I arrived in Bucharest, Romania, the day after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be here in a few weeks. The talk in Bucharest, not only among the leadership but also among the public, is about Ukraine. Concerns are palpable, and they are not only about the Russians. They are also about NATO, the European Union, the United States and whether they will all support Romania if it resists Russia. The other side of the equation, of course, is whether Romania will do the things it must do in order to make outside support effective. Biden left Romania with a sense that the United States is in the game. But this is not a region that trusts easily. The first step was easy. The rest become harder.
If this little Cold War becomes significant, there are two European countries that matter the most: Poland and Romania. Poland, which I visit next, stands between Germany and Russia on the long, flat North European plain. Its population is about 38 million people. Romania, to the south, standing behind the Prut River and bisected by the Carpathian Mountains, has a population of about 20 million. Of the roughly 82 million people along the eastern frontier (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), approximately 58 million live in Poland and Romania. Biden’s visit to Romania and U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Poland provide a sense of how Washington looks at the region and, for the moment at least, the world. How all of this plays out is, of course, dependent on the Russians and the course of the Ukrainian crisis.
All Soviet satellites emerged damaged after the collapse of the old order in 1989. Few were as damaged as Romania. In many ways, the damage was self-inflicted: The villain of the piece was a Romanian, Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu followed an anti-Soviet line, staying in the Warsaw Pact but displaying singular hostility to the Soviet Union. I recall Americans being excited about Ceausescu’s Romania since, being anti-Soviet, it was assumed that by definition he had to be pro-American. To America’s amazement, he wasn’t. He wasn’t even pro-Romanian given that he concocted a scheme to pay off all of Romania’s foreign debts by destroying the lives of a generation of Romanians by consigning the vast majority of the country’s agricultural and industrial production to hard currency exports. Beyond that, he created a nightmarish security system that was both corrupt and vicious. The world barely noticed. When the end came, it also came for Ceausescu and his wife, the only Eastern European leaders to be executed (amid intense fighting between factions).
For all that, Romania has done remarkably well. Romania’s unemployment rate is only about 7 percent, which by European standards is remarkably low. Its annual growth rate stands at more than 3 percent, which is conversely high. In talking to Romanians, it is hard to see into their hearts. They seem a gracious and friendly people, with a measure of distrust and a taste for conspiracy no greater than the norm for this region. What is remarkable about the Romanians is that they are unremarkable. They have emerged from a nightmare inflicted by one of their own and have regained their balance.
Ceausescu aside, the nightmare was initiated by the Soviets, who were drawn in by the Germans. This has resulted in a lasting national trait: When the Russians act, it strikes fear deep into the Romanian heart. When the Russians act and the Germans have a hand in the action, the Romanians’ worst nightmare is realized. Their reaction doesn’t manifest itself as with the Poles, who are always committed to the decisive confrontation. Instead, the nightmare scenario elicits a more cautious and sinewy response involving the search for a way both to resist and if necessary to accommodate. Above all, it elicits a search for allies, preferably far enough away not to occupy them and strong enough to offer meaningful support. Obviously, the Americans are tailor-made for this role, so long as they don’t overstep their bounds and generate fears of domination.
The Ukrainian Factor
Events in Ukraine have, of course, set this process in motion. Remarkably, the United States, which remained a bystander other times, has gotten quickly and significantly involved this time around. There is no question in Romania as to the importance of Ukraine to Russia, nor any belief that the Russians will let go of it. My view is that Russia will not let go, but will let things quiet down a bit. The Russian gamble is that no matter what the outcome of Ukraine’s elections, the Ukrainians will be unable to form a coherent government. If that is true, then the Russians can pick the Ukrainians apart over time, returning to the status quo ante. Therefore, the Russians will wait. Time, if this view is correct, is on the Russians’ side.
The Russians do not want to be excessively aggressive for another reason: namely, Germany. The Germans do not want to go beyond occasional rhetoric in confronting Russia. In fact, they don’t want to confront Russia at all. They want to do business with Russia. I heard several times that the Germans have already opted to align themselves with Russia for commercial reasons. In my view, German policy is moving in that direction, but the deal is not yet sealed. In the same way that Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to China to gain at least the appearance of strategic options, so, too, Putin wants as deep a relationship with Germany as he can get. He will not be excessively and overtly aggressive until and unless he must be. The Germans cannot be seen as simply abandoning their European allies, and Putin cannot put them in that position.
The Russians want to quiet Ukraine down for another reason. Crises galvanize Americans to act rapidly, and frequently, effectively. Crises that are dying down cause the Americans to pause and consider the direction of events. As Biden’s visit to Romania indicated, Washington moves fast in crisis mode. The Russians can control the tempo of American actions by cooling things down in Ukraine — or so they think. And this is precisely what worries the Romanians. They see themselves as having a long-term Russian problem. At the moment, they are making a large bet that the Americans will follow through on their commitments and interest even as the Russians dial down the immediate crisis.
Fairly or not, the Romanians see the Obama administration as insufficiently engaged and heedless of the dangers the Russians pose. They also see the administration as intensely critical of Romania’s culture of corruption — which the Romanians admit is a problem — but intensely interested in military and political coordination. They understand the United States, which is what worries them. On the one hand, they will be courted intensely by the vice president only to be condemned by the State Department, and expected to expose themselves to Russian retaliation. I tried to explain the complexities of being American. The Romanians’ sympathy was restrained. They think they heard a real commitment from the American side, but they simply don’t know how genuine it is.
In the course of various conversations I tried to explain my view of the situation. The United States has a pattern of engagement in Europe. It postpones intervention to the last moment, builds alliance structures, supports allies with economic and military aid, and then waits until late in the game to intervene, always hoping it won’t have to. Biden’s and Hagel’s visits are part of the process of creating a regional bloc to contain the Russians and to establish a framework for military aid. Intervention comes much later, if ever.
The Romanians are more comfortable with this than the Poles are, who have asked for 10,000 NATO troops on their territory. The Romanians have no such expectations. They are also prepared to increase their defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product, which is significant for Europe these days. But they expect the United States to help finance the cost of the weapons they need to purchase. Expecting credit when facing the Russians, however, is no more reasonable than subjecting a country to State Department criticism while the Defense Department is urging risk taking. The Romanians ultimately feel that the U.S. intent isn’t clear.
The American intent at this point is to maintain an independent, pro-Western Ukraine. That might simply not be possible. But the problem is that in having this goal, and pursuing it to some effect, the United States has convinced the Russians that it intends to break the Russian Federation by denying it an essential sphere of influence. The Russians have now concluded that whatever happens in this round in Ukraine, this process will not end.
Whatever the American thoughts initially, they are realizing that the Russian threat to Ukraine is permanent, and that whatever happens in Ukraine, it will extend to countries like Romania. And Romania particularly matters to the Russians for two reasons. First, Romania is on the Black Sea, and the Black Sea is Russia’s southern maritime access to the world. That’s why they had to hold Sevastopol, and that’s why Odessa mattered so much. The Russians are aware that they need access to the Bosporus, controlled by the Turks. Still, American aircraft in Romania and Romanian ships in the Black Sea could complicate the Russians’ lives substantially, including their power in the Caucasus, since Georgia is on the Black Sea as well. It should be noted that boosting naval power is on the Romanian-American agenda, and both countries understand the challenge this creates for Russia.
The second challenge is that Romania is potentially capable of producing significant hydrocarbons, including oil. The Russians’ only real card in this game is their energy sales to Europe. If they withhold it, the pressure is enormous and that economic pressure can be converted to political power. Germany’s attitude is influenced by several things, but energy dependence is certainly one of the main ones.
There is no simple energy alternative to Russia, but one can be cobbled together from several sources, if not to replace Russian energy then to mitigate its power. Romania has energy and other resources to contribute to this, and the public statement issued by the United States and Romania included a commitment by Romania to focus on energy production as a critical element of the partnership. This is not as easy as it sounds. Romania has a reputation abroad for enormous complexity and unreliability in its permitting process.
This is another point where Romania’s new strategy intersects with Russian interests. The Romanian view is that the Russians are extending their influence throughout the region, but particularly in Romania. They do it by the traditional means of using their intelligence services to try to manipulate the political process in Romania. As important, they can use commercial relations to weave networks of influence that are designed to make it costly for Romania to resist the Russians. The Russians are particularly adept at using Gazprom, its subsidiaries and other Russian energy companies to purchase and invest in Romanian and regional companies. The deals are never unattractive to either side in business terms, but they also serve to put the Russians in a position to shape both energy policy and political dynamics. This what I call commercial imperialism: the use of deals, particularly in energy, to create blocking points within the political system when Russian interests are threatened. This is not confined to Romania; the Russians use this tool to shape the behavior of other countries. Though certainly far less unpleasant than Soviet occupation, it nevertheless poses a challenge to U.S. influence.
Moldova, Energy and Russian Subtlety
There is another dimension to all of this, namely, Moldova. Moldova is ethnically Romanian but has been dominated by the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire. It is a place that survives by its wits and by accommodating Russian influence. It is an important place in the sense that if it were to be occupied by the Russians, Moscow would have access to the Prut River, with only a plain between it and Bucharest. If Moldova were to join Romania, then NATO would be on the Dniester River, less than a hundred miles from Odessa.
But such calculations matter only in wartime, and the Russians are inherently weak. Their single advantage is energy exports, and that advantage depends on the world price of oil, where they make their real profits. They do not control that price and in the future it is possible that the United States, suddenly a massive producer of oil, will be pushing the price downward. If that happens, there is little left for them.
But that won’t happen for a couple of years, if it happens at all. And the full strength of the United States will not be at Romania’s call for a few years, if it does become available. And Romania’s obligation to produce energy won’t manifest itself for a couple of years. So here in southeastern Europe, the Russians have a window of opportunity to create a framework that can withstand the winter that is coming.
They cannot live without Ukraine. They cannot take Romania. With or without the Americans, the Russians aren’t strong enough for that. What they can do is manipulate, subvert, confuse and deflect. They need to undermine the Romanian entente with the United States, and they are skilled at the political maneuvering needed to do that. To many in Romania, Russia is near and strong, America far and indecisive. This was pointed out to me at one meeting. I replied: “In the 20th century, the United States has won three wars in Europe. How many have the Romanians won?”
The most remarkable thing about Romania and even Europe as a whole is that in spite of the historical reality that the United States wins European wars, there is a view of the United States that it is naive, unfocused and bumbling. This goes beyond this administration to every administration I can recall. And yet, it is the United States that decides the fate of Europe consistently.
The Romanians know this, but they still feel that the Russians are more clever and capable than the United States. I think the reason is that the Russians move with enormous subtlety and complexity. They do this to compensate for their weakness. The United States operates more simply. It can afford to; it is playing from strength. For now, the Romanians accept this, but their acceptance is fragile. It depends on political consistency on the part of the United States, but with great distance come options and the ability to change one’s mind. Romania is here and can’t go elsewhere. It can only change alliances and hope for the best, something both sides need to consider.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission of Stratfor.