George Scutaru: Bulgaria’s ambiguity does not prevent Romania from finding more points of collaboration

Interview with Romanian international relations and security expert on current developments in the Black Sea area after the start of the war in Ukraine

The Bridge of Friendship, 17 December 2022

George Scutaru is one of the founders and CEO of the New Strategy Center, a leading Romanian think tank dealing with international relations and security. He started his professional career in journalism, as a news agency editor, then as a press correspondent in Moscow, before becoming general director of a media monitoring and consulting agency. From 2004 to 2014 he was a member of the Romanian National Audiovisual Council. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in Parliament. During this period he successively held the positions of Secretary (2004-2008) and Vice-Chair (2008-2014) of the Committee on Defence and National Security. From 2014 to 2015 he was National Security Advisor to the President of Romania. 

George Scutaru graduated from the Faculty of History at the University of Bucharest and holds a master’s degree in international relations. He is also a graduate of the National Defence College and the National Intelligence College, and has attended courses and training programmes at the NATO College in Rome, the NATO College in Rome, the G.C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies and the US State Department.

George Scutaru (source: YouTube)

First of all, Mr Scutaru, how does Romania understand the dangers in the Black Sea region and the Western Balkans? How does the war in Ukraine change this understanding of dangers and risks?

The war in Ukraine has not changed our perceptions of danger. What it has done is only reinforce them. Romania has been one of the countries that has very often drawn attention in recent years and on all occasions and in all formats, whether at NATO or EU level, to the militarisation of the Black Sea region, to the danger that may come from the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, neither Romania nor the voices of other countries, especially in the Baltic area, have been heard very often. Unfortunately, and I take this statement at face value, at the level of the Black Sea region, let us say that Romania has been the only country that has constantly drawn attention to the danger of militarisation from the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, we have not had a similar attitude from either Bulgaria or Turkey. For various reasons that can be discussed, which are different for Bulgaria and Turkey, but there was obviously a different approach from these two countries towards Russia.

Romania has often made an effort to put some regional issues on the European and Western stage. Isn’t it also an opportunity that the Black Sea is now at the centre of NATO and Western attention?

Indeed, it is an opportunity, because now everyone is paying more attention to what is happening in the Black Sea area. And the Black Sea is in the spotlight. What is desirable is that the attention to the Black Sea will continue after this war is over, so in the much longer term. That is why an initiative such as that of US Senators Shaheen and Romney, who are proposing a law dedicated to security in the Black Sea region, is very welcome, because it would mean for the first time a predictable and long-term policy of the United States towards the Black Sea.

Other countries are starting to have such strategic documents. France, for example. NATO’s Strategic Concept also mentions the Black Sea as an important area of interest. I hope that in the future other important countries, such as Germany or the UK, will also pay more attention to the Black Sea and the Balkans region. In my view, the Black Sea could greatly influence security issues in the Balkans region and vice versa.

The Black Sea has the potential to influence what happens in the Middle East, in the Balkans. It is a strategically important bridge between Europe and Central Asia, and it has been obvious that Russia has used the Black Sea not only to project its strength into our region, but also to use the Black Sea as a platform for its strategic interests towards the Middle East and North Africa region. The entire Russian military presence in Syria benefits from the logistics of the Black Sea Fleet. Likewise, all Russian involvement in Libya or other African states also benefited from the support of Black Sea Fleet ships, which became a springboard for promoting Russian interests.

To what extent do you think it is possible that the United States will turn its attention more to East Asia, leaving relations with Russia to Western Europe, which has traditional economic interests in Russia, even if this war has hit them? Is this a possibility or a danger in your perception?

First of all, the United States does not hide the fact that for them the main competitor and source of concern is not Russia. Russia is a country that does not have the long-term capacity to sustain a crisis. Russia’s GDP is below Germany’s GDP. Russia is not an economic force. It is a force in terms of nuclear weapons, but we see very well that in terms of classical military capability, we see how difficult it is for them, how difficult they behave in a classical war. Ukraine is getting a lot of help from the West. Russia is not a medium and long-term competitor for the United States. From this point of view, however, I believe that the United States will be interested in preventing an alliance between Russia and China. That is why, in the medium term, we cannot see a total withdrawal of the United States from European affairs as possible. I don’t think there will be an isolation as there was after the First World War. Does that mean we will see a total withdrawal? It’s true, never say never.

A president like Trump, should such a person return to the White House, is likely to continue such policies of isolation, but I doubt that the United States will isolate itself totally from Europe. And what you said about dependence, I don’t think that for Western Europe decoupling from the Russian energy source will be an easy business, for obvious reasons. And I don’t think that, ready, if we have a truce, a diplomatic formula, suddenly milk and honey will flow and relations between the Western states and Russia will be the same as they were before the war started on 24 February.

There are some serious things that have happened that will have an impact on relations between Berlin and Moscow, between Paris and Moscow and between Rome and Moscow, if we are talking about three of the capitals that had, shall we say, relatively cordial economic relations with Russia. In the case of two of them, by which I mean Germany and Italy, there was also a substantial dependence on Russian energy resources.

This war also strengthened some alignments in the region, such as between Poland and Ukraine and Russia and Turkey. How are these alignments perceived in Romania? Are they a good thing or a danger or how should they be addressed? Should we react to their emergence?

Why should rapprochement between Ukraine and Poland be a danger? I don’t think Poland perceives Bulgaria as dangerous or Bulgaria perceives the rapprochement between Romania and Moldova as dangerous, keeping the proportions between Ukraine and Moldova. Poland plays an important role in what is central and eastern Europe and has the opportunity to do so. We cannot say that this can be perceived as a kind of threat or in a negative way in Romania.

And similarly, the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is not a surprise. Moscow and Ankara did not come closer on 24 February or after that date, but had a policy of rapprochement beforehand. My opinion is that Turkey will be a winner in both situations. If Russia wins, then Turkey will have the upper hand over Putin precisely because of the good official contacts, because of the negotiating channels, because of the support it has given to Russia, because Ankara is not marching on this economic embargo against Russia. If Russia is defeated and loses this war, it will also be to Turkey’s advantage, because Turkey will have a free hand in Libya, as Russia does not have the resources to get involved in various African states or to get involved in Syria.

There will even be big question marks over whether Russia’s influence will be the same in the Caucasus or Central Asia, including in the area of Turkic-speaking republics, where Ankara has been very active lately. Either way, it’s a win-win for Turkey. In both situations, whoever wins the war, Turkey wins in good measure. It is no surprise that Turkey has this special policy towards Moscow.

Okay, but this Turkish rise is taking place in the context of strategic ambiguity, which for a NATO member state is not something that happens often. What challenges does this strategic ambiguity of Turkey bring to our countries?

I believe that Bulgaria also has a strategic ambiguity, which it has shown towards Russia at some point, and Bulgaria, through its policy towards Russia, has not encouraged initiatives that could have given NATO a larger footprint in the region. So it is not only Turkey that has had such an attitude, this is a peculiarity of the Black Sea region, I mean a lack of cohesion between NATO states, which is evident, if we make an honest analysis, in the way the three countries, for many years, have often seen this danger from Russia very differently. One was the perception of Romania, another, in a different way, of Bulgaria or Turkey.

Well. When a strong country like Turkey has an ambiguous policy, does that mean that our region will become even more ambiguous? Or, on the contrary, do you expect us to somehow fortify ourselves against ambiguity?

Romania does not feel threatened by Turkey. I don’t know what the perception is if you in Bulgaria feel threatened by Turkey? You see, this ambiguity, as you define it? Which does not seem to me. As you define it, it sounds like a threat to Bulgaria’s security interests.

Romania also has a partnership, a trilateral Poland-Romania-Turkey cooperation format. We have this trilateral cooperation and a consultation format, we have a normal bilateral relationship with Turkey. It is true to say that Turkey’s relations with Russia are ambiguous. I would say that we would have liked, perhaps, Turkey to have been much more engaged in terms of NATO’s involvement in the Black Sea issues and the way NATO was trying to apply its deterrence policy here. On the other hand, we understand that Turkey is a regional player. It has certain dynamics and certain ambitions. But, I repeat, bilaterally, we do not see or feel Turkey as a threat to Romania’s security interests.

Well, we see in Bulgarian-Romanian relations a thaw on several fronts after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. From Romania’s perspective, what is preventing a deeper development of these relations in the various economic, infrastructure and political areas and so on?

Nothing prevents them. For a start, I think we should have a government in Sofia, a leadership with a very clear, committed line on foreign and security policy. Let’s have a very clear formula that is politically viable. Unfortunately, I can say that there has been political instability in Bulgaria recently and it is precisely because of this political instability that bilateral relations have perhaps not been so dynamic. It is a reality for which Bulgaria is not to blame, that such political instability has also occurred in other countries. In a democratic process, these things can happen, but the fact that there have been so many elections, so many governments have changed, well, this has prevented Bulgaria from having a policy that is, let us say, predictable and coherent in the long term.

If this Bulgarian ambiguity persists, what will it mean from Romania’s perspective for our region? How do you assess this Bulgarian tendency?

Romania can find sufficient points of cooperation with Bulgaria. There is no competition between Romanians and Bulgarians. Why compete? On the contrary, there can be many common issues. One of them would be energy, and Bulgaria is much more energy dependent on Russia than Romania is. And even if now, since the Russians have cut off Bulgaria’s gas under the pretext of non-payment in rubles and are trying to find alternative solutions, there is still a problem with Bulgarian industry. We have resources that we hope can be used by 2027 in Romania and neighbouring countries. One of the countries that could benefit from Romanian Black Sea gas is Bulgaria. You also have your own resources. There is a perimeter called Asparuh Khan, which has, according to certain forecasts, significant quantities of gas. This Asparuh Khan perimeter, if I remember correctly, is managed by a consortium between a French company and, more recently, OMV Petrom, which has taken a significant stake in this consortium. Basically, it is a Romanian company that will be involved in the exploitation of Bulgarian gas in the Black Sea, just as it will be involved from 2027 in the exploitation of Romanian gas in the Neptun perimeter, neighbouring Asparuh Khan, neighbouring Bulgaria. In this way, as Romania’s exclusive economic zone is neighbouring Bulgaria’s exclusive economic zone, it is very possible that this experience will be used by the Bulgarians as well. It will be a common reason for the Romanian and Bulgarian navies to cooperate for the joint protection of the exclusive economic zone. It is also a possible subject of cooperation with Turkey, because they too have important natural gas discoveries in the Sakarya perimeter, which is next to you and next to us, which is also close to the Asparuh Khan perimeter in Bulgaria and the Neptun Deep perimeter in Romania. So the three fleets can further enhance cooperation on what is meant by the protection of the exclusive economic zone. I think we can find enough points of cooperation. The Danube, which is an important means of communication with the centre of Europe for both countries, can be another point of cooperation. We can work together on dredging the Danube, especially as we are facing in the summer a drop in the flow of water which is causing problems for navigation on the Danube. Both countries need more connectivity with the West and the Danube plays a vital role. . Talking about the number of bridges between us and the ability to communicate better. That’s what interests me. Bulgaria is also important for Romania in terms of military mobility, for example, not just politically, economically. If we were to receive aid from Greece it would pass through Bulgaria, just as other troops would pass, let’s say, from Hungary to Romania. We are aware of the importance of Bulgaria for Romania, regardless of the governments that have come and gone, be it liberal, social democratic, left-wing or right-wing. We have not seen a change in Bucharest, an unfavourable attitude or a lack of openness in its attitude towards the Bulgarians.

Let’s conclude with the European Union of which both countries are part. At European level, there have been discussions for a long time about some reforms and some steps are being taken or attempted. For example, Germany has said that it wants to abolish the veto for member countries in order to move the European Union perhaps towards greater centralisation or federalisation. On the other hand, France wants the so-called strategic autonomy of the European Union, such as a European army. How do Romanian interests fit into these initiatives or to what extent do they fit into these initiatives?

These are different issues. This voting and decision-making can be justified, as well as strategic autonomy, which I think is now seen in a completely different light after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I will refer to strategic autonomy, to the security aspects, closer to my professional profile. In Romania, I have never seen strategic autonomy as being seen as something in competition with NATO or the involvement of the United States for Romania’s security.

We have three major pillars: membership of NATO, the European Union and the strategic partnership with the United States, which is very important for our security. However, we see how recently, after Russia attacked Ukraine, other European countries have also agreed to become more involved in this area, in the south-east of the NATO flank. We have this battle group assumed by France. There is also involvement from the Netherlands, from Belgium, who have sent soldiers here. There are Bulgarian soldiers in the Multinational Division in Romania. We are seeing a better understanding from some Western European countries of the security challenges here. Coming back to the question of strategic autonomy, this will be a question of resources, first and foremost. There is no point in putting concepts on paper if you don’t have the resources to bring them to life. After the end of the war, we will have to continue to work on the European Defence Fund projects, investment in common capabilities, investment in what is meant by defence industry research and development. It is understood that we have supported these things. I repeat, this is not a competitive thing with NATO. That would be a waste of resources. It will be very interesting to see the concept evolve over time.

Here I can say that it will be interesting to see how the strategic autonomy project will evolve, given that in 10 years’ time we will have a very strong German army. Germany will invest a hundred billion in defence. Germany will not just be an economic powerhouse, as it was before, when things were clearly divided between the French and the Germans. France was covering the strategic issue, Germany was covering the economic issues. But this time Germany has taken on the role of being an important player and voice in the security field. And in the coming years Germany will be very ambitious in modernising its armed forces. It will be very interesting to see what Germany’s views will then be on Europe’s strategic autonomy, especially since then, say in 10 years’ time, I think it will have the strongest army at that point. How will it think about security issues at that time? This is a question to which it will be interesting to see how Germany’s answer evolves over time.

Photo: Bulgarian President Rumen Radev is accused by some of geopolitical ambiguity in Bulgarian foreign policy, while others see him as a bearer of authentic, Bulgarian subjectivity in international relations. In the photo he is meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest, March 2022 (source: YouTube)

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