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.