At first, the Spanish marines are just a distant dot on the horizon. A few minutes later their speedboat is on our starboard side. The marines clamber aboard, disarm the irregulars who’ve seized this Romanian frigate, and secure the helicopter landing pad on the windswept stern. Watching from a safe distance, you’d never know this was just a wargame. As a Romanian sailor told me, as I struggled to control my seasick stomach, the way you fight in a real war depends upon the way you train. Welcome to Sea Shield, a naval warfare exercise involving 21 ships and 12 aircraft from seven Nato allies: Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Spain, Turkey, the US and the UK. And welcome to the Black Sea, the front line in the new Cold War.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 has had a profound effect on Nato strategy. Nato’s response was a range of so-called Assurance Measures, designed to reinforce Nato’s eastern frontier and build cooperation between its 29 member states. Multinational exercises like Sea Shield are among the main results. Romania shares a land border with Ukraine. Crimea is on its doorstep. With limited resources, and an expansionist Russia next door, the Romanians need all the Western help they can get.
With defence budgets under constant pressure, in Britain and throughout Europe, sharing resources among Nato members makes sound financial sense. There’s no way Romania could afford to equip this sort of fleet alone. By teaming up with their Nato allies, they can provide an effective deterrent without breaking the bank. But this multinational strategy is about more than economics. In today’s unstable climate it also demonstrates solidarity among alliance members, and shows frontline nations like Romania that Nato’s Article Five (which regards an armed attack against one member as an attack against them all) is a practical commitment, not just hot air.
Sea Shield only lasts a week, but the Royal Navy is here to stay. Standing Nato Maritime Group Two, currently composed of British, Turkish, Spanish, Bulgarian and Romanian warships, is one of four multinational fleets that maintain a continuous presence in Nato hotspots like the Black Sea. On land, they’re matched by Nato’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, a multinational brigade which can be deployed in any trouble spot in record time. So should we be worried that this new Cold War might turn hotter? ‘Nato exercises are not directed against any country,’ reads the blurb in my Nato press pack. ‘They are based on fictitious scenarios with fictitious adversaries.’ Yet everyone knows the name of the elephant in the room.
For Britain, closer cooperation between Nato allies is especially significant in the light of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. The UK is keen to show that Brexit won’t affect its military commitment to its European allies, so ventures like this one, in Romania, have a symbolic value too. Of course Nato and the EU are separate institutions, but 24 EU members are also members of Nato (Ireland, Finland, Sweden and Austria are the only exceptions) and so Nato exercises like this one are important diplomatic tools.
Back on dry land, in Constanta, where the Danube meets the Black Sea, I visit a Romanian airbase to meet the RAF’s 135 Expeditionary Air Wing, who’ve just begun a four month tour of duty, to bolster Romania’s air defences with 150 troops and four Typhoon fighter jets. ‘It is a peacetime mission, it is a defensive mission,’ says 135 EAW’s Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Chris Ball. But this is a peacetime mission with a difference, and that difference is Crimea. They’d only been here a few days when they had to be airborne within minutes, to see off a Russian reconnaissance plane over the Black Sea, close to Nato airspace. ‘To have our first scramble three days in is kind of exciting,’ says Ball, with admirable sang-froid.
The RAF presence on this Romanian airbase is a good example of Nato’s integrated response to Russian military build-up in the region, and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. It’s all part of making Nato an ever more cohesive force. ‘By working together we increase our understanding of each other’s capabilities, and that has an effect of making us stronger together for the future.’ Out on the sunbaked runway, we watch a Typhoon perform a faultless vertical take-off. It’s an awe-inspiring sight.
For the troops under Ball’s command, the benefits of working with foreign Nato forces extend way beyond this tour of duty. ‘They learn to interact with other nations,’ he says. ‘They build relationships, make friends.’ His views are echoed by Brigadier General Dragos Iacob of the Romanian Defence Staff. ‘We’ve been doing exercises together since 2014 on an increased basis,’ says Iacob. ‘It helps us to increase our capability, our way of working together, and to ensure we achieve that deterrence effect that everybody is looking for.’ Romanians know better than anyone how rapidly the status quo can change. Ball and Iacob are both old enough to remember when Constanta was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and this Nato airbase was part of the Warsaw pact.
This RAF mission is mainly strategic, but it’s also about building bridges – showing Romanian civilians that British troops come as friends. Last week Ball attended a remembrance ceremony in the Romanian village of Comana, in honour of five RAF airmen who died when their Wellington bomber crash landed there during the Second World War. Although the crew were doomed, they made sure they brought the plane down in open countryside, leaving Comana unscathed. Grateful locals gave those British airmen a Christian burial, and ever since Romania threw off its Communist shackles these villagers have marked the anniversary with an annual memorial service. Russia has been adept at spreading fake news about Nato troops in frontline states. Ball’s visit to Comana is the sort of thing that helps to combat this barrage of misinformation. This isn’t just about intercepting Russian spy planes. It’s also about winning hearts and minds.
Constanta is an ancient port, once a bastion of the Roman Empire. It’s named after the Emperor Constantine. The Roman poet Ovid lived here. Ovid’s legacy lives on in Romania’s Latinate language. Save for half a century of Communism, Romania has always looked west, not east. Constanta’s city centre feels Italianate, but its antique buildings are crumbling. Nearly thirty years since the Romanians overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu, it still feels like a city just emerging from a long and savage siege.
Constanta’s grand, rundown museum is virtually deserted. Upstairs is a harrowing exhibition about Ceausescu’s cruel suppression of Romanian dissidents. Downstairs are endless corridors full of majestic Roman relics. Classical ruins litter the overgrown gardens outside. ‘Nothing depends on humans,’ reads a Latin inscription on a Roman gravestone. ‘Everything turns under the power of destiny.’ Who knows what destiny has in store for this historic crossroads, but it means a lot to these Romanians, those long lost descendants of the Roman Empire, to know that Britain is standing alongside them, helping to keep Nato’s eastern frontier safe.