Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Black Sea as a Battleground for Information Warfare: A View from Bucharest
The Black Sea as a Battleground for Information Warfare: A View from Bucharest

The Black Sea as a Battleground for Information Warfare: A View from Bucharest

Map of the Black Sea (Source: NormanEinstein/WikiMedia Commons)

Most countries in Southeastern Europe consider the Black Sea a more reliable ally than one another. This attitude speaks to the failure of many cooperation initiatives in the region. But recently, not even the Black Sea serves as a good neighbor, particularly because it is becoming heavily militarized by Russia. Russia’s militarization of the Black Sea points to two major challenges for Romania in the region: (1) a very assertive Russia—both militarily and informationally—and (2) a lack of regional alignment between littoral states. The latter challenge is made increasingly more complicated by Russia’s use of information warfare tactics and the distribution of narratives that are likely to undermine good neighborly relations.

After the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian Federation became a direct neighbor of Romania, augmenting the Romanians’ perceived security threat. The proximity of Russia’s military arsenal to Romania’s exclusive economic zone and offshore oil and gas fields creates anxiety in Bucharest. Romania aspires to more than just securing the stability and predictability of its own borders and environment. It also aims to become a provider of security and stability and a role-model for democratic development in the Southeast European region. The government aims to pursue “the transformation of its neighborhood in an area of democracy, security and prosperity” although it is still not clear the extent to which Romania is capable of becoming a regional actor on this scale.

In pursuing its goal, Romania has always pushed for further regional cooperation in the broader Black Sea area. But the various formats—some of which include Russia, such as the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)—have not produced concrete initiatives and have not aligned the interests of participating states. Most recently, Romania’s initiative to forge a common Black Sea naval presence by joining forces with Bulgaria and Turkey met opposition in Sofia. The initiative’s failure to strengthen defense cooperation is symptomatic of relationships in the area, further creating an environment of distrust that makes littoral countries less secure.

The current situation in the Black Sea is the consequence of the skillful Russian “divide and conquer” strategy whose aggressive use of hard power intimidates the more risk-averse littoral states. The circulation of narratives concocted by the Russian propaganda machine amplifies insecurity. The aim of this program is to hollow out the old consensus about the Euro-Atlantic alliance as the foundation of regional stability, foster animosity, and expand the rifts between partners in the region. Using information networks and tactics, Russia has established itself as the spoiler power par excellence, thriving on disorder and doubt about old certainties, particularly the credibility and trust in the transformative power of EU and NATO that for years embodied the modernization and progress in the region.

From a Romanian perspective, the threat in the information space has deepened since the Euromaidan in Ukraine. If Romania wants to achieve its goal of becoming a provider of security and promoter of democracy in the region, then it must pay attention to the extent to which its endeavors are weakened by Russian propaganda and disinformation techniques.

A Game of Narratives

Russian military doctrine sees disinformation and propaganda as part of the same toolbox as hard power. The Russian military’s Gerasimov Doctrine highlights the centrality of non-kinetic means of waging war in the 21st century. Eastern Europe has become a testing ground for mind games and the competition over public perceptions and regional constituencies. In the long run, information warfare is likely to alter Black Sea security by affecting business, society, and politics in littoral countries. This strategy will shake stability and weaken neighborly relations in the region. The weaponization of information by Russian authorities has become a very aggressive foreign policy tool in countries like Ukraine and Moldova, but Romania has also been a victim of such tactics.

There are common threads that unite these disinformation techniques. Russia’s main goals are to weaken trust in Euro-Atlantic institutions—both NATO and the EU—and revive or invent historic enmities between neighbors that make collaboration less likely. Because of such efforts, the region and each individual country are weaker and more prone to subversion.

Some of the common tools include:

  • Reinterpreting history to challenge existing borders or framing ethnic relations and minorities in a more confrontational way by emphasizing old communal fears and existential security dilemmas (the ancient hatred narrative);
  • Fear-mongering and spreading of fake news and conspiracy theories, some of which may refer to a Western agenda to turn these countries into “colonies” and use them to extract resources or as pawns in their geopolitical games;
  • Using negative stories from one country to influence perception or emotions in another one;
  • Harnessing the anti-establishment grievances, also by directly supporting political parties; encouraging dissent and euro-skeptic sentiments;
  • Scapegoating the foreigner, the civilizational “other,” especially inside societies that are becoming more polarized on the issue of immigrants and globalization.

Narratives are then spread through various online platforms and social media in a well-constructed disinformation ecosystem that multiplies rapidly and creates the impression of credibility and legitimacy.

When it comes to the Black Sea itself, the Kremlin’s messaging aims to reframe security challenges. In English-language Russian media, for instance, NATO is portrayed as an aggressor, while Russia is merely protecting its interests in the region. At the same time, stories about military capabilities positioned in Crimea are meant to intimidate neighbors, while seemingly dissident positions within NATO (such as recent statements by Bulgarian and Hungarian officials) are given positive coverage. These tactics sow doubt about the intentions of the Western alliance, which according to pro-Russian media are to create a new Cold War, but also question sovereignty and self-esteem of the countries in the region. For Romania in particular, this narrative creates the challenge of being singled out and portrayed as a puppet of the West.

How does Russian Propaganda affect Romania and Broader Black Sea Security?

Regional security is a function of trust as much as capabilities. A fragmented region with neighbors that distrust each other is less likely to project strength and resist outside threats. The information space is a rich environment to sow mistrust, suspicion, and tension. From a Romanian foreign policy perspective, Russian influence and subversion in the information sphere risks to endanger important goals and relationships. These information tactics are evident in several different spheres:

Romanian Domestic Politics. Within Romania, the aim is to foster distrust in Romania’s democracy and to question its historic choices of joining NATO and EU. The broader aim of the Russian Federation is to weaken the solidarity of the transatlantic bond by appealing to citizen disaffection and stimulating negative public opinion about organizations like NATO and the EU.

Moldova. The historic and emotional tie between Romania and Moldova has always been a source of contention in both countries’ diplomatic exchanges with Russia. In Moldova, the common history is used to create the image of an expansionist Romania that would like to occupy its eastern neighbor. Similarly, Romania is portrayed as a failed example of European integration to dissuade Moldovans from following the same path. In Romania, the tactic is the opposite. Nationalistic impulses are stirred and manipulated so that the affection that Romanians may feel towards Moldova grows strong enough to inform policy and push the Romanian state to actively seek reunification. That would play right into Russia’s hands, which, just as in Ukraine, would have the perfect opportunity to intervene and protect the Russian minority living in Moldova. Such a move would lead to a potential new frozen conflict or even outright military confrontation as in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine. When it comes to Ukraine, with which Romania shares a 650 km border, relations have traditionally been cold. Poor relations between the two neighbors has been amplified by a territorial dispute in the Black Sea over the continental shelf and the Island of Serpents, lack of agreement on commercial utilization of the Danube Delta, and a latent issue regarding the Romanian-speaking minority in Ukraine. However, the bilateral relationship has become more constructive since the Euromaidan uprisings. The annexation of Crimea was the moment when Romania saw not only a direct threat to its security by a potential spread of instability or even conflict into the Republic of Moldova and closer to its border along the Black Sea shores, but also an opportunity to assert itself as a partner that can export its expertise in democratic construction and rule of law.

In the information space, however, Ukraine features as a counter-example for Romania. Just as it did in the past two years during street protests in the Republic of Moldova, during the recent demonstrations in Romania, the Euromaidan was used as negative comparison. Framed as a threat of destabilization and even dismemberment of the country (the so-called Euromaidanization), the Euromaidan and its aftermath were supposed to instill fear in the minds of Moldovans and Romanians. In the recent anti-government demonstrations in Romania, the Kremlin went so far as to officially call for calm and stability in Romania. Such statements reinforced and brought into the realm of official foreign policy what propaganda had been spreading regarding the risks of a revolution.

Russia. While manipulation of the information space can make cooperation with neighbors more sensitive, the most complicated aspect remains Romania’s relationship with Moscow. Diplomatic relations have been strenuous and unproductive since the fall of the communist regime. They have focused on touchy issues for Romania like Romania’s gold reserves stored in Russia during the First World War that were never recovered. But Russia’s main objective in Romania has not been to influence public opinion to the extent of creating a more favorable attitude towards it. Anti-Russian sentiment is strong among Romanians, and trying to create an opinion shift would be an inefficient use of resources. At most, there are efforts to portray Moscow as a true conservative power and defender of Christian traditions. However, investing in amplifying anti-West sentiment and the fear that deepening NATO and EU ties would put Romania in harm’s way from a regional security perspective is a more realistic goal for Russia. In fact, recent Russian rhetoric regarding the anti-missile shield in Deveselu (making Romania a target), the broader U.S. military presence, as well as NATO land and maritime exercises are perfect examples of the tactics used to create an environment in which appeasing Russia becomes a plausible political choice for Romania’s leaders.

Addressing Disinformation

The main question for Romania, but also for its regional neighbors and for NATO, is how to build an effective Black Sea security architecture. The military component is only one part of the response: the information space matters, too.

The extent to which information warfare can sap regional solidarity is hard to quantify, but it represents a major vulnerability. Governments in the region, especially Romania, must match hard defense with strategies to address information warfare. Regional solidarity and cooperation is also key. Yet, old regional organizations have been used by Russia as vehicles to dominate and divide other Black Sea states. Regional cooperation must not be seen as a substitute for NATO and the EU, but rather as a form of solidarity and engagement that would leverage these actors even more.

What is needed is common ground in defining the challenges posed by disinformation techniques. More difficult still is creating common narratives in response to Russian propaganda that reinforce the benefits of NATO and EU membership and good neighborly relations. The EU and NATO can help in this effort, but the responses will ultimately have to be crafted regionally and nationally.