Iulian Mareș, Contributors.ro, 28 November 2022
The Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine caused a global grain crisis, with the blockade imposed by the Russian navy resulting in the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Mykolaiv, Chernomorsk, Pivdenniy and Ochakiv no longer being able to transport cargo by sea. However, the exit of grain – wheat, sunflower, maize – from Ukraine was imperative for commercial, food security and humanitarian reasons, as many countries in the world are dependent on annual agricultural production in Ukraine.
The spectre of a food crisis was acute for traditional consumers of Ukrainian grain, countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Israel, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, but at the same time the European market for derived products reacted immediately – for example, for the large quantities of sunflower oil demanded by the food and gastronomy industry in Italy, the raw material, Ukrainian sunflower seeds, was suddenly in short supply.
In the situation created by the Russian blackmail, three initiatives came to facilitate the unblocking of Ukrainian grain exports, both the remaining ones from 2021 – a production of 86 million tons, and those expected for 2022 – an estimated production of almost 56 million tons.
One came from Romania and consisted of a series of investments made at an accelerated pace, starting in February 2022, to modernise and expand road, rail and port infrastructure with connections to Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, through which Ukrainian grain exports could be taken over in large volumes. Thus, President Klaus Iohannis had the opportunity to declare at the UN General Assembly in September that Romania has facilitated the transport of 60% of Ukraine’s grain exports in 2022, thus a (alleged) majority achieved in particular through the port of Constanta and on the Danube, through Romanian-Moldo-Ukrainian tripartite cooperation, respectively on the Sulina canal and the port of Galati, as well as through the port of Giurgiulesti and Ismail.
The second came from Turkey, through the mediation of the Istanbul Agreement, which allowed the establishment of a food corridor temporarily accepted by the Russian Federation and Ukraine, through which the export of grain by sea was resumed, with convoys of civilian ships accompanied by the powerful Turkish navy. The first ship left in August 2022 from the port of Odessa, but the crucial role of Turkey’s military force at sea was seen later, in October 2022, when Russia threatened to leave the agreement in response to Ukrainian attacks on Russian naval vessels. Through the voice of Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Turkey guaranteed the safety of Ukrainian convoys with its navy, which rendered the Russian threat meaningless.
The third initiative came from Poland, similarly to Romania, facilitating the transport of grain from Ukraine by road and rail, but facing the same problems: blockages when trucks pass through customs and the difference in gauge between Polish and Ukrainian railways. 9] Adding related implications, such as relatively long road transport distances and the reluctance of insurers to allow trucks to transit through conflict zones, all of this created the additional problem of excessive costs throughout the supply chain, especially compared to the pre-war sea route, when 90% of the country’s agricultural production was exported through Ukrainian ports.
In the short term, the three initiatives were congruent, the imperative of the moment being to save tens of millions of tonnes of grain stored in Ukrainian silos since last year or harvested this year, and deliver it to recipients in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. But what happens after the war? In the long term, the transport routes created in the current context may prove competitive, especially as the best option for exporting Ukraine’s agricultural production remains by sea, via Ukrainian ports. It is all the more important to anticipate the following question: what use will Romania and Poland’s investments in the transport infrastructure serving relations with Ukraine be tomorrow, with national or European funds?
Clearly, the development of road, rail and port transport infrastructure on eastern routes serves the strategic interests of the European Union, and for Romania the Ukrainian grain crisis was an unexpected opportunity, with European funds suddenly available at an unprecedented level and in an amount far greater than any previous national allocation. Despite this evidence, Bucharest lacks a political projection of the economic relationship with Ukraine for the post-war period, when a challenge will be self-evident: what will we do then with the infrastructure elements added now, in the context of the grain crisis?
Fortunately, in the case of Romania there is an answer, and it cannot remain the only one: the Republic of Moldova. Ukraine borders Romania on our northern and eastern border, interrupted on the map by the Republic of Moldova along 684 km of the common Romanian-Moldovan border. By comparison, the Moldovan-Ukrainian border is 1222 km, almost double that. Ukraine practically hugs the Republic of Moldova on its border with Romania along the Prut between Darabani and Sulina on the Romanian side.
This geographical reality is overlaid with the foreign policy and economic policy vision that Romania is projecting for its eastern neighbourhood, where the obvious priority has been, is and will be the Republic of Moldova, for many reasons, but there is a risk of “not seeing the wood for the trees” on several levels. Beyond the Republic of Moldova, there is Ukraine, without which the complicated situation of Transnistria will not be improved, and further south on the map, there are states such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, which are closely watching what Romania is doing in the eastern directions.
To put it succinctly, Ukraine is about 20 times bigger than Moldova in terms of population, population or GDP. However, Romania’s trade with the Republic of Moldova is larger in volume than that with Ukraine and has shown very different dynamics over the last 10 years.
At the end of 2021, the Romanian-Moldovan trade figure was USD 2.4 billion and the Romanian-Ukrainian trade figure was USD 2.3 billion, with the mention that both were peak values, if analysed in comparison with the previous year and especially in relation to the evolution of the last decade. Thus, in 2020 the same trade of Romania was at the level of 1.9 billion USD with the Republic of Moldova, starting from 0.6 billion USD in 2010, and with Ukraine was at 1.3 billion USD, starting from 1.4 billion USD in 2010. In summary, Romania has had a steady growth in trade relations with the Republic of Moldova for a decade, while in the same period of time there were large variations and a clearly inconsistent evolution in trade relations with Ukraine.
Certainly, this positive and constant evolution in the relationship with the Republic of Moldova is the fruit of the political commitment and strategic priority assumed by Bucharest for Chisinau, but at least now, in the new context generated by the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine, it would be appropriate to note the difference in proportions between the two countries with which Romania borders (a difference in approach can also be seen in the details: in November 2022, the Ukrainian Embassy in Romania presents data from 2021 and in Romanian, while the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs presents data from 2020 on Ukraine).
This difference in proportions can also be seen in the arc of the circle formed – from Sighetu Marmației to Sulina and Constanta – by the infrastructure projects through which Romania has set out to radically improve its connection with Ukraine. In September 2022, Secretary of State Ionel Scrioșteanu gave the full picture of these investments in an interview from Paris, in which he said: ‘the intention is to develop all modes of transport very much […] road, rail and especially river […] from all border points with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova’ . In November 2022, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă personally visited the Teplița area, where a new bridge over the Tisa will be built, a strategic project and the first of its kind in the last 30 years, which will also include the establishment of an additional customs point. Also near Sighetu Marmației, the CFR Câmpulung station at the Tisa has been reopened, which will allow the resumption of passenger and freight rail transport between Ukraine and Romania after 15 years.
The particular importance of these projects can be deduced from the 30-year and 15-year timeframes cited in official statements, as well as from the European and international level to which Romania has committed itself. So, these are new elements which are new even in relation to the entire post-communist period of the Romanian state and not because of the potential for economic cooperation which our eastern neighbourhood has, but triggered by the fact that Russia attacked Ukraine militarily. Paradoxically, it took unfortunate circumstances for happy decisions to be taken in Bucharest.
If the motivation for these decisions was circumstantial, then it is legitimate to question their finality: how will the investments made now be used, when the unfortunate circumstances that led to them will become pages from history textbooks? It is clear that these projects are of a strategic nature and, taken together, represent a historic moment, but to which strategy are they subordinate and what is Romania’s projection for economic cooperation with Ukraine after the war? For the time being, this projection does not seem to be, or at least their strategic character is given by European and international involvement in support of Ukraine, not one emanating from Bucharest.
Press releases and official statements coming from the Romanian state indicate only an automatic connection between the agenda on the Republic of Moldova and the agenda on Ukraine, practically a grafting of Bucharest’s top foreign policy priority on the international context generated by the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, still lacking distinct arguments and specific objectives on the relationship with Kiev. This is a very different approach from that of Poland, where a scenario for developing relations with Ukraine existed beforehand, which the Russian invasion only accelerated and adapted.
In addition, the triumphalist nuances with which some Romanian officials at the highest level have presented Romania’s contribution to managing the humanitarian dimension of the situation in Ukraine to national and international public opinion raise a question mark. As far as the transport of Ukrainian grain is concerned, the 60% figure invoked in September by President Klaus Iohannis at the UN General Assembly has proved to be untrue. Three weeks later, this percentage was refuted both by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bogdan Aurescu, who mentioned the transit through Romania of 5.2 million tonnes of grain, and by data recorded by the Council of Europe, which indicated 10 million tonnes of grain as transit facilitated by Turkey.
In November, Bogdan Aurescu compared Romania’s contribution to the transit of Ukrainian grain – 7.1 million tonnes – and Turkey’s contribution, through the Black Sea Grain Initiative – 11.1 million tonnes. In the same statement, the Romanian minister compares the total transit of Ukrainian agricultural products through Romania – 8.4 million tonnes – with their transit through the “solidarity corridors” created by the European Union – 16 million tonnes. No one disputes either the volume or the importance of Romania’s support in this situation. However, the comparisons with Turkey and even with the European Union, as well as the untrue percentage invoked by President Klaus Iohannis, give the impression that the Romanian state sees the situation as a competition between ‘saviours’ and an opportunity to score points for its own image, in the style of Romanian exceptionalism promoted by the communist regime before 1990.
It is obvious that the official agenda of the Cotroceni does not foresee for the remaining two years of the presidential term the exploitation, at a strategic level, of the economic potential of our neighbourhood with Ukraine, despite the favourable context. From this point of view, the example of Poland should be followed and how the actions already taken by Warsaw will bear fruit once the war is over. Because it is also obvious that at some point the conflict provoked by Russia will come to an end.
As far as Romania is concerned, it will be the task of the next president to manage relations with Ukraine in the post-war period and, as before, the Romanian communities on Ukrainian territory will be the object of Bucharest’s priority attention. For 30 years, support for them has constantly focused only on the identity-linguistic dimension, but at a subsistence level and much of the time in a rather hostile context. What is fundamentally different now is the opportunity to put on the agenda of bilateral Romanian-Ukrainian relations a new dimension, the economic one, from which Romanians in Ukraine can gain a real improvement of their situation, because money speaks, even louder than the Romanian language is heard in Chernivtsi, Odessa or above Sighetu Marmatia.
Romanian communities in the neighbouring country need economic investments, not only books, and these investments could be made as extensions of the infrastructure and road, rail and sea connection projects that Romania, Moldova and Ukraine are working on together today. We have a historic moment in the making next to us and there is a big difference in approaching it at the tactical level and approaching it at the strategic level, now and after the war. Whoever becomes Romania’s President from 2024 onwards will have to prepare a strategic vision for our Eastern neighbourhood that is not limited to imagined regional competitions.
Foto: ”There were burns”, Alisa Rujević, Montenegro