Locked arms: looming threats to the Romania-NATO partnership

The strategically important relationship between NATO and Romania has historically been positive — but now pressure from a number of factors, including the war in Ukraine, domestic crises, and the rise of a far right, are putting the alliance under increased strain.

Romanian army soldiers at the Romanian National Day military parade. Credit: MoiraM / Alamy Stock Photo.
Romanian army soldiers at the Romanian National Day military parade. Credit: MoiraM / Alamy Stock Photo.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is a central pillar of Romania’s foreign and security policy. The country’s leaders and its citizens are highly supportive of the Alliance and have requested an increase of NATO’s presence on Romanian territory. Nevertheless, internal crises and tensions might jeopardise the long run relationship with NATO. It is therefore important to be aware of the looming threats to be able to counter them and safeguard the future of this relationship.

Romania’s National Defence Strategy aims to consolidate the strategic role of the country within the Alliance, especially in the context of the security threats at the eastern frontier of NATO and the European Union. The strategy is built on the premise that the country’s main guarantors of security are NATO membership and the ‘privileged’ bilateral relationship with the United States. Furthermore, the strategy outlines the importance of the Black Sea region. Romania’s safety is not simply a matter of national security, but also a European and transatlantic issue. Therefore, the strategy outlines plans to increase NATO’s presence in Romania, as well as to ensure defence spending is at least two per cent of Romanian GDP.

The importance of NATO in Romania originates  with the fall of communism and is complemented by the security guarantees offered by the US in 1990. Romania’s first attempt to join NATO in 1993 was firmly opposed by the then-US President Bill Clinton. Paradoxically, tens of thousands of Romanians still gathered in Bucharest’s University Square to welcome Clinton’s visit and celebrate the US-Romania Strategic Partnership. This bilateral relationship increased in importance gradually, and Romania shifted its foreign policy more towards the US following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. In 2014, the US reaffirmed its strong commitment to collective defence and increased military presence in Eastern Europe.

Romania’s major security preoccupation is Russia, and the country’s diplomatic initiatives resulted in the Aegis Ashore system in 2016, in the southern village of Deveselu. This is a NATO land-based missile defence station that hosts radar and SM-3 missile interceptors. There is controversy around this $800 million (£554m) shield, which is perceived by Russia as a threat to its national security.

Subsequent calls for increased NATO presence have also been successful. Following  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the highest readiness element of the NATO Response Force was deployed for the first time to Romania, and its military presence in the region, in the form of four more battlegroups, has also been created. NATO communication stresses that these ‘demonstrate the strength of the transatlantic bond and the Alliance’s solidarity, determination and ability to respond to any aggression’.

Nicolae Ciucă, the prime minister of Romania, is a four-star army general who participated in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He retired from his military career in 2019 to serve as Minister of National Defence. Ciucă praises NATO, and his close connections with the US military are seen as ‘invaluable’ in the current context. President Klaus Iohannis also highlights the importance of having more NATO and US troops on Romanian territory. The leaders’ favourable opinion of NATO is mirrored by citizens. A highly positive attitude towards the Alliance prevails among most of the population. In 2019, 83 per cent  of respondents to a GLOBSEC survey supported NATO membership. A further analysis highlights that trust in NATO peaked at 76 per cent in April 2022. The Russian invasion of Ukraine also led to even more Romanians supporting NATO and stating that the US should send more troops to defend Romania from the war. When asked whether Romania should exit NATO, 86 per cent answered negatively. Nevertheless, one in three people think more troops on Romanian territory are undesirable, as that would upset Russia. This view is related to the Russian discourse around the NATO expansion, which is perceived by Russia as a security threat and an acute geopolitical imbalance.

This favourable attitude towards NATO should not be taken for granted. The same holds for the NATO focus in the context of Romania’s foreign and defence policy and the importance assigned by policymakers to the Alliance. While trust in Russia has fallen, risks related to the lure of populist attitudes, corruption, and fear of abandonment by allies persist.

The emergence of an anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiment in Romania, for example, was illustrated by a far-right party entering parliament in December 2020. The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR), a nationalist party whose acronym means ‘gold’, secured over nine per cent of the votes and became the country’s fourth largest party by the end of 2020, despite only being founded in December 2019. With the centre-right governing coalition collapsing in October 2021, AUR reached the second position in citizens’ voting intentions.

Analysts believe the main purpose of AUR is to remove Romania from NATO and the EU and to support Russia. Officially, AUR identifies as a party that wishes to burn the current political system to the ground and rebuild it, positioning Romania as a leader of Central and Eastern Europe. Its leadership has a radical discourse, an anti-system, anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-Western agenda. There is a historical parallel to be drawn between the present and the interwar political communication styles in Romania. AUR shares multiple similarities with Romania’s fascist twentieth century Legionary Movement. Its popularity was maintained through grassroots mobilisation strategies that focused on activism and voluntarism, criticising, and challenging parliamentary democracy. This is mirrored by the current strategy of AUR: like the Legion’s fascist leaders, such as Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, AUR leaders march in traditional folk costumes, wave Romanian flags, act as victims when they engage in unlawful acts, and aim to create panic by spreading fake news.

Among the population, the intention to vote for AUR predicts trust in Russia. However, the Romanian pro-Russian group is still relatively small, comprised mostly of unemployed youngsters; those without higher education; and Hungarian minority voters. Analysts argue that the minority mirrors the opinions of the Hungarian government. AUR, therefore, appeals to the Hungarian minority for several reasons. For example, the party initiated a law inspired by the Hungarian one aiming to restrict the ‘representation or promotion’ of homosexuality or gender changes. The region where the Hungarian minority resides also displays a lower level of trust in the US compared to the average level in Romania, while trust in Russia is much higher, reaching 22 per cent in 2022. UDMR, the party that represents the minority in the Romanian parliament, does not communicate much regarding the war in Ukraine – there are tensions between Hungary and Ukraine with regards to the Hungarian minority in the Transcarpathian region.

Romania’s domestic issues could also shift the focus of political debate from NATO’s role to internal tensions. Successive political crises marked 2021, caused by governmental misalignments and power struggles. The summer of 2022 found Romania facing extreme heat waves, high inflation, and an energy crisis. The uncertainty and economic vulnerability caused by the pandemic were worsened by the war in Ukraine. Inflation reached 15.5 per cent in February 2023, with the highest increases occurring in food and energy prices. 

Despite having one of the lowest dependencies on Russian gas, Romania wanted the price cap on Russian gas to apply to all EU gas imports. Energy experts argue that Romania’s leaders seem to prefer interventionist policies to free market mechanisms, a legacy of the former planned economy. Additionally, experts believe some governmental structures still display pro-Russian attitudes, camouflaged in nationalism, and currently tempered by global sympathy towards Ukraine.

Corruption impedes economic development in Romania. The allocation of public resources is heavily politicised since well-connected companies stand higher chances of securing funds. In the defence sector, the allocation of non-competitive contracts allows certain firms to secure monopoly power, leading to higher prices, diminished quality of weapons, and thus premature deaths of soldiers lacking appropriate protection. Moreover, while during communism the country was one of the world’s top exporters of arms, the industry is currently struggling. Politicians argue that the solutions are privatisation, increasing investment, and collaborating more at a European level, as well as with the US and Israel. Such measures are not compatible with the pro-Russian AUR that heavily opposes privatisation.

There seems to be a sentiment of confusion among the Romanian population. Many citizens are unaware of whether the US, Russia, or China present a threat to Romania, being unable to distinguish between allies and enemies. A survey revealed that some blame Ukraine, the US, or NATO for the current war. Perhaps this is not surprising, since Romania still lacks a middle class that is well-educated, economically strong, and aware of history. This situation is not novel, and was also exploited during Romania’s Legionary movement, which appealed to an interwar society divided by poverty and stark economic discrepancies. Similarly, the present crises enable AUR to use of conspiracy theories and mobilise support.

 Legionaries aimed to align Romania to Western European Fascism in order to achieve the modernisation and industrialisation of the country. The Legion resembled a cult which had much in common with the Nazi Schutzstaffel, fixated on idea of creating a ‘new Romanian man’. Its members were primarily young, poorly educated and from rural communities facing economic hardships. However, the movement also reached other classes as well, having recruited professors, writers, and priests for instance. The All for the Country (Totul Pentru Țară) party representing the Legion ranked third in the parliamentary elections of 1937.

The post-First World War institutions in Romania had ‘form without substance’,  founded as they were in a mostly rural and illiterate society. This gap was addressed by the Legion for instance through creating voluntary work camps in the context of widespread poverty and unsuccessful integration of newly acquired regions following the war. In a sense, the Legion created a new set of institutions while attacking and attempting to discredit traditional ones.

Violence was a main characteristic of the Legionary Movement, just as the behaviour of the AUR party members is violent. This kind of demeanour seems to be mirrored by their electorate. December 2021 saw AUR supporters forcing their way into the Parliament, while January 2022 had AUR rioters storming the Timișoara city hall to target German mayor Dominic Fritz, chanting ‘Fritz, remember, this is not your city’. The political communication of AUR stresses that ‘foreigners’ should not be allowed to be public servants and that Romania should not be sold. The party also has an antisemitic stance, opposing to include in the school curriculum information about the Holocaust, and calling it a ‘minor theme’.

The current confusion is tied into a fear of abandonment by allies that prevails in Romania. This lack of trust could consequently decrease Romania’s commitment to NATO, since many people are concerned that others would not intervene in the case of a Russian attack on Romania. A 2019 YouGov poll revealed that 39 per cent of German and 33 per cent of French respondents would not support their countries using military force to defend Romania. In this context, Romania lobbies for more training and command structures to become indispensable to NATO and reduce the risk of abandonment.

The legislative elections of 2020 had a voter turnout of 33 per cent, the lowest in Romania’s democratic history. Analysts link this to rampant corruption and political favouritism following the fall of communism, with trust in institutions eroded. Times of turmoil such as now are an opportunity for far-right parties to gain further support. This is important to note, since the next elections are scheduled for 2024. Low participation, confusion and continued decrease of trust in institutions could lead to more gains for the far right and broader geopolitical implications, including diminished NATO commitment and support in the long run.

The current considerable support for the Alliance should not be taken for granted. Domestic crises, international challenges, and the far-right lure might undermine the role of NATO in Romania’s defence strategy as well as its population’s positive view of the Alliance. What is needed is increased trust in the Allies, a more stable political landscape, and increased education that would make Romanians more aware of history, creating a larger middle class and a less divided society.


Mara Balasa