Danube key to Europe and NATO’s efforts to keep Black Sea free and open

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of Euractiv Media network.

Romanian Navy river intervention light crafts formation escorts a dredger ship on the Danube river during the NATO-led military exercise 'Sea Shield 2023' held in the Danube Delta near Mahmudia harbor, 300 kilometers east of Bucharest, Romania, 30 March 2023. [EPA-EFE/Robert Ghement]

As Europe prepares itself for a long conflict – frozen or not – on the shores of the Black Sea, it should commit to optimising the Danube River transport corridor to ensure the Black Sea remains free and open, write Kaush Arha, Ben Hodges, and George Scutaru.

Kaush Arha is the president of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum. LTG (retd.) Ben Hodges is the former commander of US Forces Europe. George Scutaru is a former national security advisor to the president of Romania.

The Ukraine war continues to accentuate the increased nexus of economic and security issues, with Russia’s blockade forcing Ukraine to divert its grain exports through Romania’s Danube and Black Sea ports.

Russian control of Crimea, coupled with its expressed desire to annex Ukraine’s entire coastline and its momentary annexation of Snake Island at the Danube’s mouth, point to its malign intent to deny freedom of navigation across most of the Black Sea.

The Bosporus and the Danube are the two viable access points to the Black Sea.

Turkey, meanwhile, leaning on the Montreux Convention and its geographical control of the Bosporus is an unpredictable guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Black Sea.

That leaves the EU and NATO, with explicit backing by the United States, to ensure a modernised Danube maintains an all-weather free and open navigational channel to the Black Sea to advance peace and prosperity of southeastern Europe and the entire continent in general.

Since 2022, the evolving situation in southeastern Europe points to two clear imperatives in modernising the Danube transport corridor.

First, the Danube is fast reaffirming its primacy as the commercial artery transporting agricultural products (grains) across southeastern Europe – including from Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine.

For the foreseeable future, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its persistent threat to all Ukraine ports render the Danube the major commercial artery to export Ukraine’s grain.

It would behove the EU in close coordination with the riparian states to urgently undertake necessary actions to optimise the Danube transport corridor in affording European agriculture maximal cost competitive advantage.

Second, NATO readiness capabilities in mobilising military assets from Germany to the eastern front are severely limited by the existing rail and road networks.

By some accounts, the available rail network is only able to mobilise less than 20% of requisite assets.

The Danube offers an advantageous transport corridor in fulfilling NATO’s new forward posture doctrine in moving fuel, ammunition, and heavy armour to its front lines, particularly to the vulnerable southeastern front.

The US regularly uses its logistics hub at Coleman Barracks, Mannheim on the Rhine, to deploy military equipment, while NATO’s logistics command is situated in Ulm astride upper Danube.

River barges can efficiently convey this heavy equipment down the Rhine and through connecting canals over to the Danube and all the way to the Black Sea.

It would be prudent for NATO and the EU to prioritise the modernisation of the Danube for military transport with requisite urgency.

An updated Danube transport corridor will not only boost the farm economies of southeastern Europe and NATO preparedness but may also serve over-the-horizon developments and would be critical for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

By improving commercial infrastructure and connectivity across southeastern Europe it may elevate the region’s attractiveness for industrial development to de-risk European and global supply chains.

The Danube will also serve as a necessary thoroughfare for enhanced transcontinental trade with the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The development of Danube transport and the consequent diversion of traffic from trains and trucks to barges would also contribute to Europe meeting its green energy targets.  Close attention is warranted to minimise and mitigate adverse ecological impacts from increased river traffic.

Europe’s security and economic imperatives demand a thorough modernisation of the Danube’s governance, infrastructure and investment regimes.

Building on the river’s history of transborder collaboration for freedom of navigation dating back to 1856 and now free of Russian impediment on the Danube River Commission the time is ripe for reinvigorating its operations along four reinforcing principles.

First, the free movement of goods and people enshrined in Schengen principles should motivate Danube’s modern governance. Of Danube’s ten riparian states, seven are EU members and the remaining three are candidates to join the union.

Second, its consequential contributions to Europe’s defence and security dating back to the Roman era should be reinvigorated. NATO should designate the Danube as a strategic security corridor and undertake operational exercises and reviews to ensure its optimal readiness.

Third, optimal instream flow and barge conveyance should be assured through necessary infrastructure modernisation, including improved river locks, bridge clearances, dredging regimes etc.

Fourth, the investment-friendly policies should facilitate the proliferation of industries along the river optimising southeastern Europe’s economic potential.

The EU, European Investment Bank, and G7 group should coordinate to ensure that Danube modernisation is a priority project in their respective Global Gateway and Global Partnership for Infrastructure Investments initiatives.

It would be fitting to direct a portion of Russia’s more than €300 billion in frozen assets towards Danube modernisation as restitution for its unlawful invasion of Ukraine and persistent threat to Danube navigation.

Strategic opportunities in times of generational crises should not go begging.  The resumption of Russian hostilities towards Ukraine on the back of the China-Russia “no-limits partnership” and Russian audacity to momentarily occupy Snake Island to disable the Danube as a commercial artery require a robust response.

Danube commercial and military capabilities need to be optimized and fortified.  Russia should be credibly deterred from ever again occupying Snake Island – with about 80% of its waters under Romanian jurisdiction as per a 2009 ICJ ruling – and threatening to debilitate the Danube as Europe’s lifeline to a free and open Black Sea.

Europe’s economic competitiveness is directly related to the efficiency of its transport infrastructure. Europe and NATO, with strong support from the US, should seize the strategic opportunity to modernise the Danube for European peace and prosperity.

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