The crisis in Ukraine is also marked by an increased output of false narratives meant to discredit NATO and undermine confidence in it. Romania has also been the target of such narratives – claiming that it’s preparing for war, mobilizing its reservists, has a weak army, equipped with outdated equipment, etc. Veridica talked to the head of the Information and Public Relations Department of the Ministry of National Defense, Brigadier General Constantin Spînu, about the efforts made by the army to fight back the disinformation that targets it.
Footage of tanks transported to the north, "proof" that Romania is going to war or disinformation?
VERIDICA: In the last few weeks, the media has broadcast images of trucks transporting tanks to Romania’s northern border with Ukraine. “Romania is going to war!”, many have said, “and this is the proof!”. What’s the truth behind this headline?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: This is not the first time we’ve noticed this kind of reactions in social media. Suffice it to recall the first weeks of the pandemic, when Romania declared a state of emergency. Similar images were published, showing columns of vehicles on national roads, carrying military equipment. At the time, many claimed these were headed to Bucharest, to put the capital-city on lockdown. We were not surprised [not then, not now]. We have been keeping a close eye on all the developments and we’ve tried to keep a record of such videos in order to provide an explanation. It was fairly easy to identify them, since we had all the data beforehand. Some of the videos we had produced ourselves, and they were broadcast on the official communication channels of the Ministry of National Defense. They were several-months old, some even dating two or three years back. Obviously, they are presented as recent efforts, put in different contexts, and were instances of either Romanian of foreign military technology transiting Romania’s national roads. Naturally, it was all connected to the situation in Ukraine.
VERIDICA: What was the context of these military exercises?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: Every year, we have been carrying out joint military exercises with our allies and partners, either under NATO command, or multilateral or bilateral international exercises. They are part of a training program that is fully transparent, observing a specific timetable planned for several years in advance. For instance, right now we are making preparations for exercises that will take place in 2022 and 2023. Every two years, Romania hosts large-scale exercises. In 2023, Romania is expected to host exercises on the northern part of the eastern flank of NATO. The load of drills and joint training activities is distributed evenly at Alliance level, with a view to boosting the level of interoperability, namely helping us learn from each other. NATO comprises 30 member states, so 30 distinct military cultures that need to be synchronized, including at the level of smaller teams. We’re talking about different tactics, different protocols that need to be brought in synch with common operational standards – which is precisely why we are organizing such exercises. What did these videos show? American military equipment either being transported to Cincu or on its way back. Last year we organized an exercise in Cincu and we actually posted images of this exercise. There have been long columns of trucks transporting military equipment, either Romanian or belonging to our partners and allies, that was either returning from or in route to the venues of certain exercises in recent years or last year.
Call-up notices for reservists, a routine activity, not a sign of an exceptional situation
VERIDICA: The social media also made public call-up notices for reservists. What is the truth? Are these genuine? Are they more numerous compared to previous years? What is the broader context?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: In truth, the call-up notices are genuine. I believe that every Romanian who completed the mandatory military service up until 2007 has a similar notice stapled to his military book. Any such notice is issued under a specific piece of legislation. This law was last amended in 2009, but Romania has had a nearly identical legislation in this field prior to 2009 as well, it only undergoes periodic updates. The law clearly specifies the circumstances and purpose for which these notices are issued. If the situation requires a general mobilization, including the call-up of Romania’s reserve army, every reservist recorded in the database must know the unit he needs to report to within a specific deadline. This is the purpose of this document. It is an administrative document that was handed out to soldiers the moment they were put on reserve status prior to 2007. The document was changed every time changes would occur in the status of reservists or in the territorial units of organization that are set up when the army is called up.
VERIDICA: Are there more notices this year? Is the army sorting out its records?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: We will be making public a statistical record in order to prove there have been no spectacular fluctuations, at least not in the last 10 or 15 years. Every County Military Center performs the same number of check-ups every year. The check-up stipulates that reservists report to the County Military Center only in those cases where the circumstances have changed – a number of soldiers and officers on reserve status could be removed from the army’s track record because they have exceeded the age limit, which is 55 for soldiers and enlisted ranks and 63 for commissioned officers. Of course, the moment you take someone off the reserve list, you need to replace him with someone else, to swap positions, so as to make sure the most important ranks are reassigned to people who are lower on the list in terms of age. When this happens, people need to report to their local Military Center. The law stipulates that the military center is entitled to call up a reservist only once per year. Obviously, it doesn’t call up everyone, but merely those whose status has changed.
VERIDICA: It’s not just men, but women too…
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: Before 1990, women too used to complete some form of military service, namely girls who were admitted to university. There are also active women officers who are put on reserve status. Women already account for 20% of the total reserve army. Worth mentioning is the fact that, the moment we are put on reserve status, we are listed as military on reserve until we reach 63 years of age, in the case of military officers and non-commissioned officers. In the current situation, until we reach retirement age, we too can be called up to military centers to clarify our military situation, whenever we change our home address or we need to be assigned a different rank in case of deployment. The mobilization of Romania’s reserve army, and I think this applies to any country, is not something illegal that should be done in secret. There’s no cloak and dagger. The mobilization of the army is stipulated in the Constitution and Romania and is carried out under presidential decree, with the prior or subsequent approval of Parliament. Depending on the recommendation of the Constitution, Parliament must vote the mobilization of the army either prior to the decree being issued or afterwards.
VERIDICA: What is the nature of this type of correspondence? Is it confidential or not? Does it concern you to see these documents being leaked to the media?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: No, absolutely not, we shouldn’t judge anyone. These signals are important, because they also help us understand that we also need to provide more information to the public when confronted with this type of situation.
The KGB operations textbook and the current disinformation operations
VERIDICA: People are right to be concerned.
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: I can relate to their concern. The security context that we are all closely monitoring, not just Romania, but every country in the region and even all NATO members, is as real as it gets. This call-up notice, which has been circulated in social media in recent weeks, is also very real. However, associating this document with the security developments in Ukraine is a mistake. And this is where we stepped in [we presented the actual situation]. I just want to say that, for this kind of situations, we devised a number of tools and communication solutions. For instance, there is a platform associated to the website of the National Defense Ministry, titled Info radar – the platform of truthful news, providing accurate information about the army. This platform will grow in time, it serves a number of purposes and roles, including in the field of education, with respect to how people can protect themselves against disinformation. It also helps us keep all these narratives in one place, so that we can explain and debunk them, unmasking the myths and providing people with the proper context for understanding the facts.
VERIDICA: Let us consider some more fake news. There have been stories about Romania having a small army, incapable of coping with a conflict, that will play an insignificant role. Or that it will be crushed by the Russian army in Transnistria, which can reach Bucharest in the space of six hours. After all, people say we are a “second-hand” country – we are forced to buy overpriced weapons from the Americans, from the “Big Firefly”.
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: The standard KGB operations textbook, which in the meantime has become public knowledge, was written by researchers who worked for this secret service and who explained the methods whereby disinformation campaigns were carried out in the Soviet era. There were two main objectives. The first such method referred to using any means possible to sway the opinion of the Western target audience, people outside the Soviet Union, enemies. The second line of strategic action was undermining the confidence and cohesion of any society targeted by these measures. I think that we can see these narratives at work not just in Romania. I believe these narratives are being rolled out in every member state of the European Union or NATO. Of course, they are adapted to the local context. We exchange views and best practices with all our allies, and we can see these narratives are present also in Baltic states, in Poland too, in Romania, Bulgaria, basically in all NATO countries, but also in the European Union, in the western core of the European Union, so to say. There are specific narratives adapted to these societies.
The army's endowment program, the target of disinformation campaigns
VERIDICA: Such narratives don’t just permeate social media, but are also broadcast on television stations with nationwide coverage. Should the Government or the Defense Ministry respond in the case of second-hand F-16 jet purchases, to just give an example?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: Social networks have provided a platform for swifter communication, but this type of narratives, these manipulation attempts, have been around since the dawn of time. But just to come back to the Romanian Army’s endowment plan – there are several narratives at odds here. We can see at work a method that is widely used in this sort of disinformation ecosystem, namely you extrapolate a single fact, leaving the impression it is representative for the whole situation. In terms of Romania’s military endowment program, we should take under advisement two important aspects. Prior to 2017, when the authorities introduced the need the allot 2% of the country’s GDP to defense spending, the army had been severely underfunded in some years. So, prior to this moment, we didn’t have the possibility of implementing a coherent endowment program, with resources that can be objectively earmarked, from one year to the next. It was only in 2017 that we were able to implement a truly consistent endowment program. It was approved by the country’s Supreme Defense Council. Every program whose estimated budget exceeds €100 million must be approved by the Romanian Parliament. Therefore, we have a timeline of at least ten years that we can use to streamline the equipment of the Romanian Army. Of course, during this time there will be elements of military technology that are physically and morally outdated, which we can all see for ourselves. However, we’ve noticed that the endowment programs that started being implemented are beginning to produce concrete results. We are talking about our land, air and naval forces – we have endowment programs that have already reached advanced stages in the case of Romania’s Air Forces. The Patriot anti-air defense systems have already started being embedded. The first anti-air battery, the first anti-missile system of its class, is already up and running, and the troops are undergoing training programs. We also have state-of-the-art military technology in the transport segment, namely the C-27 J Spartan aircraft, but also second-hand aircraft, F-16 fighter jets, which explains this label. Our land forces have cutting-edge Piranha 5 armored infantry carriers. We have ultramodern HIMARS artillery systems, a piece of technology that is top of its line. Our naval forces have started their own endowment programmes, starting with coastal defense batteries, coast artillery that fires missiles on enemy battleships. We are also working on our corvette program, which we hope to finalize by the end of the year, which will provide our navy with state-of-the-art warships and also modernize the two frigates that are currently operated by the Romanian Navy. By the way, these frigates were also second-hand when they were handed over by the British Navy. I believe this is when this whole “second-hand” paranoia started. Let me be the first to tell you that all sectors of the Romanian Army are currently unfolding such programs. We will also have our own telecommunications satellite. This might seem an overly ambitious program, but it is included in our endowment program and it will certainly be implemented. Our Special Operations Forces are also fitted with cutting-edge technology and observe the latest training and operational standards in the field. This endowment program cannot be completed overnight.
VERIDICA: Another piece of fake news that has flooded the media in recent months claims the agreement Romania signed last year with Ukraine will force us to support the Ukrainian war effort if Russia starts a conflict. Is this true or not?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: Our agreement with Ukraine is fully transparent. It was adopted by Parliament and can actually be consulted on the website of the Ministry of National Defense. Romania has a number of bilateral military cooperation agreements with numerous allied and partner states, Ukraine being just one of them. I’m referring to cooperation programs in the fields of education, industry, military cooperation, bilateral military relations, information exchange, these are all ordinary fields of military activity that an army uses in order to establish its cooperation network with other similar institutions in other countries.
The crisis in Ukraine “is not a security context targeting Romania in particular or any other NATO member state for that matter”
VERIDICA: According to another piece of fake news, the Americans stationed at Kogălniceanu base complain about their soaring bills, and have warned the Romanian state they might shut down the military base there, or even the anti-missile facility in Deveselu.
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: This is a narrative I have been monitoring in recent days. This speculative story is linked to the recent price hikes. It’s a hard reality in the energy sector. It must be said that, both in the case of the Deveselu facility and the base in Mihail Kogălniceanu, our American partners are operating in Romanian facilities, which means the military bases hosting elements of the anti-ballistic missile shield in Deveselu and elements of infrastructure and military technology, as well as troops themselves, are all bases of the Romanian Army, which are in no way different from any other base or military unit of the Romanian Army. Certainly, the army, much like any other sector of the Romanian public administration, faces the same challenges with respect to energy prices. I have recently talked to another publication and confirmed that we too procure energy from the domestic market, just like any other public institution. There’s nothing special distinguishing us from schools, hospitals or any other entities of the Romanian state.
VERIDICA: Have the Americans voiced any complaints?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: None that we know of. This is a narrative that is very appealing, I would describe it as purely speculative. And we don’t take these narratives lightly. Such narratives also indicate possible targets for future disinformation attempts.
VERIDICA: Finally, you’ve said there is nothing unusual about the current call-up notices and military drills. Some might say, very well, but if there’s nothing unusual about any of this, although the situation is highly irregular, is the Romanian army truly prepared for the worst-case scenario – namely if Russia mounts an all-out attack on Ukraine?
CONSTANTIN SPÎNU: There are a number of aspects that must be discussed here. First of all, I would refer to the fact that last week saw a new meeting of the country’s Supreme Defense Council, at the end of which the Romanian president explained the main lines of action and preparation of the Romanian state, not just for the Romanian Army, since there are a number of action plans intertwining here. The president insisted that we must also prepare for the worst-case scenario. Secondly, we should also consider the fact that Romania is a member of NATO, the most important and powerful political and military organization in world history. Therefore, the security protection Romania benefits from right now is the most important and powerful in our history. The measures the Romanian army needs to implement are twofold: measures to be implemented at national level, which are integrated in our national system of defense and security, and measures to be implemented at NATO level, in full cooperation with our allies. In this respect, you have already seen that certain army leaders, powerful leaders of NATO countries, have conveyed strong messages of support. I’m referring to the United States president, to the president of France, to the British Prime Minister, or German officials, who’ve transmitted messages of support to allied countries on NATO’s eastern flank, helping implement the proper defense measures. Under no circumstance will NATO consider any line of action other than those serving a defensive purpose, so that countries on the Alliance’s eastern flank, but also NATO as a whole, since security is indivisible and common to all Euro-Atlantic space, including all citizens of NATO states, should feel protected, irrespective of their place in Euro-Atlantic space. I would say that, right now, to all intents and purposes, Romanians have no reason to feel threatened. This is not a security context targeting Romania in particular or any other NATO member state for that matter. However, the security context in the region will definitely impact the region as a whole, the entire Europe, I would dare say, producing effects that will affect global economy. For instance, the war fallout might impact energy or raw material supply chains and migration flows. But in terms of security, Romanians and all the other nations in Euro-Atlantic space should not feel threatened directly.