The first time I visited post-communist Romania was in 2009, the same year my book “The Next 100 Years” was published. In it, I forecast that Russia would become increasingly aggressive and, over time, increasingly weak as its underlying economic problems manifested themselves. I also forecast that Ukraine would become the flashpoint between Russia and the Euro-American alliance.
Most readers found this (and other forecasts) to be preposterous. In spite of the war with Georgia, Russia was seen by many in 2009 as unlikely either to pose a strategic threat or to face economic duress. Romania was different. It had experienced Russian power and understood Russian fears. There was a sense of foreboding there, one that stretched from the Baltic states through Poland and Hungary, too. The feeling was not universal, nor did it dominate each government, but there was a sense in the region that Russia had not passed out of history. It was still here, and it was still Russia.
In Romania, there was a belief that Russia would try to regain its old geopolitical position, by subversion if not by armed force. Russia had had a deep buffer zone that protected the motherland from Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. The Baltic countries, Belarus and, above all, Ukraine were the foundation of Russia’s strategic depth and, therefore, its security. After World War II, the Soviet Union had increased its buffer into Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It was the high point of Russian power. But in 1989 this second line of defense was shattered, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, it lost all control of the Baltic states and much of its influence in Belarus and Ukraine.
My argument was that Russia could not accept the loss of its historical borderland. It could live with neutralization, but it feared that the West – and the United States in particular – would seek to absorb those countries into its alliance structure, which is what happened with the Baltics. I argued that in due course Russia would need to reverse all of this and said that an alliance would emerge, the Intermarium, which would bind the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary and Romania into a cordon sanitaire. (I thought Turkey might join and that it might stretch to Azerbaijan, though this didn’t happen.)
The events in 2014 in Ukraine drove home that reality. Moscow saw the fall of the pro-Russian government as a coup staged by the United States. Washington saw it as an act of Ukrainian self-determination. Who was right is less important than what the revolution bore: A Russia frightened of American intentions in its buffer zone, and a United States frightened of Russian intentions west of Ukraine. The post-Cold War interregnum had ended.
An Intermarium did, in fact, form. Turkey was preoccupied with other interests; Hungary chose to flirt with everyone but marry no one; and the Baltics were glad to have allies. But the two key countries were Poland, which sits astride the North European Plain, blocking the feared Russian expansion along traditional invasion routes, and Romania, which blocked the Carpathian Mountains, and, more importantly, posed problems for Russia in the Black Sea.
On my recent visit to Romania, I attended a meeting sponsored by the New Strategy Center in Constanta. Constanta is situated on the shores of the Black Sea. It is in size and tonnage the largest port on the Black Sea – larger than Odessa and Sevastopol. It also now hosts regular visits by U.S. destroyers, which are sometimes harassed by Russian warships and aircraft. The U.S. harasses them in return. Washington has returned to a policy of containment, and Constanta is at the southern point of its line.
The conference was clearly a meeting of U.S. allies. I had the opportunity to meet with senior Romanian military figures, retired U.S. generals, and current U.S. military contractors and advisers. There was much talk of the threat of Russian military action, but I made a different argument. I agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe for Moscow – a catastrophe that made Russia far weaker strategically than the Soviet Union was. There was also talk at the conference of hybrid warfare (what we used to call subversion). The Soviet Union practiced subversion throughout the Cold War. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, it proved that subversion is irritating but not militarily decisive. Unable to move west with decisive force, Russia has chosen subversion and military adventures in places like Syria, critical neither to Russia nor its opponents. This, coupled with Russia’s economic problems (we noted this week that Moscow is considering dipping into its national wealth fund to try to stimulate a stagnant economy), means that, for now, Romania has a degree of security.
I of course went home to Texas, while the Romanians stayed in Romania. It is easy to take an Olympian view of Russia from Texas; if I make an error in judgement, I can write an article explaining it. It is harder to take this standpoint when an error in judgement could jeopardize your national sovereignty. Still, it is important to realize that Putin is right, that Russia has suffered not just one geopolitical catastrophe but many, from Ukraine to its economy, and that he therefore understands Russian weakness better than anyone.
While I was in Romania, the mayor of Constanta took me on a helicopter flight for a view of the harbor. The shore is lined with hotels and beach loungers, and the port is filled with silos to hold the grain that is exported by Romania. But I saw no barriers designed to rip the bottom from hostile landing craft. This is to me a sign that the Intermarium has worked. With the exception of Hungary, which seems to have returned to its old strategy of being inscrutable, there is a line from the Baltic states to Romania. It is a line that Russia will challenge via Twitter, but a line which makes Ukraine and Belarus the only possible points at which to create strategic depth and regain its balance.
In the meantime, Romania as a country is developing, and the primordial fear of Russia is at least partly driving this development. Russia’s ability to regain its geopolitical balance remains a threat to Romania, and the source of the only real threat to the region. A Russian sense of vulnerability can cause it, or other nations, to take risks they shouldn’t. And for that reason, the meeting in Constanta was deeply comforting.