritarianism. Turkey has a complex relationship with Russia, characterised both by competition and cooperation. The Kremlin did indeed exacerbate the tensions existing between Ankara and its western allies over Syria, Iraq and the attempted coup in 2016 in order to separate it from the Western alliance. However, Turkey proved to be a genuine competitor to Russia in Syria, Libya and in the South Caucasus. Ankara was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s successful campaign in Nagorno Karabakh and deployed advisors, foreign fighters and state-of-the-art military equipment in support of the Azeri forces. In Libya in 2020, Turkish equipment and military advisors helped the GNA to stem the attacks launched by the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose main supporter is Russia12

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus.

Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 missile system is both a cautionary tale of political hubris and diplomatic brinkmanship as well as a lesson to the rest of the Alliance. Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the military assistance it received in protecting its territory from ballistic missile attacks and air raids during the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Ankara has technical and technological ambitions that the Western allies have not taken seriously, as they have not offered a level of technological cooperation commensurate with Turkey’s expectations. The Turkish defence industry has progressed a great deal, and the Turkish authorities want to cash in by creating lucrative partnerships with large Western manufacturers. Technical cooperation concerning the development of an integrated air defence system would represent a high-tech prestige project for Turkey which would emphasise the advancements in science, technology and military power Ankara has made over the past 100 years in general, and under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in particular. In the case of the S-400 procurement, Erdoğan felt that his country was not being taken seriously and needed to send a signal to its allies in NATO. However, his brinkmanship may have not paid off, as the United States has eliminated Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter programme and has imposed a number of sanctions against it. The F-35 programme is far more lucrative in financial terms, and has more cutting-edge technology than what the Russian Federation may offer in the long run. 

The Kremlin may have overplayed its hand when it comes to separating Ankara from the US and its NATO allies. Despite the ongoing controversies regarding the Erdoğan regime, Ankara’s disputes with Athens in the Eastern Mediterranean, tensions with Paris over Libya and Syria and with Washington over the S-400 procurement and Syria, Turkey remains anchored within the Western camp and disapproves of Moscow’s policies in the Black Sea. Turkey is helping Ukraine rebuild its navy and its shipbuilding industry by selling its latest type of multirole corvette. In 2020, Turkey discovered a rich gas field in the Black Sea13. This discovery may help resolve some of the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, while at the same time focusing Ankara’s attention on the Black Sea. 

Romania: the fulcrum of NATO in the Black Sea region

The importance of Romania for the Western alliance has steadily grown since it became a member of NATO in 2004. Bucharest’s strategic partnership with Washington its and support during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have enhanced Romania’s strategic profile. In 2011, Romania along with Poland became the host nations for the US ballistic defence system in Europe. Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance, that is NATO and the European Union. A defining feature of Romania’s strategic posture is the large popular support enjoyed by NATO and the EU in the country, as well as the general consensus of its political elites concerning the benefits of being a member of these two organisations. 

The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine began in 2014 have greatly affected Romania’s security posture in the Black Sea. For the first time since World War II the region has become a theatre of war. The main threat in Bucharest’s perception is the re-emergence of the use of force as the primary means of resolving disputes between states and territorial revisionism.14

After 2014 Romania’s diplomatic and military efforts concentrated on improving its defence posture by allocating 2% of its GDP to defence, securing the deployment of NATO and US troops on its territory in order to deter any potential aggression, and promoting a Black Sea agenda in NATO and the EU, in order to maintain the international diplomatic focus on the region. Bucharest has been moderately successful in its efforts to improve its strategic posture in the face of the Russian challenge.

Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance.

Largely neglected until 2014, defence procurement plays an important role in counterbalancing Russia. In 2017 Bucharest began an ambitious defence acquisition programme worth €9.3 billion in order to revamp its military. However, after four years most of Romania’s procurement programmes are suffering from delays due to litigation, and have been implemented later than originally planned15. The branch of the Romanian armed forces most affected is the Romanian Naval Forces, which have seen all of their procurement programmes delayed. Without a modern navy, Romania cannot be a credible actor in the Black Sea region.

After 2014, the US and NATO deployed troops on the eastern flank of the alliance on a rotational basis. Ever since becoming a member of NATO, one of Romania’s main aims within the Alliance has been to host US or allied troops on its territory on a permanent basis. The rotational nature of the US and allied forces deployed in Romania is suboptimal, and not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture on the eastern flank. This is made worse by the alliance not treating the eastern flank as a single, coherent space. The distinction made between Enhanced Forward Presence status for Poland and the Baltic states on one hand, and Tailored Forward Presence for Romania and Bulgaria on the other, translates into a less credible deterrence posture on the southern tip of the flank. Although Bucharest has been lobbying to have this status changed, it has so far failed to achieve a change of policy. 

The Trump administration, despite improving the US presence on the eastern flank, also introduced an element of unpredictability, as was demonstrated by the ill-conceived decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw US troops from Germany.16 Most of those troops would have been sent back to the US, while the rest would have been deployed on the eastern flank and in Italy. Worse, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit originally deployed to Romania and Poland in 2015, would have been sent back to the US. Besides the political hurdles Romania faces concerning the deployment of Alliance troops on its territory, the country’s poor infrastructure hinders the deployment, mobility and re-enforcement of US and NATO forces.

Nevertheless, despite Romania’s misgivings regarding the status of US and NATO troops on its territory, there have been some palpable benefits for Bucharest. The US has pre-positioned heavy equipment in Romania and is investing in modernising Romanian military bases. Recently the US has deployed unmanned Predator aerial vehicles at the Câmpia Turzii air base in order to improve the Alliance’s naval command over the Black Sea. Moreover, Bucharest is hosting a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU), the Headquarters Multinational Division South-East, East, the Multinational Brigade South-East, and is also investing in modernising its basesespecially Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanța. 

Romania is promoting a Black Sea agenda within NATO and the EU. The most successful diplomatic projects so far have been the Bucharest Nine forum (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The B9 is an intra-alliance forum which promotes the issues of eastern flank, while the Three Seas Initiative promotes economic development for the member states in the EU adjoining the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas. 

Bulgaria – the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank?

Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. On one hand there is the cultural and historic relationship between Bulgaria and Russia; on the other, Sofia is a member of both NATO and the EU. Bulgaria’s security dilemma in the Black Sea is further complicated by its fraught relationship with Turkey. Sofia is concerned at Turkey expanding its influence into the Western Balkans. Moreover, Bulgaria wants to leverage its geographic position in order to become an energy hub in the region. Consequently, Sofia’s policy is oriented towards avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, but also maintaining and benefitting from its status as NATO and EU member.

Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region.

Compared with the eastern flank’s northern tip, the southern tip has not agreed on a particular strategic assessment regarding the threat posed by the Kremlin. Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region. When Romania proposed in 2016 the creation of a Black Sea flotilla to train and patrol in the region, Bulgaria initially agreed to the Romanian project, but then withdrew its support for the project before NATO’s Warsaw Summit. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov then stated that he wants to see “sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists, and not becoming an arena of military action … I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”17

In the Black Sea region Bulgaria, along with Romania, are the only regional states that are both members of the EU and NATO. They are also among the poorest members of these international organisations, which limits their defence capabilities as well as their regional influence. Sofia has started to modernise its air force and its navy, after a long period of time in which it had underinvested in defence. Bulgaria has bought 8 F-16 Block 70 multirole fighters, and it is likely to buy 8 more in the near future in order to have an operational squadron. Lürsen has won a tender to build two multirole patrol ships, roughly equivalent to multirole corvettes. Bulgarian is participating in the Multi-National Brigade South East, based in Romania. The United States uses four Bulgarian bases and training facilities in Bulgaria, and will deploy 2500 troops in the country over the next 10 years.

In Russia’s assessment Bulgaria may be the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank. This is proven by the latest espionage scandal that has affected Bulgarian-Russian relations and has cast doubt over Sofia’s credibility as a NATO ally. A network of six Bulgarian active and retired military personnel has been caught spying for Russia. What made matters worse is that some of its members were officers in the military intelligence service of the Bulgarian armed forces. 

Ukraine needs to maintain diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas

Kyiv is currently facing a triple challenge. First, there is the conflict in the Donbas that has yet to be resolved. Second, the pandemic has affected Ukraine quite hard, and the government has had trouble finding vaccines for inoculating its citizens. Third, it has been difficult to continue the democratic upgrade of Ukraine’s institutions while fighting a war. 

Russia failed spectacularly in 2014 when it decided to use force against Ukraine in order to support its proxies in the east of the country. The Kremlin’s main aim was to undermine and irreparably damage Ukrainian sovereignty; but despite this, Ukraine managed to survive the Russian armed onslaught. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong. It reconfirmed the old political science adage that ‘states make war and war makes the state’18; Ukrainian statehood has been consolidated by the conflict. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 as Ukraine’s president demonstrated both the country’s capacity to resist prolonged aggression, as well as the need for structural reforms in order to make the state more accountable to its citizens.

Ukraine is trying to build up its civilian and military institutions with the help of the West. Nevertheless, the help that has come from Europe and the US has not come without controversies. Germany and France insist that the conflict in Ukraine is civilian in nature and does not represent an instance of foreign aggression. The Minsk and Normandy negotiation formats are premised on this notion, and consequently favour Russia. The Kremlin has consistently ignored the Minsk agreements, despite Kyiv adhering to them. The lack of US participation in both formats further tips the scale in Moscow’s favour. 

Although NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine within its ranks in the near future, it has helped the Ukrainian military deal with the Russian threat. Advisers and trainers from NATO countries helped the Ukrainian armed forces get back on their feet after the initial defeats at Donețsk and Ilovaysk. The US, Turkey and the UK are providing training and are selling naval vessels to Ukraine to rebuild its navy. Non-lethal and lethal equipment has been donated or sold to the Ukrainian military; most importantly Washington has provided Kyiv with Javelin anti-tank missiles to deal with advanced Russian armour. Unfortunately, in the case of US military aid this has been entangled in American partisan politics. As the 2020 elections approached the Trump administration conditioned US military aid on Kyiv providing incriminating evidence on Donald Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. When the information was leaked to the press it led to Trump’s first impeachment trial; the scandal came close to compromising US-Ukrainian relations.

Kyiv has also invested its limited resources in modernising the Ukrainian armed forces. Leveraging its existing industrial base, Ukraine is developing locally designed anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles. Ukraine is forging industrial partnerships with Turkey and Poland to build tactical UAVs, multirole corvettes and advanced anti-tank missiles

Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong.

On the diplomatic front, Ukraine is trying to put Crimea on the front burner of international diplomacy by promoting the Crimea Platform project. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine still catches the eye of the international community, Crimea is being treated as de facto Russian territory. In Western chancelleries the prevailing wisdom is that Ukraine has no chance of taking back Crimea, either by peaceful means or through force. However, it is diplomatically important to keep Crimea on the international agenda, especially now that it has become an asset for Russian power projection. 

For Ukraine, maintaining diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas in the near and medium term is important. Crimea may be drowned out by other issues on the international agenda such as the pandemic, strategic arms limitations and climate change. Faced with internal pressure and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, Russia in the near future may be tempted to ‘freeze’ the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Such a development would have a negative impact on Ukraine, which would find itself in a strategic limbo. 

Georgia: resisting creeping annexation 

‘Creeping annexation’ is how Georgian officials are describing the process through which gradually Russia is annexing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first instance of military aggression in the Black Sea region and showed that ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet space can be rekindled. In 2021 Tbilisi obtained a symbolic but significant victory at the European Court of Human Rights, which acknowledged that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are under occupation and that Russia committed war crimes during the 2008 conflict. Nevertheless, this decision changes very few things on the ground. Russia’s military presence in the breakaway territories has increased, while Georgia is facing a troubling political crisis. Before the 2008 war, Georgia was described as a post-Soviet success story; now it looks more like a ‘frozen conflict success story’ for the Kremlin. 

Conclusions

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia has obtained a certain military advantage at the regional level, but it is not clear whether this is sustainable over the long run. NATO and the US need to have a coherent approach to the eastern flank in order to deter Russia and secure the Black Sea. This approach should consist in viewing the eastern flank as a single and integrated military space. A unified Alliance military posture should be applied to the entire eastern flank. The U.S. should increase its presence on the eastern flank while maintaining an adequate response force in Germany. Paris and Berlin should also increase their military presence on the eastern flank: this will improve the case for European strategic autonomy. Key infrastructure for military mobility should be improved as soon as possible to improve the deployment of follow-on forces.

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia.

NOTES

1 Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016)

2 Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for Lloyd J. Austin Nominee for Appointment to be Secretary of Defense, p. 39

3 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2020), p. 170

4 Ibid., p. 170

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), op. cit, p. 6

6 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2019), p. 169

7 Overall some of the comparative advantages of NATO over Russia are: better and competent command structures; the advantage of ‘home turf’ in defending the eastern flank; better training and a greater pool of experienced troops than Russia’s armed forces; better communications and command facilities; superior ISR capabilities; a more balanced force structure overall.

8 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Op. Cit, p. 171

9 Author’s conversation with a Russian defence analyst.

10 The EDI began in 2015 with $985 million in funding. The effort peaked at $6.5 billion in FY2019, while in FY2020 it was reduced to $5.91 billion. Source: Congressional Research Service, ‘The European Deterrence Initiative: A Budgetary Overview’, 16 June 2020, pp. 1-3, available at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10946

11 Heinrich Brauß, ‘The US Troop Withdrawal Plan: Bogus Strategic Claims and a Warning Signal for Europe’, DGAP, pp. 1-3, available at https://dgap.org/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/dgap-commentary-2020-24-en.pdf

12 Interview du Président Emmanuel Macron au think tank américain Atlantic Council, Élysée, February 5, 2021, available at https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/02/05/interview-du-president-emmanuel-macron-au-think-tank-americain-atlantic-council. See also Le Grand Continent, ‘The Macron Doctrine. A conversation with the French president’, 16 November 2020, available at https://geopolitique.eu/en/macron-grand-continent/

13 Ibid.

14 Jason Pack and Wolfgang Pusztai, ‘Turning the Tide: How Turkey Won the War for Tripoli’, Middle East Institute, pp. 1-22, available at https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-11/Turning%20the%20Tide%20-%20How%20Turkey%20Won%20the%20War%20for%20Tripoli.pdf

15 Reuters, ‘Turkey lifts Black Sea gas field estimate after new find: Erdogan’, 17 October 2020, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-energy-blacksea/turkey-lifts-black-sea-gas-field-estimate-after-new-find-erdogan-idINKBN2720MF

16 Strategia Națională de Apărare a Țării pentru perioada 2020-2024: Împreună pentru o Românie sigură și prosperă într-o lume marcată de noi provocări, available at https://www.presidency.ro/files/userfiles/Documente/Strategia_Nationala_de_Aparare_a_Tarii_2020_2024.pdf

17 George Vișan, ‘The Known Unknowns of Romania’s Defence Modernization Plans’, ROEC, 3 July 2017, available at https://www.roec.biz/project/the-known-unknowns-of-romanias-defence-modernization-plans/

18 Suspended in 2021 by the Biden administration pending a review of the US military global commitments.

19 Reuters, ‘Bulgaria says will not join any NATO Black Sea fleet after Russian warning’, 16 June 2016, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/nato-bulgaria-blacksea-idUSL8N19835X

20 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990-1990, (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1993)

Wess Mitchell: “The West needs to redevelop the tools and mindset of strategic competition”

Interview with Dr. A. Wess Mitchell, co-chair of the NATO 2030 Reflection Process1

Let’s describe the strategic environment of the 2020s and the structural drivers that push for the NATO strategic adaptation over the next decade. Essentially what sets aside the 2020s compared with the 1990s, and the post 9/11 eras? What are the key operational problems of NATO going into 2020s? 

I think the defining characteristic of the international environment of the 2020s is the return of great power competition. Specifically: the rise of China and the persistence of Russia as a militarily capable large state.  

China’s significance lies in the fact that it is the first rival in America’s modern history with the potential to surpass the US in the major categories of national power; its economy is already larger than America’s and its military has ambitious plans to surpass the US quantitatively and qualitatively within the coming decade.

Russia is of course not a full-spectrum competitor like China, but it nevertheless possesses substantial conventional power projection capabilities and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Russia stands out because it also possesses motivation: this is a country that was the main loser of the last systemic rivalry so it sees itself as having the most to gain from reversing the verdict of the previous contest, so to speak.  

I think that China and Russia represent a tandem problem set for the West. Irrespective of whether they formally ally with one another, their actions create a dynamic of strategic simultaneity — of having to deal with concurrent pressures from different directions. 

This is a very different problem-set for the US and for NATO than we have known in the recent past.  Since the Cold War, the West has existed in a kind of greenhouse environment, where we could reasonably assume the absence of a peer competitor and the availability of more or less infinite financial resources.  The challenges that NATO faced in that permissive era – the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, the terrorist threat after 9/11 – were real, but they were the kinds of challenges that are surmountable on the basis of willpower. There was never any doubt about the material ability of the West to overcome them.  

China and Russia represent a tandem problem set for the West. Their actions create a dynamic of strategic simultaneity — of having to deal with concurrent pressures from different directions.

In that genial environment, I think NATO basically got out of the business of serious strategy – because it didn’t need it. Enlargement in a way came to substitute for strategy. NATO’s preoccupation was with exploiting the opportunities of its environment. Operationally, it was focused on enlargement and later on out-of-area operations against non-peer foes. Crisis-management rather than strategic anticipation came to dominate the culture and processes of NATO.  

A central message of our report is that that permissive era is over. The West faces serious peer competitors and cannot assume a continuation of its own material and military dominance. It needs to set strategic priorities and redevelop the tools and mindset of strategic competition. It needs to focus its attention on strategic and political consolidation within the alliance itself – using NATO as a platform for strengthening the cohesion of the strategic and political West in conditions of protracted competition with determined big-power rivals.

NATO has to develop the tools to protect its members’ equities at home

In an October 1995 White House meeting Vaclav Havel pointed out that “there is no danger of a Soviet-era type of military occupation of Central Europe. But the danger does exist of political and economic pressures on Central Europe that would seek to perpetuate a dependency.” How should NATO see the China rise? Is the Havel lenses relevant also in understanding the Chinese threat to Europe? Is the China issue going to be a make-or-break point for the transatlantic relationship relevance in the 2020s?

 

China’s rise affects NATO in two ways. First, indirectly, it tilts the international balance of power in ways that require the US to devote more resources and attention to the Indo-Pacific. And because these resources are finite, those tilts inevitably mean less US resources and attention for Europe, which ceases to be the primary theater in the world for the US for the first time. That is a very unfamiliar place for Europeans to be.  

Second, China’s rise affects NATO directly, through its activities in and around Europe.  The commercial and technological dimensions of China’s penetration are most familiar to us:  China is acquiring critical infrastructure in Europe (ports, bridges, airports, telecommunications equipment) and it is also spreading its political influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and 17+1 formats. But China’s presence in Europe and in areas around Europe is also increasingly military in nature. China siphons talent and know-how from Europe as part of its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) Strategy and it has a growing naval presence in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. I think over the next decade that presence will grow larger as China’s power and ambition grows. 

For NATO, there should be no doubt at this point that China poses a threat that needs to be dealt with. That does not mean that NATO needs to operate in the Indo-Pacific.  Rather I think it means, in the near term, that NATO has to develop the tools to protect its members’ equities at home, in the Euro-Atlantic area. It needs a sound China strategy. It needs tools – safeguards against MCF, procurement and technology transfer filters, investment screening, criteria for avoiding excessive Chinese influence and control of critical equipment and infrastructure. Basically, anything in Chinese investment behaviour that could impede readiness, interoperability or the ability to communicate securely in SACEUR’s AOR (Area of Responsibility) should be fair-game for attention and action at NATO. And I think we are playing catch-up on that.

Longer term, NATO needs to be part of the solution for handling the problem of strategic simultaneity in the event of a major war.

Longer term, NATO needs to be part of the solution for handling the problem of strategic simultaneity in the event of a major war. To my mind, the ultimate goal should be something approaching a global division of labour between the US and European NATO that allows US to devote more attention to the Indo-Pacific without endangering stability in European theater. At present NATO’s members do not share burdens and risks at anything close to the levels that will be demanded by the new strategic environment. Needless to say, this would not be the moment to define downward the Wales metric. But in my view meeting Wales commitment is at this point a receding de minimis requirement.  

We will eventually need to move toward something like a European Level of Ambition inside NATO that encourages pooling/economies of scale among European militaries tied explicitly to NATO capability targets. I would view this as a favourable alternative, both to the current, fragmented and anemic European military spending landscape and to the concept of EU Strategic Autonomy in the defence sphere.  

Does this gradual “division of labour” mean ultimately more of the Old Europe invested in securing the Eastern Flank of NATO especially in a time when US is forced to adapt to a “China first, Russia second” kind of environment? Because I think this will also require a change of mindset on the part of the Old Europe, with a necessary threat reassessment and acceptance of the renew great power competition stance.

It is indispensable from a strategic standpoint that the large Western European states and in particular Germany bear a share of the burden for the defence of the continental Europe that is proportionate with Germany’s enormous economic power and population. It is true that Germany has stepped up defence spending in recent years, and I think the credit for that should go to the Trump administration. But a state of Germany’s size and wealth should be able to handle far more of the responsibility for defending Europe than it currently does. 

The key focus must continue to be on the Eastern flank – especially the Baltic and Black Sea areas. The EFP (Enhanced Forward Presence) was an important first step towards strengthening NATO’s defence capabilities there. But 7 years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine it is time for us to evolve beyond those very light structures and have the ability to bring greater NATO capabilities to bear for securing the Eastern Flank. 

As outlined in the NDS2 we need a strong “blunt-layer” (where the central idea is the imperative of preventing Russia from achieving a fait accompli) whereby the US military in the region is intertwined with European militaries, who ultimately have to carry more responsibility for local defence. The goal should be to shift the escalatory burden back onto the Russians in the advent of a crisis. But ultimately you have to have large European members of NATO that are putting in the field the capabilities to be able to handle Russia in a conventional crisis. Until you have that the US will find it hard to shift attention to the Indo-Pacific in the way that is envisioned in the NDS without exposing the secondary theater – the European theater – to significant risk of instability.

The resurgence of the continental powers

Should our thinking about how we understand and frame deterrence, defence and war change and evolve in the 2020s? The expeditionary war fighting model becomes increasingly complicated in access-denial environments. It seems that we enter in the age of protracted defence. At the same time, the revisionist powers increasingly adopt disruptive insurgent methodologies. 

The organising problem I see for deterrence in the 2020s is that Russia and China are both in their own ways creating facts on the ground that negate accustomed US military advantages and create the potential for deterrence failure. Both of these powers absorbed lessons from America’s wars in the 1990s and in particular the wide conventional superiority that the US enjoyed as a result of stand-off precision weapons and other technological by-products of the Second Offset3.  

If you fast-forward to the 2020s what you see is that both of these powers have invested in capabilities aimed at allowing them to control space and deny access in strategically important places. 

You see this pattern in the Formosa Strait, in the Black Sea, and in the Baltic. Basically you have large land powers attempting to ‘seal off’ portions at each end of Eurasia – the idea is to create environments where the US would draw the conclusion that it could not prevail without enormous effort and cost but also, on the basis, where it would likely decide that it lacked the political will to wage such a strenuous contest. These investments are made all the more credible in Russia’s case by an ambitious nuclear modernisation program and warfighting concepts that envision nuclear escalation on the battlefield as an offset to what they see US conventional superiority.  

The organising problem for deterrence in the 2020s is that Russia and China have invested in capabilities aimed at allowing them to control space and deny access in strategically important places. Basically you have large land powers attempting to ‘seal off’ portions at each end of Eurasia.

In geopolitical terms you can think of all of this as the resurgence of the continental powers, regaining an edge over maritime power. It’s the latest installment in a long contest stretching back centuries of sea power developing the tools (expeditionary forces, onshore alliances) to project power inland and land powers developing tools to resist and restrict those incursions. At least on paper it does look like Russia and China are gaining an edge. 

The reason that this is strategically significant is that the US has assumed at least since the end of the Second World War that its security would be met best by a forward presence, both militarily and politically, well beyond America’s shores, in the rimlands of Eurasia. The object of Russian and Chinese strategy, in a sense, is to make that a more militarily tenuous and therefore also politically fraught proposition – in effect, to convince America that the game is not worth the candle.  

The report emphasises also the role of the emerging disruptive technologies. In other words it is an invitation to reflect to and observe the changing character of warfare. What lessons are relevant for NATO from the historical periods in which major transitions between regimes of warfare took place? What could be the costs for the alliance of failing in keeping pace with the military technical revolution of its times? Today it seems that we are in another transition period away from a rough parity in precision guided munitions battle networks towards a new military regime – the algorithmic warfare – built around harnessing AI, machine learning, big data and autonomy.



The clear lesson from history is that states which lose the commanding heights of technology lose not only the ability to win at war in a tactical sense but also lose the ability to shape the political order that follows.  China clearly didn’t limit its study of America’s military-technological lessons to the wars of the 1990s; it also learned lessons from the earlier US victory – in the Cold War – that allowed America to be the shaping power after the USSR collapsed.  

We are accustomed in the West to thinking of our victory in the Cold War to ideological factors but we overlook the technological dimension.  America’s superior system of representative government and financial powers enabled it to undertake technological leaps that dramatically altered the course of the conflict and placed the Soviets on the horns of a dilemma — to either yield any presumption of dominance in the scenarios that counted most; or to launch ambitious military-industrial catch-ups that were well beyond the financial abilities of the Soviet system to sustain.

A major difference I think today is the method of stimulating major innovation. The byproducts of those earlier US leaps – precision-guided munitions, stealth, GPS, even the Internet – were made possible by US government-directed research and spending in places like DARPA.  

By contrast, the technologies that will give states an edge in algorithmic warfare – derivatives of quantum computing, AI, etc. – come overwhelmingly from smaller and more highly diffuse centers of innovation in the private sector that are by definition hard to steer or control.  The more you try to manage or centralise their efforts from above, the less likely they are to produce the kinds of innovations that you need.  

That’s not to say that state-directed efforts and R&D do not have a role – clearly they do, but as outlined in the NSCAI report, it is more of a cloud-seeding role that embraces decentralisation and either partners with or outsources to private sector innovators.  

The Chinese wager, it seems to me, is that their system can be sufficiently hands-off in approach to enable private innovation to flourish and achieve breakthroughs but still have a higher degree of coordination, courtesy of the CCP power structure and things like the Military-Civil Fusion strategy, to ensure that the push for those breakthroughs is both more determined and focused and more likely to achieve military utility for the state rather than just for consumers. A key Chinese advantage in making this wager is the sheer size of the Chinese population and domestic market. The West would do well not to underestimate Chinese entrepreneurial spirit and scope for innovation. That’s true not just in areas of military technology we’ve been discussing but in Fintech and the digitalisation of the renminbi too.  

States which lose the commanding heights of technology lose not only the ability to win at war in a tactical sense but also lose the ability to shape the political order that follows.

NATO will never be the main tool of choice for Western nations to respond to the entirety of the technological challenge from China. But it does have an important and, in my view, under-developed role to play in acting as a platform for allies to coordinate on security-related tech developments, pool R&D where possible, and most importantly, provide a pressure mechanism and interface with the EU to avoid a situation where that entity’s restrictive data regulations hobble the West in the technological competition with China.

The goal should be for the West and likeminded nations, including in Asia-Pacific, to have the lowest possible barriers to aggregative data access, funding and innovation to go toe to toe with a demographically massive China in those fields that will most determine success.  

In a way, it seems to me to be about pooling and channelling efforts of the free world to set the stage/ground for a third offset strategy-ripe ecosystem. 

I think that is right. It is a balancing act where you have to lower barriers wherever possible for innovation and technological cooperation while also being in commercial competition with one another within the Western world.

Why does the report plead for institutionalising an Andy Marshall4 kind of capability? What would be the value of net assessment for the alliance in navigating the international ecosystem of the 2020s? Is this an attempt in relearning the lost art of the Cold War when Andy Marshall’s ONA focused on providing a long-term competition framework within which it highlighted key strategic asymmetries and strengths to build upon relative to the competition?



An organising problem for NATO continues to be the divergences in threat assessment so we have to start here. The divergences are due in large part to geography and the fact that different allies feel greater exposure to different threats. But as the quantity of major threats increases we can expect that divergence of perceptions to also increase. NATO political cohesion is in a sense a derivative of how well it manages those divergences of threat assessment. So, if your goal is to increase NATO cohesion you have to ask: how can we be more deliberate about achieving convergences of threat assessment?  

A big part of that is something that you cannot control: it’s a byproduct of political will, which is rooted in geography, state interests, and other seemingly immutable factors.  But the history of NATO is the history of attempting to mitigate those differentials in threat assessment.  You can do that through political consultation – that’s why from the time of the Wise Men report, in the late 1950s, onward NATO has had structured habits of consultation to proactively foresee and manage those differentials in threat assessment.  

But you can also do it by building better institutional tools for studying and assessing threats. The US found in the Cold War as you pointed out that there is strategic value to having a standing effort/office whose job is to put all of the pieces on the table – red team, blue team, etc. but also all of the relevant tools at America’s disposal for managing competition.  The premise is that doing this allows you to see aspects of the game, aspects of the competitive dynamic, that you might have missed or overlooked if just making decisions from a political or crisis management perspective. So, the idea would be to give NATO a dedicated tool for helping to understand the entirety of its threat environment and, on that basis, do a better at proactively mitigating differentials in threat assessment.  

NATO has already begun to move in this direction with the development of the Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD), Policy Planning Unit (PPU), and the informal practice of the senior staff policy board meeting for purposes of horizon scanning and strategic anticipation. The idea with the net assessment is to regularise these practices, give them a designated institutional home and staff inside the NATO HQ.

What’s important is not just the organisational piece or creating layers of bureaucracy for the sake of creating bureaucracy, but getting ways to get out of the reactive/crisis management mindset of the last two decades and reinject more disciplined, anticipatory strategic thinking into the NATO culture.  

The Alliance needs to avoid paralysis when it matters

We often hear that preserving cohesion is the center of gravity for the transatlantic alliance. But in a time of increasingly different security optics we can end up with a situation where cohesion becomes a liability for military credibility and deterrence. How can such a scenario be avoided?

Cohesion in a multi-country alliance is of course the result of political will. But it is also the result of the members of that alliance possessing capabilities that in aggregate provide greater security than individual members could achieve on their own. The quest for cohesion becomes a liability when it is pursued artificially, as a kind of ‘higher good’ in itself that supersedes the purposes for which the alliance was created or in ways that prevent it from responding to clear risks or opportunities.  

A good example is China. The threat from China is real and growing and all but a handful of allies appear to grasp that fact. But imagine if NATO were to prioritise the maintenance of a superficial unity over taking the difficult steps to deal with this problem. That would be an example of the idea of cohesion superseding security. It would be a case of lowest common denominator reasoning and allowing the concerns of the few to prevent the action of the majority.  

Another example is the practice of some allies importing external, bilateral disputes into NATO, essentially withholding consensus on initiatives that all 29 of the other members agree on. This is the modern equivalent of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s liberum veto – a recipe for paralysis.  

Our report recommends dealing head-on with both of these problems.

At the strategic level, we need to force the issue by updating the Strategic Concept to reflect the new strategic environment. That will require a lot of hard work diplomatically building consensus around the fact of the new and unfamiliar threats. There is no substitute for that hard work.

But in addition, our report argues that NATO would benefit from proactively reforming decision-making. In an alliance like NATO whose ultimate use is for deterrence and if necessary, sending lives into combat, consensus must remain the metric on things that count and matters of life and death. On many other matters however, we may not need consensus. The report recommends for example not requiring consensus on certain administrative and staffing matters. It recommends allowing sub groups of allies to move ahead on missions under the NATO chapeau without all members participating, as well as placing time limits on crisis decision making.  

The key in all of this is to avoid paralysis when it matters, to make it harder for one or two allies to consistently use single country vetoes to import bilateral disputes into NAC that don’t belong there. So, we recommend for example raising the threshold for those blockages to the Ministerial level. Ultimately, I believe NATO will need to develop a kind of constructive abstention model along the EU lines. The key though is to ensure that in the more contested and complicated strategic environment that I am describing, NATO has to be able to achieve collective action.

The ability to tend to the democratic foundations of the Alliance will be integral to NATO’s success

It seems that the 2020s have increasingly the contours of an inter-regnum, a time of an intensive ideological competition between democracies and authoritarianism. Has the time come for the allies to renew their vows to the founding principles – to the core NATO values? What role has resilience to play and how should resilience be understood in a NATO context?



It is important to acknowledge that there is an ideological character to the emerging era of great power competition. China and Russia are both large Eurasian land powers but also the world’s leading authoritarian regimes.  They use not only military power but divisions inside our societies to undermine representative institutions, social cohesion and trust. 

Our report argues that in strategic competition with these states the ability to tend to the democratic foundations of the Alliance will be integral to NATO’s success on two levels. First internally, in the political cohesion of the Alliance itself. NATO is an alliance built on the concept of intimate cooperation of democracies. Historically, it’s worth noting that since antiquity, democracies tend to form alliances and despotic regimes do not. The two concepts are deeply linked. In NATO’s case we can go further and say that any movement of members toward the authoritarian camp does weaken NATO and undermine support of publics for helping one another.  

And second, it is integral to NATO’s success externally – in competition with Russia and China. The report highlights the fact that these are authoritarian states from which the West must deny them the opportunity of undermining Western societies from within, and on principled grounds, in positioning the West at the moral high grounds in the battle of ideas.   

Those two dimensions should shape how we think about so-called ‘democratic resilience’. Resilience is a term that gets thrown around a lot so I think it’s worth defining clearly for NATO, what resilience means in the context of democracy.  To my mind to speak of the resilience of a democracy is to speak first and foremost about ensuring the capacity for self-correction through frequent, peaceful transfer of power. Integral to that capacity for self-correction is what we in the Anglo-American and Madisonian tradition call the principle of the separation of powers—or for continental Europeans, the German concept of Rechtstaat and from Montesquieu the principal of political non-interference.  

Secondly resilience must include due regard for anything that could undermine the political will of democracies to defend one another – specifically, anything that would degrade a member’s support for executing its commitment of Article Five.  

Resilience is a term that gets thrown around a lot so I think it’s worth defining clearly for NATO, what resilience means in the context of democracy.  To my mind to speak of the resilience of a democracy is to speak first and foremost about ensuring the capacity for self-correction through frequent, peaceful transfer of power.

The question in both cases is: what is NATO’s appropriate role? I think the key in a NATO context is to focus intently on the intersection of democracy and foreign influence or coercion. That is to say: we will succeed in proportion to how organically our efforts stem from the core function and raison d’etre of NATO.  So for example our report recommends building a center of excellence at NATO to support allies in the quest for democratic resilience. This is an important evolution in my mind because it elevates threats to democracy to attention at the NATO level; NATO needs a way to defend democratic resilience the same way that it has a center of excellence for countering cyber or other types of threats.  

But I think we also have to keep in mind the ultimate goal which is to strengthen the political cohesion of the Alliance. The quickest way to weaken the political cohesion of NATO would be to indulge in finger pointing that singles out allies for public rebuke. It would invite profound discord into the alliance and create an opening for Russia and China to eagerly exploit, which would be the opposite of the cohesion we need.

I also think we should abide by a mindset of ‘do no harm’ when it comes to the all-important function of deterrence. NATO is, in the final analysis, a military alliance to deter enemies and if necessary go to war for its members. This is its supreme function and all political changes have to be assessed by how they affect that core function. As our report argues, deterrence rests not only on military capabilities but in clearly-expressed and credible signals of political willingness to fight on behalf of members. 

There has to be crystal clarity on this point; any lack of clarity on the political willingness to defend members weakens the deterrent function. This would preclude some of the more ambitious ideas I have heard – for example, the idea that NATO can strengthen democracy by making Article 5 cohesion contingent on members maintaining certain democratic benchmarks. That would be a departure from the 70 years practice and precedent of NATO playing the long game for strategic influence and continuing to engage with vulnerable allies so that they do not fall into rival spheres of influence. That danger today is very great. It would be a dangerous innovation because the minute you define the factors upon which Article 5 will be contingent, you are pinpointing where Russia should focus its efforts to undermine an ally and bring about a deterrence failure.  

The key I think in all three principles is to look at democracy in the context of security – in the context of an environment where you now have alert external rivals as agitators for undermining us and opportunists for seizing the openings that come from those agitations. So the appropriate frame of reference for democratic resilience in a NATO context is to keep it at the intersection of democracy and security.

Dr. A. Wess Mitchell was co-chair of the NATO 2030 Reflection Process. He is co-founder and principal at The Marathon Initiative, a policy initiative focused on developing strategies to prepare the United States for an era of sustained great power competition. Previously, he served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from 2017 to 2019. Prior to joining the State Department, Mitchell cofounded and served as President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

This interview is published simultaneously in both Eastern Focus Quarterly and Small Wars Journal.

NOTES

1 In December 2019, NATO leaders invited the Secretary General to lead a forward-looking reflection process to strengthen NATO’s political dimension. To support him, NATO Secretary General has appointed a group of ten experts co-chaired by Thomas de Maizière and Wess Mitchell.

2 The National Defense Strategy (NDS), together with the National Security Strategy (NSS), were the first documents that signalled a paradigm shift by officially acknowledging that for the first time after the end of the Cold War, inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, has become the primary concern in U.S. national security.  You can find more on the broader logic of NDS in an Eastern Focusdiscussion with the lead author here.

3 The 2nd Offset Strategy – initiated under the Carter Administration and matured in the late 1980s – was a way to compensate for the Soviet size advantage in conventional forces and thus re-establish general military parity. Most importantly, it leveraged a network of stealth, smart sensors, and smart weapons together with new innovative operational concepts (Air Land Battle) to generate decisive battlefield effects, denying the Soviet Union theory of victory and shoring up deterrence.

4 Andrew W. Marshall, a former strategist at the RAND Corporation served as head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) from its founding in 1973 until his retirement in 2015, at the age of 93 years. He was probably the longest public servant in the United States. Under his leadership, ONA focused on scrutinising the future and the past to try to understand long-term trends and shifts, especially the key competitions that were taking place. ONA understood the emerging revolution in precision-strike warfare as well as the rise of the anti-access/area-denial capabilities that could inhibit and disrupt the ability of the US to project its power overseas. Andy Marshall was also instrumental in theorising the competitive strategy mind-set adopted by the US against the Soviet Union in the 1980s by highlighting the need to identify and invest in enduring competitive advantages and strengths while exploiting the particular weaknesses of the competitor.

Next generation Turkey and its foreign policy in the Western Balkans

The end of the Cold War, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the fall of the one-party system in Albania were turning points in Turkey’s engagement in the Western Balkans (WB) for a number of reasons.

The WB is considered as a bridge between Turkey and Europe, an area of vital importance for Turkey’s economy, energy, transportation and tourism. Turkey’s interest in the European Union (EU) membership is another reason for the region’s importance, because despite setbacks Turkey has not lost its interest in becoming an EU member1,  and it regards the countries of the Balkans as potential supporters of Turkey’s EU bid in the future2.  Migration is another element of Turkey’s engagement, given that the conflicts in the Balkans have caused waves of mass migration by Turkish minorities3  and Muslim populations. Another reason is that by taking an active role in the Balkans, Turkey attempted to prove its importance to the Western world4 because the maintenance of its ‘Western’ identity was an important factor in the formulation of Turkish policies in the 1990s. A final driver of Turkish policy in the Balkans was the fear that the dissolution of Yugoslavia would lead to Greek hegemony in the region5,  therefore downplaying Turkey’s role as a regional power.

As a result of its strong economic growth in the early 2000s, and the rise of the newly formed Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey found itself capable of playing a bigger role in the region. A leading intellectual figure in the AKP and the architect of its foreign policy was Ahmet Davutoğlu, who took the helm of Turkey’s foreign policy in 2009. His doctrine, often called ‘neo-Ottomanism’, projected a new era in Turkish foreign policy6  by portraying Turkey as a major actor in the region. Since coming to power in 2002, AKP has adopted three broad, successive approaches7  towards the WB. First, a continuation of its traditional Atlanticism. From the early 1990s until the late 2000s, Turkey’s WB foreign policy was in sync with and complementary to the West, particularly the US. The AKP’s foreign policy approach in general at this time was to maintain and improve its relations with nearby countries, labelled as “zero problems with the neighbours”. During this period Turkey expanded visa-free travel and free trade agreements with its neighbours, which lasted roughly until Turkey’s appointment of Davutoğlu as foreign minister in 2009 and Turkey’s disagreements with the West – when the second phase of the AKP’s WB ‘neo-Ottoman’ turn began. This phase was marked by an intensification of Turkey’s diplomatic outreach to the WB, which was nuanced with references to the Ottoman past. The third and most recent phase of the AKP’s strategy towards the WB is a more pragmatic approach led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This phase marks a pragmatic focus on greater economic ties and a prominent role for the Turkish president, by direct engagement and through personal ties with Western Balkan leaders.

Turkey and the three Muslim-majority countries of the Western Balkans: A three-dimensional relationship

This article explores three main areas as the main pillars of the relationship between Turkey and the three Muslim-majority countries of the WB: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Kosovo. The first part is dedicated to the economic ties, the second to the political ties, and the third part analyses the cultural ties among countries.

Economy

In order to explore the extent of Turkey’s economic engagement in the region, three indicators will be taken into consideration: the imports, exports and foreign direct investments (FDI) of the three countries. Although those three indicators have their limits in revealing the full intensity of the economic cooperation among countries of the region and Turkey, they are still solid data points that provide a picture of their economic volume. In overall economic terms, Turkey has the advantages of geographical proximity with the WB, which allows for a reduction in transportation costs, as well as an existing similarity in consumption habits. Turkey has also signed free bilateral trade agreements with Albania, BiH, and Kosovo. Nevertheless, as indicated by the following official data, Turkey does not play a significant role in the economies of the WBs’ Muslim-majority countries. Nevertheless, even though Turkey’s economic relevance is considerably less than other states, Turkey manages to appear more relevant than it actually is by investing in popular and highly visible projects such as highways, hospitals, schools, mosques, bridges and restorations of buildings from the Ottoman heritage.

Figure 1: Albanian Institute of Statistics, Data for 2019. Albania’s imports & exports by country.

Regarding imports to Albania, Italy leads the figure with more exports to Albania than the next three countries (Turkey, Greece and Germany) combined. Turkey is second in line, but far less compared to Italy. With regard to Albanian exports, Italy imports as much Albanian goods as twice the amount of the next four countriescombined. Kosovo ranks second, followed by Spain, Germany and Greece. Turkey is ranked only 17th, and it lags behind all the other states to which Albania exports its goods: there are fewer exports to Turkey than to every other WB country except BiH. In terms of Foreign Direct Investments, Switzerland has the highest FDIs in Albania for the past three years, followed by the Netherlands, Canada, and Italy; Turkey ranks only fifth.

Figure 2: The chart includes data for the second quarterly stock of direct investment-liabilities in Albania by country for 2018, 2019 and 2020- BPM6. Source: Albanian Institute of Statistics, December 2020

The data from three economic indicators reveal the massive role of Italy in Albanian trade, while Turkey only plays a limited role. As regards trade between Albania and Turkey, the current trade exchange is favourable for Turkey, as it exports large amounts to Albania while importing only little.

When it comes to Kosovo’s trade relations, Germany leads the figure with the most exports to Kosovo, followed closely by Turkey, China and Italy. Albania tops the list of Kosovo’s exports as it receives twice as much as the combined amount of the next two countries. North Macedonia is ranked second, followed by Germany. Turkey is ranked only 13th in the list and constitutes only 1.8% of Kosovo’s exports. On the other hand, Germany and China have had the highest FDIs in Kosovo for the past three years; Turkey is third and the United States  is fourth.

Figure 3: Kosovo’s Agency of Statistics, data for 2019

The data from these three economic indicators reveal that Kosovo does not have any particularly significant trade partner, and Turkey plays only a small role in its economy. The country mainly imports from Germany, China and Turkey, and mainly exports to its immediate neighbours Albania and North Macedonia. Like Albania, the trade exchange between Kosovo and Turkey is favourable to the latter, as Turkey exports significantly to Kosovo and imports very little.

Figure 4: Data from the Central Bank of the Republic of Kosovo, December 2020

Germany leads the figure with the most exports to BiH, followed closely by Italy, Serbia and Croatia. China is ranked fifth and Turkey sixth. Germany also tops the list of BiH’s export destinations, followed closely by Croatia, Serbia and Italy. Turkey is ranked only eighth in the list.

In terms of Foreign Direct Investments, Austria tops the list of countries with the most FDIs in BiH, followed closely by Croatia and Serbia, while Turkey is only ranked 12th.

 Figure 5: Trading Economics, Data for 2019

In contrast to Albania and Kosovo, which both have (albeit unfavourable) considerable trade volumes with Turkey, BiH does not enjoy such levels of trade. The data from first two economic indicators reveal that BiH has several trade partners such as Germany, Croatia, Serbia and Italy. Turkey is not significant in the overall trade volume of BiH, ranking sixth highest in exports to BiH and eighth in imports from BiH. Furthermore, Turkey also plays an insignificant role in BiH’s FDIs, as it is ranked 12th. 

Figure 6: Data from the Central Bank of Bosnia & Herzegovina (CBBH), December 2020

While Turkey does not play a significant role in the region’s economy at the moment, it is important to mention that economic volume alone does not fully explain the overall connectedness of Turkey and the WB countries. The political and cultural links coupled with the economic aspect comprise the mosaic of the overall ties between the countries.

Politics

In order to understand Turkey’s role in the region, one must look at the broader geopolitical dynamics of the international system. In the literature, uni-interpolarity best explains the features of today’s international system8,  although the post-Covid-19 situation has called its legitimacy into question9.  Uni-interpolarity is a structure characterised by comprehensive interdependence. It is based on a superpower with undisputable global influence and some major powers with lesser influence than the superpower. Multilateralism is a key component of a uni-interpolar configuration because certain fundamental issues such as security, economic and environmental concerns cannot be tackled by a single state, not even the most powerful one. The superpower in the international system is the US; the major power closer to the WB is the EU, while Turkey’s role is that of a regional power. In this realm, Albania, BiH and Kosovo can all be described as small states10.  Although a variety of factors affect the foreign policy alignments of each state – such as economic, cultural, historical and ideological values – from a Realpolitik perspective, the best option for the small states is to align their foreign policy with the superpower, the second-best option is the major power, and the last is the regional power.

Albania and Kosovo’s foreign policy priority is to join the Western political and economic structures, thus aligning itself with the superpower (US) and the major power (EU). In the case of the WB, these countries aspire not only to align their foreign policy with the major power (EU) but they want to become part of it; as a result, these relations are particularly important.

Turkey manages to appear more relevant than it actually is by investing in popular and highly visible projects.

Albania is a NATO member and EU candidate country, whose foreign policy course reflects a balance between the state’s European and American orientations11  which have constituted the two pillars of its foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. The US has been the most important foreign actor in Albanian politics since the beginning of that country’s transition process12,  which culminated with its accession to NATO in 2009. Similar to Albania, Kosovo’s foreign policy orientation has been shaped by its efforts to integrate into the EU and the Euro-Atlantic structures. The US led the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that paved the way to Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and the US’s continuous support has been particularly important for Kosovo’s path towards international recognition of its independence and its ability to join international organisations. Nevertheless, despite both Albania’s and Kosovo’s open allegiance to a Western political model, Turkey has significant political clout in both countries, occasionally supplemented by declared political friendships. This was witnessed when President Erdoğan’s hunt for his political opponents in both countries forced the extradition of five Turkish citizens from Kosovo and one from Albania who were accused of being involved in the 2016 Turkish coup attempt.

Regardless of its Euro-Atlantic orientation, the situation in BiH is substantially different from that of Albania and Kosovo. In recent years, BiH has been facing a crisis which exceeds the country’s habitually difficult traditional political, security, economic and social situation. As a result of the country’s complicated institutional setup established by the Dayton Peace Accord, the political leaders of the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), the Bosnian Croats (predominately Catholics), and the Bosnian Serbs (mostly Orthodox) seem to be abandoning the UN=brokered peace accord, and are now focusing on their own narrow ethnic interests13.  In this environment, and without having a positive US legacy14  such as Albania and Kosovo, the country is more vulnerable to foreign interference, especially when each ethnic group is increasingly interdependent with their allies. Turkish leverage in BiH is noticeably higher than in Albania or Kosovo, thanks to the Turkish President’s political friendship with the leader of the Bosniaks, especially their leader Bakir Izetbegović, who once described Erdoğan as “a man sent from God with a special mission.”15  

Considering the international system and the regional role of Turkey in the WB, it is important to examine Turkey’s foreign policy orientation and how that may affect the WBs’ course. Although a NATO member since 1952, Turkey has been decoupling with the West during the last decade, especially since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 when then-PM Erdoğan used harsh rhetoric towards the West. From a Turkish perspective16,  President Erdoğan’s rapidly escalating anti-Western approach was a reaction to Western meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs. From an EU perspective17,  this decoupling started in 2016 when the failed military coup in Turkey prompted President Erdoğan to reinforce his ties with Moscow and to embark on a series of foreign policy interventions18  in Libya, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh that have been contrary to, or at least uncoordinated with, the Western allies’ interests. Regardless of this perceived transformation of Turkey from regional to major power, the country is still looking for positive relations with the US and the EU. President Erdoğan recently stated that Turkey hopes to “turn a new page in its ties with the US and the EU”, and that Ankara had been subjected to “double standards” by both Washington and Brussels19.  In a videoconference with the President of the European Commission, the Turkish President stated that he believes Turkey’s future is in the EU, and that steps should be taken in resuming membership negotiations.20

From a Realpolitik perspective, the best option for the small states is to align their foreign policy with the superpower.

Turkey is clearly a regional power, and it cannot replace the role of the US or the EU in the region. Like the WB countries, Turkey itself is interested in resuming the EU membership process and aligning its foreign policy with the US, or at least maintaining a flexible relationship with both in order to serve its best interests. Turkey is not hindering the WBs’ path to the EU; on the contrary, it has constantly claimed to support the region’s integration with the EU21,  because Turkey’s strategic goals (contrary to those of Russia) would be still better served if the WB countries join the EU, as this would stabilise a region where Turkey has economic, political and cultural ties. It would also make exports to its main trading partner (the EU) easier; it will indirectly increase Turkish leverage with the EU; and it might help Turkey’s own aspirations to EU membership.

Culture

The cultural aspect is one of the main factors in the ‘soft power’ approach in international relations, and countries often decide where to invest based on their own foreign policy goals and national interests, taking into consideration their historical, cultural, political, geographical and economic ties with the recipient country. In the case of Turkey, this ‘soft power’ approach was advanced by Davutoğlu’s foreign policy which placed a strong emphasis on the ‘Ottoman heritage’.22  This new foreign policy relied23  first on utilising various Turkish institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), thanks to whom the WBs have been getting more than 2 percent of its overall budget since 201024  focused on the rebuilding or rehabilitation of a number of significant Ottoman heritage monuments;25  the Yunus Emre Institute, Turkish universities, Turkish media outlets broadcasting in regional languages, as well as the Diyanet (the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate).26  The Diyanet’s role has been strengthened as a foreign policy tool primarily focused on providing quality educational and humanitarian services to local communities, but also as a competitor to the Gülen Movement. Second, the new Turkish foreign policy has aimed to make Turkey a tourist destination for people in the Balkans27,  while at the same time encouraging Turkish people to set up businesses and invest in the Balkans, as well as streaming Turkish soap operas on Balkan media platforms. In addition, the countries of the WB and Turkey are also connected by their diaspora28,  including Bosnians and Albanians in Turkey and small Turkish minorities in the WB, which in Davutoğlu’s thinking29  creates an organic link between Turkey and the Balkans.

This soft power, and especially the foreign aid, should be taken with a grain of salt, because foreign aid is not used only to unconditionally help developing countries, but also to promote the donor country’s geostrategic interests as well as its political, economic and security goals. Therefore, all the countries of the WBs should clearly distinguish not only what benefits they gain in the short term, but also how it could damage their national interests in the long term.

The implications of Turkey’s engagement in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo

In contrast to Davutoğlu’s assumptions, the role of Turkey in the WB is that of a regional power and not a major power. Turkey is neither interested nor able to change the Euro-Atlantic path of the WB countries. Regardless of what role it chooses to play, however, there are still several overall implications of Turkey’s engagement in the WBs.

Despite both Albania’s and Kosovo’s open allegiance to a Western political model, Turkey has significant political clout in both countries, occasionally supplemented by declared political friendships.

Given that the WBs are a multi-religious region, there is a concern that Turkey’s careless public diplomacy rhetoric30 describing itself as a ‘protector’ of Muslims, may deepen the longstanding divisions among different ethnic groups in the Balkans31.  Turkey has shown no strategic favour to Muslim-dominated areas of the Balkans, and its trade and relations follow no clear cultural logic, but are instead highly pragmatic32.  However, Turkey’s religious rhetoric may cause further divisions among the multi-religious countries in the region, where strengthening ties with Turkey may create reactions among the other religious communities, and risks upsetting the religious balances inside those countries.

The WB countries have entrusted their state-development process to the EU enlargement strategy which is centred on the principle of conditionality – the offer of the EU rewards (most importantly financial assistance and membership) on the condition that WB states meet the demands set by the EU33.  While the West has the conditionality principle of “carrots and sticks” which keeps the pressure on WB leaders to stay in line with the development process, Turkey has no state-reforming conditionality for WB leaders – it is enough for Turkey that the WB leaders do not challenge Turkey’s interests in the region. This triggers the second concern, that closer ties with Turkey might create a precedent that in the future could hurdle the EU conditionality principle, which is crucial for the process of Europeanising the WB and keeping the WB leaders’ authoritarian tendencies in check.

The dispute between President Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen has also penetrated the region34.  This is the root of the third implication of Turkey’s engagement in the WB: President Erdoğan’s hunt for his opponents in the region exports Turkish problems into the WB, violates the WB states’ national sovereignty, and also pressures WB countries into infringing their own justice systems. This might also set a precedent for other similar cases in the future. Although, to Turkey´s dismay, most WB leaders have refused to comply with Ankara’s strenuous efforts to interfere with domestic issues – which shows the true limits of Turkish power in the region – the existence of direct Turkish political interference was clearly exemplified by the arrest of six Turkish citizens in Kosovo35.  The arrests were made without informing the prime minister of Kosovo, and the Parliamentary Investigative Committee, created in Kosovo to investigate the case, found 31 legal breaches.

Turkey is not hindering the WBs’ path to the EU; on the contrary, it has constantly claimed to support the region’s integration with the EU, because Turkey’s strategic goals (contrary to those of Russia) would be still better served if the WB countries join the EU, as this would stabilise a region where Turkey has economic, political and cultural ties.

The role of Turkey in the region has been praised by Turcophiles and condemned by Turcophobes. Turkey is a natural ally given its proximity to the region, its common past, as well as the Euro-Atlantic course. However at present, and in real terms, Turkey does not have a significant role in the region’s economy, and it plays only a moderate role in the region’s culture. Turkey is clearly a regional power, and it cannot replace the US or the EU in the region. Moreover, Turkey’s strategic goals, in contrast to those of Russia, are better served if the WB countries join the EU. Therefore, the greatest challenge for the future of the WB is not posed by the Turkish engagement in the region, but by the US’s isolationism and the EU’s enlargement fatigue. For as long as the US and the EU are invested in the region, it is unlikely and unfavourable for the WB countries to relinquish their Euro-Atlantic commitments.


NOTES

1 According to survey data, the public opinion of Turkish citizens who believed that joining the EU would be positive fell from 73% in 2004 to 38% in 2010, but bounced back up to 53% in 2014. See http://www.tepsa.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/tepsa-brief-senyuva_final-2.pdf. More recent data from EU barometer 2020 indicate low percentages of Turkish people feeling attached to the EU, Available at https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getsurveydetail/instruments/standard/surveyky/2262. However, the waves of support and opposition are affected by both sides (EU and Turkey), and are very much linked with political developments in Turkey, in Europe and between Turkey & the EU. 

2 Dyrmishi, 2015. Albania-Turkey Security Relations. Available at http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Albania-Turkey-Security-Relations-1.pdf.

3 Eroğlu, 2005. Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Balkans in the Post-Cold War Era. Middle East Technical University.

4 Demirtas, 2013. Turkey and the Balkans: Overcoming Prejudices, Building Bridges, and Constructing a Common Future.

5 Dyrmishi, 2015. Albania-Turkey Security Relations. Available at http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Albania-Turkey-Security-Relations-1.pdf.

6 Davutoğlu, 2008. ‘Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007’. Insight Turkey.

7 Aydıntaşbaş, 2019. ‘From Myth to Reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans’, European Council on Foreign Relations. See also Öztürk and Akgönül, 2019. Forced marriage or marriage of convenience with the Western Balkans? Taylor and Francis.

8 Tella, 2015. Polarity in contemporary international politics: a uni-interpolar order? Available at https://journals.co.za/content/polit/34/2/EJC187681.

9 Garewal, 2020. ‘Is pandemic leading to ‘bi-multipolarity’?’ Available at https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/is-pandemic-leading-to-bi-multipolarity/.

10 Jeanne, 2003. Small States in World Politics: Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior.

11 Lani and Schmidt, 1998. ‘Albanian Foreign Policy between Geography and History.’ International Spectator.

12 Seitz, 1991. ‘U.S. and Albania Re-establish Diplomatic Ties after 52 Years.’ The New York Times.

13 Latal, 2019. ‘Country Report 2 – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Influences of Non-Western External Actors’. The Prague Security Studies Institute.

14 The US’ late intervention in the war in Bosnia and the Dayton Peace Accord which it brokered are not perceived as the best scenario for BiH’s future. For more information see Daalder, 1998. Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended. Available at https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended/.

15 BIEPAG 2018. ‘Erdoğan in Sarajevo: It’s my Party and I’ll campaign in Europe if I want to’. https://biepag.eu/erdogan-in-sarajevo-its-my-party-and-ill-campaign-in-europe-if-i-want-to/

16 Akyol, 2015. ‘What turned Erdoğan against the West?’ Available at https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/turkey-Erdoğan-anti-west.html.

17 Stanicek, 2019. ‘Turkey’s military operation in Syria and its impact on relations with the EU’, Brussels: European Parliament.

18 For more on the Turkish intervention in Libya, see https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-parliament-approves-libya-troops-motion-161062. For Syria, see https://www.europarl.europa.eu/EPRS/EPRS-Briefing-642284-Turkeys-military-operation-Syria-FINAL.pdf. For the Eastern Mediterranean, see https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020C62/. For Nagorno-Karabakh, see https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020C53/.

19 Ekathimerini, 2020. ‘Turkey hopes to turn new page with US and EU in 2021, Erdoğan says’. Available at https://www.ekathimerini.com/260586/article/ekathimerini/news/turkey-hopes-to-turn-new-page-with-us-and-eu-in-2021-Erdoğan-says.

20 Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, 2021. Videoconference with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. Available at https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/speeches-statements/558/123508/videoconference-with-president-of-the-european-commission-ursula-von-der-leyen. (Accessed on January 12, 2021).

21 Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018. ‘Bushati- Çavuşoğlu pave the road to setting up the Albania-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council’. Available at: https://punetejashtme.gov.al/en/bushati-cavusoglu-celin-rrugen-e-ngritjes-se-keshillit-te-bashkepunimit-te-nivelit-te-larte-shqiperi-turqi/

22 President Erdoğan restated this “common culture” during the 2021 bilateral talks with the PM of Albania. See more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnEUI7dyDEs. (Accessed on January 12, 2021).

23 Latal and Büyük, 2020. Political Influence in Southeast Europe in Current Turkish Foreign Policy. Southeast Europe in Focus.

24 Data from; www.tika.gov.tr/en (Accessed 28 December 2020)

25 Kočan and Arbeiter, 2019. ‘Is TIKA Turkey’s platform for development cooperation or something more? Evidence from the Western Balkans’. International Journal of Euro-Mediterranean Studies.

26 The Diyanet, short for Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, is the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate.

27 TURSAB: https://www.tursab.org.tr/.

28 Emin, 2020. ‘Is there a Balkan Diaspora in Turkey?’ Available at https://insamer.com/en/is-there-a-balkan-diaspora-in-turkey_3445.html. See also Vračić, 2016. Turkey’s Role in the Western Balkans, SWP Research Paper.

29 Davutoğlu, 2008. Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007. Insight Turkey.

30 Populari, 2014. A Political Romance: Relations between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Available at http://populari.org/files/docs/411.pdf.

31 Vračić, 2016. Turkey’s Role in the Western Balkans. SWP Research Paper.

32 See Aydıntaşbaş, 2019. ‘From Myth to Reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans’, London: European Council on Foreign Relations. See also https://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ibrahim-kalin/2018/06/02/whatdoes-turkey-want-in-the-balkans [accessed 28 December 2020].

33 Elbasani, 2013. Europeanization Travels to the Western Balkans: Enlargement Strategy, Domestic Obstacles and Diverging Reforms. Routledge.

34 For BiH see Palickova, 2019. ‘Erdoğan visits Bosnia as part of bigger game’. Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/Erdoğan-visits-bosnia-as-part-of-bigger-game/. For Albania, see Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018. ‘Bushati- Çavuşoğlu pave the road to setting up the Albania-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council’. [Online]  Available at: https://punetejashtme.gov.al/en/bushati-cavusoglu-celin-rrugen-e-ngritjes-se-keshillit-te-bashkepunimit-te-nivelit-te-larte-shqiperi-turqi/

35 Radio Free Europe, 2018. ‘Turkey’s Erdoğan Slams Kosovo Criticism Of Deportation Of Gülen-Linked Turks’. Available at https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-investigation-arrest-deportation-turkey-teachers-gulen/29137309

Revisionism in Romania, in the Context of the Centennial

This article is summarising the conclusions of a research conducted over the Romanian mainstream and social media, seeking to identify the presence of secessionist and revisionist narratives, what are the conditions facilitating their presence, and who are the actors benefiting. The research was part of the project Revealing Russian disinformation networks and active measures fuelling secessionism and border revisionism in the CEEconducted under the supervision of Political Capital, Budapest

Disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations as presented in Romanian mainstream and social media is primarily an illustration of home-grown mistrust between two communities lacking proper dialogue and knowledge of each other, a mistrust that, in addition, was historically cultivated as an instrument of manipulation during the decades of communism. External interference merely amplifies domestic content and provides every now and then the additional spin that serves the interests of – most often – Russia. 

Given the highly negative track-record of relations between Bucharest and Moscow, the population on the whole tends to be quite resilient in front of openly promoted pro-Russian narratives (interaction rates with Russian media outlets such as sputnik.md or RT also remain low); however, Russian-backed local actors or ‘useful idiots’ whose agendas largely overlap with the Kremlin’s and who embrace similar rhetoric can be quite successful in their presentation of Romanian-Hungarian relations as irreconcilable. These also feed the Russian efforts to present Romania as a hypocrite, revisionist and interventionist state, aiming to reunite with the Republic of Moldova, and permanently interfering in Moldovan politics for that purpose – which is most often the focus of Russian propaganda. Only in isolated cases (such as a relatively recent interethnic incident in the Uz Valley over a war cemetery) are there signs of coordination between Russian outlets and the internal groups that are behind the flare in Romanian-Hungarian tensions. 

Thus, the most frequent producers (and at the same time beneficiaries) of disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations are the (multiplying) far-right, nationalist, anti-liberal groups; political actors do jump on board when they identify an opportunity to harness interethnic tensions to collect votes, but generally refrain from translating inflammatory rhetoric into political action. Until recently, the theme mostly featured in the discourse of the more populistic Social-Democrats (absent any major far-right or otherwise radical political party in Romania, the PSD has tried to appeal to this particular electorate as well). Paradoxically, liberal and German ethnic president Klaus Iohannis tried to use the same language to recapture some of this audience not long ago, by playing on the requests for enhanced autonomy advanced by the Hungarian minority – but with mixed results, as he got a lot of negative fallout from some of his own core electorate.

In a sample of articles covering relevant events (Romania’s anniversary of its 1918 Great Unification, i.e. the reintegration of territories once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the above-mentioned inter-ethnic incident in Uz Valley followed by a row of rather undiplomatic exchanges) and containing key words signaling potential inflammatory content, less than half of the articles were in fact presenting positions against Hungary /the Hungarian minority in Romania. The general number of press articles containing unequivocal chauvinistic/ xenophobic assertions is rather low in Romanian media – which should not be mistaken, however, for the absence of such attitudes in the collective mindset.

The mutual social and cultural disconnect between the Romanian and Hungarian minorities are, on the one hand, the result of short-sighted government policies on both sides, which have generated socio-economic cleavages and inequality, and on the other side of occasionally deliberate attempts by both Bucharest and Budapest to maintain control over their respective communities in Transylvania and be able to use the rhetoric of secessionism when that served their interests. With the population in the rest of the country being rather ignorant of local realities in the counties with a sizeable Hungarian populations, perceptions were largely formed by government or political communication and the media. This has led to historically-based stereotypes, shaped both in the past (by the socialist regime) and at the present time (by nationalists and populists), whereby a common Romanian identity and the feeling of national solidarity are largely shaped by the rallying call to unity against a plethora of external enemies that have forever coveted Romanian territories – Hungary among them, also through its ‘internal agents’: Hungarian ethnics living in Romania. Calls for secession from the Hungarian minority and the interference of Budapest-backed elements in stirring local tensions have provided the element of truth that has strengthened the credibility of such narratives.

Looking at the discourse around Romanian’s Centennial anniversary and that of the Treaty of Trianon (2018), one can easily note that most disinformation/ misinformation revolved around the nationalistic, ethno-centrist narratives exaggerating the unique role that the Romanian population have played in achieving the Great Unification and romanticising the events surrounding it. This amounts, as described, to the creation (or continuation) of an alternative national history meant to use rather widely-shared feelings of victimisation to generate commonality of identity and purpose: ‘The Great Unification was made by the Romanian people. The help received during the process was not crucial or decisive’, ‘there are external, and internal occult forces acting to diminish/deny the importance of the 1918 Great Unification’, ‘reunification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova is of the greatest importance’, ‘Russia is aggressively promoting its policy of maintaining its sphere of influence/vassal states’, ‘there are important resentments among the European states (especially those who were on the losing side of the WWI) towards Romania’s Great Unification’.

These are further facilitated by the rise of nationalism, nativism and the irresponsibility of political discourse, whose populist tones cater to these audiences. Such topics are picked up by mainstream media – including those that overestimate the role that Romania played in WWI and the Great Unification, or calls for reunification with the Republic of Moldova, a kind of ‘border revisionism’, which continues to be seen by a significant part of the population as acceptable and thus forces politicians to at least not oppose it openly (thus adding more fuel to the fire and feeding the Russian messaging about Romanian revisionism).

More fringe nationalist media will also distribute a set of narratives about Hungary’s alleged subversive behaviour, its hidden agenda in dividing Romania by supporting the secession of the Hungarian majority Szekler Land, and generally its actions as a regional disruptor. Among these, ‘Hungary is supporting territorial revisionism in Szekler Land’, ‘Hungary has a hidden, historical plan to annex the territories it has lost as a consequence of the Trianon Treaty’, ‘Hungary is a vile state predisposed to mingling in Romania’s internal affairs’, ‘the ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania (and their political representatives) are hostile to the Romanian population’, ‘Romania holds military superiority over Hungary’. These fringe media republish one another intensively and fuel an ecosystem gathering anti-liberal, orthodox groups together with far-right and xenophobic ones. The vocabulary used in promoting the narratives in this set is usually xenophobic and chauvinistic.

In a context where fringe social and online media increasingly influence mainstream media and radical political positions often push the agenda of centrist parties more to the extremes, dialogue on thorny issues like Romanian – Hungarian relations, in a formal and considerate setting, as well as measures directed at reduction of inequalities among target populations are of paramount importance in helping bridge communities, while ensuring a healthy information space is also a key factor. And as the problem is not located only at a political level (which rather opportunistically uses its pre-existence and helps perpetuate the situation), civil society organisations have an essential role to play in addressing these issues at grassroots level.

Let’s make a folder. What do we know about AUR, the new golden party of the Romanian far right?

The far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) was the big surprise of the recent Romanian parliamentary elections. Against a background of low turnout (32%) it obtained 9% of the vote. Only two months ago, during the recent local elections, it had only 1%[1].

The increase took pretty much all commentators by surprise. Some were infused with a sense of panic. Where did this party come from and where will it take Romanian politics, they wondered? Others took a more down-to-earth approach. Sociologist Claudiu Tufiș expressed on Facebook the hope that social scientists would now (finally!) make a folder called ‘AUR’ to study the new party [and perhaps provide insight on how its rise can be stopped]. That same hope inspired the title of this article.

In the following piece I have tried to put together what we already know about AUR. Some things I know personally, having looked into the history and activity of the party. Some came from others who share my interest. And, finally, some insight came from a debate hosted by Global Focus Center under Chatham House rules.

The good news is that we know quite a bit. The bad news is that it’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. The other group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right.

What does AUR seem to want?

The full name (The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians) itself references nationalist tones and alludes to the possibility of a future union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The acronym also means “gold”.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. Mr Simion is a former ultra (radical football fan) and a staunch promoter of unconditional unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. For many years his name was associated with the all-present graffiti around the country that said “Bessarabia is Romania”. Bessarabia is the name of the historical region of which the present-day Republic of Moldova is the biggest part. 

His unionist views were so strong and expressed so unwisely that many believed him to be an agent of Moscow sent to give moderate unionism and Romania a bad name. According to at least two sources, this is also an opinion shared at least by some in the Moldovan secret service. In fact, by Mr Simion’s own account, he was once interrogated in Moldova and banned from entering the country for a while.

Another group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right. They are gathered around Claudiu Târziu, who leads an association called “Rost” (transl. “meaning”) that promotes such ideas. The association runs a publishing house and a website with the same name. Mr Târziu was a leading figure of the Coalition for Family, which advocated changing the Romanian Constitution to prevent any possible legalisation of gay marriage. Rost is the only association known to have been retired from the Coalition due to public outcry.

It is important to know that, in Romania, far-right ideas have been getting traction mostly through the discourse of mainstream parties. Both the liberals and social-democrats, while mostly keeping to a pro-European discourse, have ultra-conservative and nationalist elements among their rank and file and who will frequently voice such convictions freely, and with impunity from the party. Proper far-right movements have been notoriously unable to get traction ever since the dissolution of the much more notorious Greater Romania Party, and used to be a subject of jokes rather than concern. This explains, to some extent, why AUR came as a surprise even though the groups that formed the party have been known for a long time.

At an AUR electoral meeting held indoors nobody keeps the distance or wears a mask. From the party Facebook account.

Also, the party did not run on a maximalist platform but rather on a lower-key, patriotic, pro-family platform. They were staunchly opposed to anti-COVID restrictions and held a sit-in in front of the Government building for days.

Who voted for AUR?

According to exit polls, AUR voters skew younger and less educated than the average. They also tend to live either in rural Romania or in small towns (CURS data, details below).

The electoral map shows four main areas of AUR success. Moldova (East) and particularly Northern Moldova is a known hub for ultra-religious feeling. The constitutional referendum for the (heterosexual only!) family also drew support from here. Even in the urbanised county of Iasi, the AUR vote was significant, possibly due to recent conflict over holding a traditional pilgrimage during the pandemic.

Source: Alexandru F. Ghiță, interim data

The second area is Banat, in the West, where evangelical-inspired Protestant churches have long been proselytising and trying to promote their social agenda. Like Northern Moldova, the area provided support for the referendum ‘for the family’ and continues to be a hotspot for the pro-life movement. The religious agenda is not limited to the protestant churches but it has also spread to the local Orthodox and Greek Catholic clergy.

We can also see a spotty picture of AUR support throughout southern Transylvania (roughly at the centre of the map). There is no obvious explanation for this but it is worth remembering that Transylvania is the home and beacon of anti-Hungarian nationalism[2]

Dobrudja (South-East), long considered a model of multicultural integration due to Orthodox Romanians and Turkish/Tatar Muslims living together ever since Ottoman times, is the new addition to the radicalisation map. The region “hosted” a heated dispute between the local archbishop and the authorities, due to restrictions on religious activities during the pandemics. The dispute recently included a row about holding a pilgrimage to the “cave of Saint Andrew”, the purported founder of Christianity in Romania. The lawyer of the Archbishopric, Diana Şoşoacă, is a COVID-denialist who ran successfully on the AUR electoral lists.

AUR has also made great strides in the Diaspora, where it got roughly a quarter of the vote. Note that the Diaspora includes a significant number of Moldovans with dual citizenship, who live either in the Republic or in Western Europe (thanks to their Romanian passport).

How bad is it?

As AUR was entering Parliament, two other parties found themselves unable to reach the electoral threshold (the Popular Movement and Pro Romania). These parties, while nominally mainstream and, in fact, led by a former president and a former prime minister respectively, have courted nationalist and ultraconservative discourse on several occasions, hoping to compensate for the dwindling popularity of their leaders. Thus, in a sense, wannabe radicals were only replaced with truer ones!

Another result of their demise is that, in the current Parliament, it is close to impossible to build a governing majority without the parties that represent the ethnic minorities in Romania, and in particular the Hungarian minority. For obvious reasons, these minorities are expected to reject any government that would include the radical nationalists of AUR. The presence of minorities in the government could also moderate nationalist tendencies within the government parties.

We must keep in mind that this is not the first time when a brave new party, representing the younger and less educated population takes Parliament by storm. 

Comparative profile of the PP-DD voter in 2016 vs. AUR in 2020 based on exit poll data from the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology. Note that in 2020 the exit poll underestimates the total result almost by half.

The predecessor is PP-DD (People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu). It was created by… well, Dan Diaconescu; the charismatic owner of a tabloid TV-station and it represented populism in its purest form: it promised people a good life, easily obtained. 

PP-DD got 14% percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, following the global crisis. It is not usually considered far-right as such, since it directly addressed economic hardships and showed far less interest in identity politics. But there is at least a similarity in constituencies.

PP-DD was put together hastily. Reportedly, eligible seats were bought and sold. Most analysts predicted that would impact the cohesion of the party. And indeed, it imploded during its first and only term. 

AUR comes from a stronger organisational base, but needed more than that for a win. One recruitment tool were “mystery” ads that invited citizens to change the local mayor. The link (now leading to the party website) brought the one who clicked it to an anonymous web form where they were invited to leave their data for further contact. 

“Mystery” ads run by AUR. Source: Facebook.

Also, at least one member of the AUR “Senate” (its ‘elders’) claimed that he had never joined the party in the first place. With such improvisations it seems likely that not only true-and-tested hard unionists and defenders of fascism entered Parliament, but also opportunists. Or maybe even well-meaning people who wanted to play politics a bit and were not bothered by pompous nationalist discourse.

Why did people vote for AUR?

This is, if I may, the golden question. Like in other cases of populist/extremist rise, multiple explanations are possible.

Social causes and lack of representation. It is almost a consensus that Romanian parties have lately broken much of the bound that connected them to the electorate. Governance has been negligent under both right- and left-wing parties and the voter hit by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic does not seem to find an interest in their problems from political leaders (for example, the pandemic does not appear in the short version of the electoral program, which the top three parties have been circulating).

Various kinds of dissatisfaction seem to have boiled into a protest vote. If you check out the demographic structure once more, you will see that the younger, less educated people, living in smaller communities that are less connected to prosperity, seem to be more inclined to vote for AUR. Also, it is interesting to see the results in Spain and Italy. It is generally considered that Romanians in Spain are generally better integrated; indeed, the vote for AUR, while still excellent, was 10 percentage points lower there than in Italy.

Ideology / local groups. Narratives about Romanian exceptionalism are commonplace in Romania among both politicians and voters. Going back to the map, we see how all four regions carry histories of fringe ideas and in three out of four cases, these are not recent. This is not to say that these narratives are dominant locally – in fact AUR did not win elections in any county. On the other hand, it remains entirely possible that these regional narratives do not drive the vote directly, but rather that narratives are there because they are pushed by local groups, and it is in fact the local organisers who get out the vote. 

Anti-lockdown feeling. Romanian lockdown was harsh on the economy, somewhat inconsistent, and, some would say, incompetently implemented. One could also argue that the anti-lockdown protest in Romania, though powerful, was severely underrepresented among mainstream parties. If this is the case, then AUR, even without knowing it, is an anti-lockdown party that will disappear once the epidemic is over – just as UKIP waned after Brexit.

Far-right unity. AUR seems to come out of nowhere, but it really does not; there was a nationalist vote in 2016 also[3]. At the time, the top three nationalist / far-right parties totalled ca. 5%. These have neither disappeared, nor massively lost votes. The increase in far-right voting is still worrying, but it seems a bit less incomprehensible now, especially given the factors above.

Naturally, all four hypotheses could be simultaneously true. The pandemic breeds fear. Fear increases the search for simple solutions and authoritarian leaders. Such simple solutions can be taken from the wealth of far-right ideas that are tolerated within Romanian public debate. 

Fear for one’s own health can lead and, in fact, seems to have led, to COVID-denialism as a strategy for mental welfare.

So, a party makes its appearance, bringing together existing groups, but now in better organised form, promising both salvation from exploitation from the outsiders / nefarious elites and a life without masks. Given the high degree of dissatisfaction and low turnout, it more than doubles the share of far-right votes expressed and enters Parliament.

Further analysis will tell us what combination of factors was actually involved. But it is worth noting that some of these factors allow for future growth. COVID cases may still rise after the holidays and a vaccine for the general population will likely not be available until spring at the earliest. The far-right is prone to factionalisation but, once in Parliament, may acquire a taste for unity. More local groups with their own identities could theoretically join. 

It now comes down to the mainstream parties and civil society to not only make a brute cordon sanitaire but also to address legitimate grievances and be seen to care about the will of the electorate; to keep at bay ideas and leaders, but win back the populace. AUR might make us the favour and implode on its own, but we should not count on it. For now, they plan on making a Thank You tour to 43 different places (cities and counties) across the country in their brightly coloured bus (again, not something other parties have done!).


[1] Official data for county council vote. Does not include Bucharest.

[2] Local intellectuals dispute this, saying that opinion polls show less anti-Hungarian feeling in Transylvania than elsewhere in the country. However, at least two nationalist parties – ther National Unity Party of the Romanians and Greater Romania Party – drew votes from there. Also, Cluj, the historic regional capital is home to more insidious nationalists as Ioan Aurel Pop, current president of the Romanian Academy.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/bogdan.t.enache/posts/2787979928111195

Moldova: the first ‘pas’ forward

The acronym for the group led by Maia Sandu – PAS – has a symbolic meaning in the context of the latest elections. This word means ‘step’ in Romanian, and indeed Sandu’s victory, although it was ground-breaking for all the reasons mentioned below, is only the first step on the way towards possible serious changes to the political and social situation in Moldova. On 15 November, Maia Sandu, the former prime minister of Moldova and the leader of the pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the second round of the presidential elections in Moldova with 57.75%. At the same time her rival Igor Dodon, the outgoing president and the informal leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) won 42.25% of the vote. 

New elites and kingmakers from abroad

November’s elections were ground-breaking in many respects. Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups. Dodon, for example, is perceived by many as a corrupt representative of the oligarchic elites and the defender of the ‘old order’, in which the state serves primarily as an instrument for the enrichment of a specific group of people. On the other hand, the first three presidents of the republic between 1990 to 2009 had previously held high positions in the Communist Party of Moldova, the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Also for the first time, the Moldovan people, who are quite conservative and have a traditional view of social roles, decided to entrust not simply a woman, but an unmarried and childless one, with the position of head of state. The gender issue, and especially Sandu’s matrimonial status, has been exploited many times in recent years by her political opponents. The absence of spouse or children allowed her political opponents to spread groundless rumours about her sexual orientation. 

Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups.

Another novelty is the role played by the diaspora. Moldovan emigrants, estimated at up to one million in number, have always shown interest in the elections held in their homeland, but the scale of their participation has never been as massive as it was in November 2020. In the second round of elections, over 260,000 votes were cast in polling stations abroad. This is twice as much as in the first round, and four times more than in the first round of the 2016 elections. Foreign votes accounted for up to 15 percent of all ballots cast. A quarter of the vote for Maia Sandu came from abroad. There is no doubt that one of the important factors that led to such a large mobilisation of the diaspora in the second round was the critical, if not mocking, comment made by President Igor Dodon after the results from the first round were released; he called the Moldovan emigrants a “parallel electorate”, and suggested that they do not fully understand the situation in the country. It is worth noting that this large-scale mobilisation for Sandu almost exclusively applied to Moldovan emigrants living in the West, i.e. the EU, Great Britain and the USA. These countries accounted for over 90% of all the votes cast outside the republic. 

Meanwhile, the Moldovan émigrés in Russia – although estimated at up to half a million – remained very passive. In the second round of elections, fewer than 14,000 of this group went to the polls; their votes accounted for only 5% of all those cast by the diaspora. Moreover, the myth that Moldovans living in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inclined to almost unanimously support pro-Russian candidates was also broken. Although Igor Dodon won in Russia with a total of 75% of the votes, the 25% Sandu won there should be considered a huge success and proof that the views of the local electorate are evolving.

The fragmentation of the left and corruption fatigue

The final result of the elections was an obvious surprise for Dodon. Even though the incumbent president had realised he could lose the race, he did not expect his rival to obtain such a crushing advantage over him. One of the key reasons for the outgoing president’s failure is the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against him. The de facto leader of the PSRM is seen by many as an associate and informal political ally of Vlad Plahotniuc, an ex-oligarch who lost power in June 2019 and fled the country. Plahotniuc is suspected to have been involved in numerous frauds (including the embezzlement of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014), and he is the virtual embodiment of corruption in the eyes of the Moldovan public. Sandu took advantage of Dodon’s negative image and focused her campaign not on the usual geopolitical issues that divide the nation (the choice between East or West), but on the corruption fatigue that unites people beyond their political differences. 

Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic.

This was one key to her success, but there were other issues that undermined Dodon’s position. One of the most important was the return of Renato Usatîi, the populist, pro-Russian leader of ‘Our Party’, onto the Moldovan political scene. Six years ago, this politician was the socialists’ main rival on the Moldovan left. In 2014, just a few days before voting, a court (presumably influenced by Plahotniuc) banned Usatîi’s party from participating in the parliamentary elections, which enabled the socialists to achieve a spectacular success. Soon after, Usatîi left Moldova and moved to Russia. He only came back to his homeland in the second half of 2019, after Plahotniuc had fled the country. His return initiated the fragmentation of the Moldovan political left. The leader of ‘Our Party’, who has been highly critical of Dodon’s presidency, managed to rebuild his support in just over a year and win up to 17% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This allowed Sandu to enter the second round in first place, which demobilised the socialist voters. Moreover, Usatîi asked his electorate to vote ‘against Dodon’ in the runoff elections. As a result, many of his supporters decided not to vote in the second round, or to cast their vote for Sandu, which – in both cases – contributed to victory for the leader of PAS.

What can a president do?

The limited prerogatives that the Moldovan constitution gives to the president will not allow Sandu to implement real structural reforms. However, this does not mean that her victory has no political significance. From her new post Sandu will be able to observe more closely what is happening behind the scenes and monitor the government’s actions. She will also gain access to materials prepared by the intelligence services. The office of the presidency will also provide her with greater recognition and access to the media. This in turn will boost the image of the opposition. She will also be able to influence the country’s foreign policy, which would be particularly important, as in the months to come Sandu will surely focus on diplomatic activities and try to improve Moldova’s relations with its Western partners from the EU, as well as its immediate neighbours Romania and Ukraine. 

There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run.

Apart from corruption, Sandu laid the emphasis in her campaign on social issues and improving the citizens’ standard of living. Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic. Not only will this have a positive effect on the image of Sandu and the opposition (as the electorate will see it as a direct benefit of her victory), but it will also improve the perception of Romania in Moldova, which was damaged by the fact that in recent years Bucharest unofficially but clearly supported Plahotniuc. There is also no doubt that support from the EU (which will help improve the quality of life of the country’s inhabitants) will be of great importance in building confidence in the pro-Western opposition. Relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate, despite the new president’s desire to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Sandu will find it hard to avoid difficult topics such as the issue of Russian troops in Transnistria or the status of this region, as shown also by her recent media statements, which have elicited negative reactions from Moscow.

On the home front

PAS, strengthened by Sandu’s victory, will call for parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible. To start real reforms and deliver on Sandu’s election promises, the pro-European opposition needs not only the president, but also a parliamentary majority. This will not be an easy task, although the situation in the Moldovan parliament seems to be favourable. The Chicu government does not currently have a majority in the chamber. After Dodon’s dramatic failure, his party is no longer interested in early parliamentary elections, although the incumbent president had supported them just a few months ago. The socialists are not only afraid of the pro-Western electorate motivated by Sandu’s victory; more importantly, they realise that in the next elections they will undoubtedly face ‘Our Party’, which – judging by Usatîi’s result – may take away a lot of votes from PSRM. It is therefore clear that in this situation the socialists will attempt to rebuild their majority and maintain the current composition of parliament, at all costs and for as long as possible. Even though this will be difficult, there has been speculation about alleged agreements between the socialists and representatives of the Şor Party, together with a group of deputies affiliated to Plahotniuc. The true position of the ‘DA’ Platform Party led by Andrei Năstase is also uncertain. This grouping, although nominally pro-Western, has found itself increasingly at odds with PAS. Moreover, given the low support for ‘DA’, early elections could pose a threat to this party’s presence in the parliament. All these factors may foster the establishment of cooperation between ‘DA’ and the Socialists. There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run. This controversial politician, who has strong but very obscure ties to Russia, will probably try to position himself as Sandu’s ally in the fight against corruption and the oligarchy, although in geopolitical terms he is an opponent of PAS. As a result, his actions may compromise the opposition’s pro-reformist efforts. Establishing any cooperation with him or his associates should therefore be undertaken very carefully, if at all. Otherwise, PAS risks a repeat of the scenario from the end of the second half of 2019, when it was pushed out of power after just five months due to an agreement between the Socialists and the Democratic Party, which was previously led and sponsored by Plahotniuc.