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Romania walks tightrope to avoid provoking Russia as drones crash into its soil

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana may downplay the Russian drones dropping into Romania as accidental, but Costel Tanase and other fearful border residents want a more forceful response to what they see as deliberate strikes.
Plauru drone crater Romania
A resident of Plauru shows the crater of a fallen Shahed drone in Romania, suspected of exploding on the ground. Within a 10-meters radius, plants are burnt. (©Theo Prouvost)
Romania walks tightrope to avoid provoking Russia as drones crash into its soil

The Romanian village of Plauru, facing the Ukrainian port of Izmail, has become a direct victim of Russian drone attacks following Russia’s suspension of the grain agreement. Since August, at least three Russian drones have crashed on Romanian territory, an EU and NATO member, causing concern among both authorities and residents. Despite the construction of makeshift anti-air shelters, Romania is attempting to downplay the severity of these incidents, leaving the people of Plauru anxious about their safety.

Only reachable by boat, after a dusty road and checkpoint of the Romanian border police, Plauru (around 20 inhabitants) has now become the epicenter of escalating tensions between NATO and the Russian Federation. Indeed Plauru, lies just 200 meters away from the Ukrainian port of Izmail.

The Russian suspension of the grain agreement in July has increased the harbor’s importance for Ukrainian wheat exports, resulting in frequent drone attacks targeting the grain silos.

Since August, at least three Russian drones have fallen on Romanian soil, a member of the European Union and NATO. While the Romanian army insists it is still investigating, and according to sources and videos collected on the ground, it is almost certain that all three were Shahed launched from occupied Crimea.

Izmail danube
View of the port of Izmail from the Romanian bank of the Danube, with Russia aiming at targets within 200 meters of a NATO border – (©Theo Prouvost)

Russian drone incursions: a growing threat to Romanian civilians

Therefore, preventive measures, anti-aircraft shelters and the fear of an extension of the conflict have turned the civilian populations along the Ukrainian border into direct victims of the war.

As shown by Gheorghe Puflea, a 71-year-old farmer from Plauru, at the beginning of September, the windows of his house were shattered by the shockwave of a drone that crashed onto Romanian soil, making it the first property damaged by Russian weapons on NATO soil.

“The beds were shaking. I could hear the drones humming, and the one that landed in my field was the last one,” he says.

Romania village drone plauru
Gheorghe Puflea doesn’t want to leave the village because of his livestocks. (©Theo Prouvost)

For this farmer, bombing has become part of his daily routine. “Now you can tell that when they stop working in the harbor, you know the drones are coming. And you just sit there, a bit more fearful than before. You get used to it,” he says.

With their 40 kg explosive charges, if a Shahed drone were to fall on his house, made of clay and thatched roofs “there would be nothing left,” tells Mr. Puflea.

In the latest incident on Romanian soil, on the night of 12-13 October, the Romanian Ministry of Defense even considered the possibility of the drone exploding on impact with the ground. In the three previous situations, only the remains of drones shot down in flight by Ukrainian defense forces had reached Romanian territory.

These events are the first cases of Russian weapons striking NATO territory since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. This serie of incidents involving Russian drones on Romanian territory poses a persistent threat to border inhabitants, who are reluctantly learning to adapt to ongoing attacks that extend beyond Ukraine’s borders.

The situation not only endangers the well-being of local communities, but also carries wider geopolitical implications, particularly in the context of NATO Article 5.

Implications of NATO Article 5 for Romania’s security

NATO Article 5, often referred to as the Alliance’s collective defense clause, states that an armed attack against one or more NATO members is considered an attack against all members. This article requires each NATO member to come to the aid of the member under attack, potentially invoking a coordinated and collective military response to the aggressor.

Events along the Romanian border highlight the need for vigilance as the threat of attacks and intrusions continues to loom as they could potentially trigger Article 5.

With these developments, the stakes are particularly high. Any “deliberate” Russian aggression on Romanian territory would not only impact Romania, but could also lead to a broader confrontation within the NATO alliance, further increasing tensions and potentially undermining regional stability. The drones incidents in Romania appears to be glitches to that clause and demonstrates Russia’s desire to test the limits of Western collective security organization.

We now keep our clothes ready every night” – Daniela Tănase, a 46-year-old resident of Plauru.

As a result, the threat level has escalated, and the residents of Plauru are becoming increasingly uneasy. “We now keep our clothes ready every night,” says Daniela Tănase, a 46-year-old resident of Plauru.

In an effort to protect the population and ease tensions, Romanian authorities built two anti-air shelters in the small village at the beginning of September. However, as Costel Tănase, a 51-year-old fisherman and husband of Daniela, points out, “the alert came in after the drones went down.” He believes that the Romanian authorities’ response is far too lax. “What’s the point if I go to the shelter after the drones have already fallen?” he asks, emphasizing the need for a more proactive approach to ensure the safety of the residents.

air raid shelters Romania Plauru
One of the two air-raid shelters in the Plauru commune on Monday, October 16. (©Theo Prouvost)

Mr. Tănase, also raised a question and expressed his frustration regarding the approach of the Romanian Ministry of Defense to those incidents, “The defense minister came here and he was saying that they can’t, that it’s difficult? Why is it difficult? It must mean you’re afraid of the Russians. What the hell is this? We’re in NATO, once it crosses into our land, it should be shot down and we should retaliate,” he says.

The Romanian villager asks for a more resolute stance when it comes to defending his territory. He further criticized the minister’s hesitation, adding, “The minister also said […] they don’t want to complicate the situation. What’s so complicated? It’s on our land, shoot it and goodbye!”

Many border residents demand that in the face of the Russian threat, a more decisive and straightforward response should be taken to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty.

Romania strives to avoid escalation

In theory, a deliberate Russian attack on Romanian territory should trigger a chain of events that would compel the entire Western alliance to retaliate.

There is no indication of any deliberate action to strike Romanian territory, and therefore, NATO territory,” reassured Mircea Geoana, NATO Deputy Secretary General. In fact, ever since the drones crashed on Romanian soil, the country’s authorities have been at pains to play down the seriousness of these incidents, suggesting that they were simply drones that had been disoriented or hit by Ukrainian defenses.

When the first drone fell on Romanian territory, Bucharest initially “strongly contested” the information released by the Ukrainian side, which claimed that an Iranian-made drone had crossed the Danube. However, they were forced to retract their statement after the drone’s wreckage was discovered in Plauru. Romania finds itself in a delicate position when it comes to dealing with Russia, and this stance becomes evident in its treatment of Russian diplomats.

Unlike several other European countries, which have expelled a significantly higher number of Russian diplomats since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in Ukraine up to the present day, Romania has chosen a more cautious stance, expelling only 51 Russian diplomats, unlike neighboring Bulgaria, which has dismissed 83.

Furthermore, Poland stands out, with 74% of its population expressing support for a total cessation of fossil fuel imports from Russia, in stark contrast to 51% in Romania. This balancing policy reflects Romania’s attempt to navigate international relations while avoiding actions that could aggravate tensions or conflicts with Russia.

Danube Izmail port strikes
Result of a strike on the Ukrainian bank of the Danube in the port of Izmail (©Theo Prouvost)

The rise of the ultranationalist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) in Romania is one factor contributing to the differing response. As Romania approaches a series of crucial elections, including presidential, European, local, and legislative, the AUR has capitalized on economic challenges and seized the opportunity to rally voters. This political group advocates for reduced support for Ukraine, which has influenced the public discourse and policy choices.

In addition to political dynamics, a wave of extremists in Romania has harnessed the power of social media to spread fictional narratives and conspiracy theories. This proliferation of disinformation underscores Romania’s central role on the front lines of a hybrid war campaign orchestrated by Russia against the European Union and NATO, further muddling public opinion.

A nuanced public opinion: Western camp divisions in Romania and Poland

Comparing the Romanian reaction to the actions of the Polish authorities, Costel Tănase highlights the contrast: “The Poles bought tanks, guns, and prepared themselves physically and mentally. In our case, the Russians have been bombing for months, and this village has been almost reduced to ashes three times. The authorities kept saying that they are monitoring…” This disparity in preparedness and the repeated damage suffered by the Romanian village underscores divisions within the Western camp, surpassing the conventional “east-west divide.”

Despite their shared borders with Ukraine and strong government support for Kyiv, Poland, and Romania exhibit marked differences in their public opinion towards the conflict.

An ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations) study from May 2022 highlights notable differences in attitudes toward Russia’s war between Poland and Romania, both frontline nations hosting numerous refugees and historically skeptical toward Russia.

While 83% of Poles held Russia accountable for the war, only 58% shared this view in Romania. A crucial distinction also emerged when assessing Russia’s role as the primary impediment to peace, with 74% of Poles perceiving it as such compared to 42% in Romania, according to the ECFR study.

Despite this, a significant number of Romanians believe their country should bolster Ukraine’s defense. According to an October 2022 study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Institute, 40% of Romanians believe the Central European and Baltic States should intensify their military support to Ukraine. These results align with similar sentiments in Lithuania (60%) and Poland (54%).

These nuanced variations in public opinion within the Western camp reveal the multifaceted nature of regional attitudes toward the full-scale invasion, challenging simplistic categorizations. However, as long as these attacks continue to occur in such close proximity to the Romanian borders, there remains a significant risk to the local populations.

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