The force of NATO allies, regardless of their size and features, stems from the fact that any member state that is attacked can rely on the unconditional support of the rest of the allied armies. One of the major problems of NATO is how fast can this type of support get to any corner of the Alliance, in case of an external attack. In the case of Romania and a possible massive attack from Russia, things don’t look too bright. NATO’s help would arrive with great delay, on account of lack of solid infrastructure on road, rail or river.
While EU has budgeted 1.5 billion Euros to be spent until 2028 on increasing military mobility, mainly for the possibility of a conflict with Russia, the concern for interconnecting and consolidating the infrastructure has not been on the center stage in Romania, where the main talk is mostly on building highways.
Less than 500 kilometers straight from Romania, Russia has been positioning tens of thousands of troops and heavy military equipment in Crimea, while the Russian navy fleet is dominating the Black Sea. That’s why the military experts cannot ignore the possibility of a Russian decision to attack NATO through Romania, as improbable as such a scenario may seem.
Strategy is another reason for not ignoring this. For such a dangerous situation, there has to be a contingency plan, even though there’s not much chance of it becoming reality: if Russia makes an attack on Romania, it would keep the entire Europe in check, on two directions – the South and the Balkans on one hand, the Center on the other.
A war scenario (1) takes into account a Russian ground invasion through Romania, while occupying a region known as „Focșani Gate”. Spread over 85 square kilometers, in Vrancea, Galați, Brăila and Buzău Romanian counties, between the cities of Râmnicu Sărat, Panciu, and the rivers Prut and Danube, this zone is considered to be critical for Romania’s defenses (2).
In case of such an attack, NATO would face serious problems in getting the bulk of its troops to help Romania in time. A report by military experts from the American think-tank CEPA points out that the main obstacles would be the precarity of regional infrastructure and communications, and also the fact that Russia is influent in certain points of disembarkment for NATO troops. The experts had been coordinated by American Army general (r) Ben Hodges, the former US European Army commander, who is well acquainted with the Black Sea region.
Russia would have two routes for a ground invasion of NATO’s south-east, through Romania. The first would be a large scale amphibious operation, launched from Crimea, where massive Russian forces had been positioned, after the illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, in 2014. Russian troops would arrive from the Black Sea, somewhere around the mouths of the Danube.
The second route imagined by CEPA experts would make Russian troops head into Ukraine and Moldova, battling those forces first before entering Romania.
Both these attack routes would need massive Russian preparations and troop movements that would take a long time and give away the element of surprise. It’s for this reason that experts are not giving this scenario too many chances of becoming a reality, because Russia would have more military efficient ways of attacking NATO, other than a ground invasion through Romania.
The bad news for Romania in this classic Russian ground invasion scenario is that the Romanian forces, with the help of small NATO forces from the battalions that are currently serving the South-East Multinational Brigade HQ, would lose to Russia in 24 hours at most, according to a simulation of the Land Forces Academy in Sibiu. NATO’s rapid reaction force needs 48 to 72 hours to reach any corner of the Alliance. That is just in theory, since real life infrastructure and bureaucracy obstacles would make this timeframe intangible in certain regions.
The good news is that a ground invasion from Russia means massive troop and equipment movements that NATO surveillance couldn’t miss. The Allies would have plenty of time to prepare the defense, even though they would have a hard time moving their troops to Romania, because of the precarious infrastructure in the region.
To keep up to a Russian invasion through Romania, NATO would have to bring 20 brigades (between 60,000 and 100,000 troops) to the region, and their equipment would need 20 million liters of diesel fuel and 12,000 tons of ammunition, according to a scenario put together by experts from CEPA. Their conclusion is that such a massive movement of troops and equipment would take a very long time, thus the mobility of these assets should be previously planned in detail.
NATO would have two routes of access to Romania, in the event of such a massive movement, both implying major problems.
The first route takes into account that NATO would start to move after the Russian attack had been launched. NATO troops could arrive from the South, starting from Italy and making use of the harbors in Greece, then through Bulgaria, towards Romania. The major problems of such a route stem from the regional infrastructure. Not all the rails, bridges and tunnels are capable of withstanding the transportation of heavy equipment, because of their fragility and reduced size. Another example from the experts at CEPA is the voltage used by the Bulgarian railway system, which is different than the rest of the region.
The experts even take into account out of the box solutions, such as using cranes to bypass the bridges between Romania and Bulgaria, which cannot cope with the weight of military equipment.
A major vulnerability of this route is the Ruse-Giurgiu bridge over the Danube. If Russia destroys this bridge, the CEPA report shows, “it would act as a single catastrophic point of failure which could bring any force movement to a halt. A new railway crossing should thus be constructed. In any case, the need for rail ferries on the lower Danube should be a mandatory part of any strategic defense planning in Romania”.
The need for a barge system on the Danube, that could create bridges over the river and carry trains, in the event that Russia destroys the bridges over Danube, is another point made by the CEPA report.
The infrastructure is not the only obstacle in the way of NATO troops coming on this route. Russian political and economic influence in the region is another drawback. Access to Romania through Thessaloniki Greek harbor would be the easiest, but the harbor is economically controlled by Russia. NATO troops should thus take into account making their access by Alexandroupolis harbor, which in turn is a smaller one.
The safest way of NATO troops to Romania would be on a second route: from Germany, through Poland and Ukraine. CEPA experts say that this route could be used only before the start of the conflict.
NATO could also go to the private sector to ensure its ground transportation on a 2,000 kilometers distance, from Poland to “Focșani Gate” region. Exclusive railway transportation on such a long distance is sustainable only before the start of conflict.
This route would also need air support in order for troop transports to be protected against possible attacks on such a long distance.
“Romania is in need of major improvements to its air, road, river, and rail infrastructure”, the CEPA report on NATO troops mobility is saying.
Too tight roads, bridges not made for big weights and narrow tunnels are turning the Romanian road infrastructure into an obstacle in the way of massive troop and fighting equipment movements. In the access region to “Focșani Gate”, the area where the fight with Russia would take place, according to the CEPA scenario, the only bridges that withstand the passage of heavy armored vehicles are in Focșani and Galați. The other bridges in the area are not made for such weight.
Romanian airfields are useful only for receiving spearhead forces, such as NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).
Romanian railways cannot withstand heavy military equipment, but could in turn be used for other lighter equipment with relatively high speed, CEPA experts say.
The Danube remains a very useful military access route, but it cannot be used at its full potential, because it doesn’t have enough developed infrastructure. Not only in Romania, but also on its entire course starting from Germany to the Black Sea. Experts say that a ferryboats system is needed in Romania and Bulgaria for the river to be used as a military mobility corridor.
Russian influence in the region must remain a NATO reason for concern, military experts say, because it can raise problems for the allied troops. The first sign that reminds of this influence is engraved in the rail regional infrastructure: train rails in Ukraine and Moldova use Russian gauges, different than the rest of the European countries, a thing that could raise a major obstacle for military mobility.
Even more, Russian political influence in Hungary, Serbia or Bulgaria could create protest movements and denied NATO access to transportation regional infrastructure.
Allied troops mobility remains one major concern for NATO and EU. In May, the EU approved the participation of the United States, Norway and Canada in a European initiative on increasing NATO’s military mobility, led by the Netherlands. The initiative has a 1.5 billion Euro budget. The allies’ concern for fast movement of troops gained traction soon after 2014, when Russia had invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in a very short timeframe.
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