By George Friedman
After Slovakia, the next stop on my European trip is Bucharest, the capital of Romania. It is a place I have visited many times in recent years, in large part because I saw Romania as being a significant strategic part of coming events. I had expected Russia to at least attempt to return to great power status and to do that, it had to try to develop a degree of control over the borderlands it had dominated for most of the last three centuries.
In facing west toward the European Peninsula, Russia was invariably facing more developed and sophisticated military forces. Its national strategy was to force them to attack through vast space, arriving in Russia proper exhausted by distance and by weather. Except for the distance armies faced, Russia would have been defeated and occupied not only by those who attacked, but also those who would have attacked but didn’t because they were deterred by the distance.
There are two bands of buffer countries that were indispensable to Russia in defeating Napoleon and Hitler. The first band was Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic countries. The second band was Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Russian troops went as far west as central Germany. Whatever minor thoughts NATO had of attacking Russia were annihilated by the sheer space that had to be traversed.
The fall of the Soviet Union pushed Russia back to its own borders, which were pretty much its borders in the 18th century. During the 1990s, there was a fantasy that Russia could simply accept these borders. However, the chaos of the 1990s taught the Russians that while they had been poor in the Soviet Union, they were also powerful and respected. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were poorer and treated with contempt. They had little incentive to continue as they were and it seemed to me inevitable that they would attempt to recover at least part of their buffers, regardless of the buffer states’ status as independent nations.
The Baltics were lost to Russia, as they were part of NATO and the risks were too high. Belarus was another case, ruled as it is by the last Brezhnevite. But it was Ukraine that was the key to the Russian position, partly because of its size, and partly because it was here that the Russians crushed the Germans. Inevitably, the Russians would try to make certain that they regained a degree of control over Ukraine.
This was where the United States would involve itself. It had fought World War I, World War II and the Cold War to keep any potential hegemon from dominating all of Europe and using its resources to challenge the United States. The United States previously responded to rising powers by forming alliances, containment and only as a last resort by open warfare.
As Russia increased its westward pressure, the United States made tentative moves to block it. Two countries were key to this strategy – Poland and Romania. Poland was in many ways more well-defined strategically than Romania. Romania had been governed by an increasingly erratic dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. To get a sense of him, bear in mind that he called himself “the genius of the Carpathians.” This requires no further discussion of him. But unlike Poland, disposing of him was bloody and disposing of his security apparatus was even bloodier. Also unlike Poland, Romania emerged from communism damaged and unsure of itself.
However, if Ukraine was to become a contested region, then Romania was an essential country because of its geography. It has a substantial border with Ukraine, and neighboring Moldova, with deep ties to Romania, juts far into Ukraine. Poland blocks Russia in the north, Romania in the south. The problem was that the U.S. didn’t recognize a significant shift in Russian strategy and was focused on ballistic missile defense rather than defense against the not yet existent power of Russia. Romania was focused on the European Union and balancing between Europe and Russia, and didn’t see an overwhelming need for the United States. It was a marriage that seemed to have no point.
The ties have matured as the perceived Russian threat has increased following the events in Ukraine. What had been a minor courtship has evolved into a strategic alignment. The most important part of that alignment, apart from borders with Ukraine, is the Black Sea. The Black Sea has become critical in the competition between the West and Russia, and Romania provides a port, Constanța, which could be used as an important base.
If you look at a map, you realize that the other link in this new containment is Turkey. On the surface, Turkey ought to be deeply involved in this process, ever since it shot down a Russian plane in November. Indeed, the Turks have held recent talks with Poland and Romania, clearly discussing the Russians. But the United States is an issue for Turkey. The Americans are deeply involved in Poland and Romania, and Turkey would have coinciding interests with the United States to the north. However, Ankara and Washington are deeply divided over Syria, particularly over U.S. support for the Kurds.
Romania needs to collaborate with Turkey over Black Sea issues, and with the United States as well, but the U.S.-Turkish relationship creates complexity for Romania. Still, the degree to which U.S.-Romanian relations have evolved in the past few years is remarkable. As with most American strategic partnerships, this one will evolve to include varieties of investment and economic relationships.
In many ways, Romania stills suffers from its communist past. The government dominates economic life, and with that, almost inevitably, comes corruption. Governments whose officials have little control over wealth have little corruption. Why bribe the powerless? When the reverse is true, corruption can rise. The Romanians are now involved in a massive anti-corruption campaign, but in my view, that can’t work until there is a realignment of the economy and the state.
The Romanians will do things their way. The U.S. relationship is not built on mutual admiration of the other, but on geography. If the U.S. is going to deal with Russia, it needs to deal with any country that borders on both Ukraine and the Black Sea, and that happens to be Romania. The Romanians still remain focused on the EU as their economic guide, and the U.S. still expects allies to behave as it does – or pretends it does. There is inevitable friction, but in coming here I realized two things: the centrality of Romania to American interests and the fact that most Americans are not even clear where Romania is, much less that it has become a critical ally. Reality creates policies. Policies don’t create reality. So in the end, it doesn’t matter that the Romanians are focused on the EU and that Americans are not at all focused on Romania. The reality of Russia defines this relationship.