The Black Sea is about to lose its historical exclusivity as a Russian-Turkish preserve. A visit by the USA-TRANSCOM commander General Duncan McNabb to Bucharest has sealed the fate of the Black Sea as the latest entry into the chronicles of the "new great game".
The US had requested to use Romania's two military infrastructures as transit place for the carriage of troops and military hardware to and from Iraq and Afghanistan to Europe. On May 2, Romania's Supreme Council for National Defense (CSAT) approved the use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu Airport and the Port of Constanta for transit. McNabb swiftly descended on Bucharest on Thursday to seal the deal.
The rapid flow of events in US-Romanian strategic ties needs to be carefully noted. The emerging cooperation goes far beyond logistical support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On May 3, Romania also announced that the two countries agreed to deploy American missile interceptors at Deveselu air base in southern Romania as part of US anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense shield.
A pattern is emerging - security of US deployments of components of its missile defense systems in Poland and Romania provide the raison d'etre for US military presence on their territories, over and above what is already available to them from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Thus, on May 3 the United States and Romania also inaugurated the deployment location in an official ceremony attended by State Secretary of Romania's Foreign Ministry Bogdan Aurescu and the visiting US Under-Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher. "This choice contributes to the security of Romania, the US and NATO allies, substantiating the strategic partnership between Romania and the US," Aurescu said, adding that it is a very important contribution to strengthening Romania's profile in world security.
Tauscher said Romania is a close friend and a valued NATO ally and Tuesday's ceremony "marks an extremely important moment for Romania, the United States and NATO". She added, "Romania will play a major role in the new NATO missile defense capability."
Russia promptly took exception to the ABM deployment in Romania. In a May 4 statement, the Foreign Ministry said, "Russia is following the development of the situation most closely, taking into account that, according to our estimates, the planned missile defense system may pose risks for Russian strategic nuclear deterrence forces in the future. In this situation the necessity of legal guarantees from the US that its missile defense system will not be aimed against Russia's strategic nuclear forces becomes even more crucial."
Romania welcomes ABM deployment ...
The Barack Obama administration, however, chose to press ahead with the establishment of US military presence in Romania. The costs for deploying the ABM interceptors at Deveselu is estimated at US$400 million plus $20 million each year for maintenance, which Washington will incur as running costs. Additionally, 200 US troops will be stationed at the Deveselu base and the size might increase up to 500, under "special circumstances".
A Romanian Foreign Ministry statement of May 5 announced that the agreement on the deployment of a US missile defense system in Romania had been finalized. The statement highlighted that rapid progress was possible in negotiating the agreement due to "high political will" on the part of the two countries and their "constructive approach ... motivated by awareness of the importance of this strategic project" for Romania, US and NATO. Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi said "the agreement must be validated by policymakers and we hope to sign it this fall."
The all-round expansion of US-Romanian strategic ties is likely to cast a shadow on Washington's reset with the Kremlin. The Russian strategic community is up in arms. Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former Russian navy chief of staff, estimated that the new US anti-missile defense base in Romania would break the power balance in the Black Sea area and Russia should strengthen the "combat potential" of its Black Sea Fleet.
The ABM deployment in Romania might not pose immediate security threat to Russia. However, Konstantin Sivkov, vice president of Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, might have echoed the widely held belief in Moscow that the Romanian anti-missile base targeted at Moscow is of a piece with the US strategy of putting together a string of military bases surrounding Russia. Moscow wears a look of resignation that something is happening on expected lines. Arguably, it could have a Plan B to reduce the risks to its security.
The expert-level negotiations to reach agreement with the United States or to join the European missile defense system isn't progressing well and if the talks break down on issues over Poland and Romania, the United States-Russia reset would suffer a lethal blow. Moscow has threatened to take counter-measures if the talks fail and is reportedly developing a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile to cope with the future global missile defense system.
... and allows US military bases
Meanwhile, the two US bases in Romania will impact on the geopolitics of the Black Sea region The littoral states - Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine - would see them as a "strategic balancer" to Russia. The US bases in Romania may well induce a paradigm shift in Russian-Turkish cooperation in the Black Sea region. Again, the US is setting up shop right on the path of Russia's burgeoning energy ties with Western Europe and the Balkans.
The "transit hubs" in Romania will stimulate the US efforts to build a transit route to Afghanistan via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, bypassing Russia. Such a route will reduce US dependence on the Northern Distribution Network (which runs through Russian territory). It can also become a new Silk Route connecting Central Asia.
What concerns Moscow most is that the US naval and air presence in the Black Sea region "hems in" the Russian fleet in Sevastpol. With the turmoil in Syria putting question marks on the future of the Russian naval base there, Russia's capacity to influence events in the Middle East is coming under stress. In essence, therefore, what we are witnessing with the "unburdening" of the Iraqi and Afghan wars in sight is the US is returning to global strategies that took a back seat. Russia and China certainly watch the US strategy to dominate the Middle East with disquiet.
Speaking in Almaty last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against a Libyan-like intervention in Syria. He challenged the legitimacy of the contact group set up by Western powers to calibrate the intervention in Libya. Equally, Beijing took strong exception to the taunt by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Beijing was "worried" of a Middle-East type upheaval and is "trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand."
Russia plays Iraqi card
Significantly, Lavrov paid a two-day visit to Baghdad last week. At a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, Lavrov claimed that Russia and Iraq have a "common stand" on the Middle East situation. He elaborated:
It is unacceptable to tackle such disputes by the use of brute force, especially against civilians; it is unacceptable to impose governing or political arrangement recipes on specific countries from outside.
A solution needs to be sought via a responsible dialogue among all political forces in the states by peaceful means and within a legal field through national consensus. Russia has always advocated that the issues facing this region should be tackled by its countries themselves.
Moscow has also challenged US supremacy in Iraqi security by offering Baghdad military cooperation. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that "ways to promote military-technical cooperation" between Russia and Iraq as well as "measures to step up cooperation between the concerned security agencies "including the Interior Ministry" were on Lavrov's agenda.
Russia is virtually reviving the Soviet-era "mutually beneficial partnership" with Iraq across the board, "based on decades-old traditions of friendly communications and close cooperation". This has been the first visit by the Russian foreign minister to Iraq ever since the US invasion in 2003.
The timing is significant. Russia is challenging US plans to prolong its military presence in Iraq beyond end-2011 at a time when the US is setting up bases in the Black Sea region and is covertly destabilizing the regime in Syria (where Russia has a Soviet-era naval base).
Lavrov might have intentionally drawn attention to the nature of his mission to Iraq when he joked at the press conference with Zebari that he hoped the letter he delivered to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from President Dmitry Medvedev wouldn't "find itself at WikiLeaks".
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
The Asia Times