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Romania: Consternation at state's response to Russian drone

September 8, 2023

Russia has been bombarding Ukraine's Danube River ports close to the Romanian border since late July. Why did Romania first deny and later confirm that a Russian drone had landed on its territory earlier this week?

A war crimes prosecutor inspects the site of a nighttime Russian drone attack on near-port infrastructure in Izmail, Ukraine, September 7, 2023
Russia has been bombarding Ukraine's Danube ports, including Izmail (pictured here), since the end of JulyImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

A Russian drone that never existed explodes in Romania. What sounds like a plot summary for a play by Eugene Ionesco, the Romanian-born French absurdist playwright, is the country's current reality.

On Sunday night, Russia once again deployed kamikaze drones to bombard Izmail, a Ukrainian port along the Danube River. One of these drones exploded on the far bank on territory belonging to Romania, a NATO member.

Videos posted to social media and released by the Ukrainian authorities showed the fireball of a detonation. The Romanian government, however, categorically denied the incident on Monday.

Then, during the Three Seas summit in Bucharest two days later, Romania's defense ministry said that parts of what may be a Russian drone "fell" on Romanian territory.

First incident of its kind

In May, it became known that a Russian missile had landed in a Polish forest late last year, albeit without a warhead. In 2022, two people were killed when a misfired Ukrainian air defense missile came down in Poland.

However, this is the first time since Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine that a Russian drone has come down inside a NATO country during an attack on Ukrainian territory.

Is Russia testing NATO's resolve?

It is apparently a risk Russia is willing to take as it has been bombarding Ukraine's Danube ports for weeks, situated only a few hundred meters from the Romanian border that runs down the middle of the river. For example, Izmail is only about 400 meters (437 yards) from the Romanian shore of the Danube.

A war crimes prosecutor surveys the damage at a grain port facility after a reported attack by Russian military drones, Izmail, Odesa region, Ukraine, August 2, 2023
A port facility in Izmail after a reported Russian military drone attack in AugustImage: Prosecutor General's Office/Telegram/REUTERS

It cannot be ruled out that Russia intentionally hit the Romanian river bank to see how Romania and NATO would react.

Locals report low-flying Russian drones

What happened at the border between Romania and Ukraine was foreseeable, given that Russia has been bombarding the Danube ports of Reni, Izmail and Kilija almost daily since the end of July.

According to Romanian media reports, locals have complained for quite some time that drones often fly very low over Romanian territory but that the Romanian authorities have not taken their complaints seriously.

This makes the initial denial of the drone explosion adjacent to Izmail from the Romanian government all the more astonishing.

Swift denial from Bucharest

Romania strongly condemned the initial Russian attacks on Ukrainian ports in late July. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem to have stepped up the military protection of its side of the river.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis gestures as he speaks at the Bucharest Nine press conference, Bratislava, Slovakia, June 6, 2023
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis provided inconsistent answers to the incident this weekImage: Aureliusz M. Pędziwol/DW

When a Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday that a drone had fallen and detonated on Romanian territory, Romania swiftly and categorically rejected the claim.

"I can tell you no piece, no drone and no part of a device landed in Romania," President Klaus Iohannis told reporters.

Claim and counterclaim followed from Kyiv and Bucharest. It appeared to some that Romania was subtly accusing Ukraine of trying to drag its neighbor into the war.

Romania's staunch support for Ukraine

Romania has so far been steadfast in its support for Ukraine and has not been afraid to take risks in the process, which made the initial denial surprising.

Romania allows cargo ships from the Odesa region to sail through Romanian Black Sea territorial waters on their way to the Bosporus. Four ships have done just that in recent weeks, even though Russia has said that it considers any ships leaving Ukrainian ports "legitimate targets."

The Ukrainian Danube port of Izmail seen from Plauru, Romania, September 5, 2023
The Romanian bank of the River Danube is only about 400 meters from the port of Izmail (pictured here)Image: ANDREEA CAMPEANU/REUTERS

On Wednesday, the Romanian Defense Ministry and the president made a U-turn. "If it is confirmed that the components belong to a Russian drone, such a situation would be inadmissible and a serious violation of Romania's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Iohannis said after the Defense Ministry confirmed that drone parts had been found on Romanian territory.

Inconsistencies and unanswered questions

Several things remain unclear: Did the Romanian air defense system pick up the exploded drone or other approaching drones? If it did, why were the drones not shot down over Romanian territory by the Romanian air defense system? And why did Bucharest reject the information from Ukraine so categorically without properly investigating the claim?

The Romanian Defense Ministry has yet to reply to DW's inquiries.

An Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon from the NATO Air Policing mission in a hangar at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Constanta, on the shores of the Black Sea, Romania, December 6, 2022
Some have suggested Russia intentionally hit the Romanian bank of the river to see how Romania, a NATO member, would reactImage: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

People in Romania are concerned and angered by the situation and, above all, by the fact that several inconsistencies have gradually come to light.

For instance, Romanian military investigators told the media that the drone had not been carrying explosives and may only have been a spy drone. However, on Thursday, journalists from the Digi24 television channel discovered drone debris and a crater near the Romanian village of Plauru, across the river from Izmail, which might suggest the presence of explosives. The point of impact had neither been secured nor sealed off.

'Contradictory stammerings'

Writing on the G4media portal, journalist and writer Dan Tapalaga called the way the state has dealt with the incident a "firework of incompetence." His colleague Ioana Ene Dogioiu from the Spotmedia portal even went as far as to call Romania a "failed state."

Bucharest-based political scientist and Russia expert Armand Gosu told DW that the Romanian government has shown a significant lack of professionalism in this case.

"The contradictory stammerings of the authorities create a terrible impression both at the diplomatic level and within the Romanian population," he said. "It's as if the state wants to close its eyes and not know exactly what's happening."

The question now, he added, is what has to happen for Romania to take action: "Are we going to see drones coming down on major cities such as Galati or Tulcea in the near future?"

Gosu said that Romania must make it unmistakably clear to Russia that incidents such as this will not be tolerated and must act accordingly — for example, by stationing an effective air defense system in the region. However, it looks as if both Romania and NATO want to play down the incident.

"We don't have any information indicating an intentional attack by Russia, and we are awaiting the outcome of the ongoing investigation," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

This article was originally published in German.

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter