War against Ukraine: Why is Romania’s Ministry of Defence having to reassure its citizens over Russian attacks?

Romania’s Danube Delta is a route to get Ukrainian grain out

When Russia launched a drone attack on two Ukrainian port cities in the Danube Delta on Tuesday night, it was filmed by a group of Romanian sailors who were positioned just a few hundred metres away.

The explosions are clearly visible on the footage, from the soldiers' locations in waters controlled by the NATO-member country. The blasts could be heard in the Romanian city of Galati, around 40 miles away from the targeted ports of Ismail and Reni.

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Just a day earlier, authorities in the popular seaside resort of Constanța, on the Black Sea, reported an explosion in the water next to the seawall in front of a tourist hotel – believed to be caused by a floating sea mine. The city, which is known for its beach resorts, is packed with holidaymakers at this time of year.

Romania's Danube Delta has become a route for Ukrainian grain exports.Romania's Danube Delta has become a route for Ukrainian grain exports.
Romania's Danube Delta has become a route for Ukrainian grain exports.

Hours after the drone attack, the Romanian defence ministry took the unusual step of issuing a press release to reassure its citizens of their safety, as war rages in neighbouring Ukraine. The incident had unsettled locals, already rattled by 18 months of conflict. However, some say they have slowly become accustomed to the war.

"At the beginning, we were a bit worried, but now we feel safe, even if the war is nearby,” says one man, who runs a restaurant in the Romanian port town of Sulina, close to the border with Ukraine and at the mouth of a branch of the Danube Delta. The port has become a key stopping point for vessels trying to ship grain from Ukraine.

The main said: "The Danube Delta is full of tourists now, so [it shows] even the tourists are feeling safe.”

Romania, which is in the European Union and a member of NATO, is one of the countries closest to the conflict, in more ways than one.

It shares a border with Ukraine, while the Danube Delta, Europe’s second largest river delta, runs between both countries. Romania has recently stepped in to help transport Ukrainian grain through the Delta, after a deal with Russia came to an end last month. The country, which was under Communist rule until 1989, but was never part of the Soviet Union, also has close ties with former Soviet state Moldova, with which it essentially shares a language.

Moldova, which also has a border with Ukraine, has long been feared to be next in Russia’s sights, partly due to a pro-Russian breakaway republic within its borders Transnistria.

A statement issued by the Romanian Ministry of Defence said: “Regarding the drone attacks, carried out last night, against the infrastructure of the Danube ports of Ismail and Reni, located near the borders of Romania, the structures of the Ministry of National Defence that ensure the monitoring of the airspace have not identified threats of a military nature to the national territory or the territorial waters of Romania.”

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In Constanta, the Romanian Navy sent a minesweeper into the area, along with specialist divers, to deal with the exploded mine and a second believed to be floating in the same area.

Dr Benjamin Martill, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, has warned more attacks are likely to occur in what he calls the “grey zone”, close to Ukraine’s borders.

"Broadly speaking, we can probably expect more events to occur in this grey zone, both between formal and informal attacks and in areas that are too close for comfort to the NATO/EU 'border',” he said. “We already saw similar with the mooted attacks on Poland, which turned out to be Ukrainian 'friendly fire'.”

Dr Martill said the Romanian response to this week’s drone attacks exposed the thought process of a country focused on calming fear within its own borders.

“The messaging is a proportionate response given the proximity of the attacks,” he said. “Usually one would find government statements to be a tad more superfluous about the extent of threat, because it suits them politically, so this speaks to the Romanian government being genuinely concerned and thinking more about the domestic than the international audience here.”

Odesa, Ukraine's biggest port, shipped millions of tonnes of grain from its docks under a deal brokered by the US and Turkey last year. However, that arrangement, which allowed cargo ships to sail along a corridor in the Black Sea, came to an end in July when Russia withdrew. Russia has since attacked targets linked to grain infrastructure.

An alternative route, through the Sulina Channel — a 40-mile stretch of water leading from the Black Sea to Romanian, Ukrainian and Moldovan ports in the Delta – has been started. Romania’s defence ministry said Constanta has become “the main alternative grain route” since Moscow’s withdrawal.

It added that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities – often known as NATO’s “eyes in the sky” – are now “deployed on a 24/7 basis over Romania and its territorial waters in the Black Sea”.

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However, Dr Martill said any escalation of Russia's activities beyond “this very well-established boundary” of Romania's borders would represent a “staggering escalation of the conflict”.

“It is certainly the case that Romania is among those states most worried about the effects of Russian aggression in the region and for its close neighbours,” he said. “Romania is closest politically and geographically to Moldova, another potential flashpoint where we know the Kremlin has designs, and Romania is most exposed to refugee flows should Russia shift its sights towards Moldova and Transnistria.

“I think what matters most though is that both sides have an incentive to avoid escalation, so in each case you will see a very careful appraisal of the facts, especially within Western Europe, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

“And equally at least some restraint on [Vladimir] Putin's side, because it is both bad strategy and bad PR to provoke NATO into offering any more support to Ukraine.”

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