“The Russian Threat Is a Reality”

An interview with Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean.

Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean
Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean speaks at the Toward a Europe Whole and Free conference at the Atlantic Council on April 29, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The foreign minister of Romania, Titus Corlatean, was in Washington this week to discuss with U.S. officials the situation in Ukraine, which shares a long border with Romania. He spoke with Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:

How do you see the situation in Ukraine?

My country, Romania, represents the eastern border of both NATO and the European Union. What happened with this absolutely illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia violating international law—happened only 200 miles from the Romanian border. The other Russian temptation, that relates to the status of the Moldovan region of Transnistria, is happening at our border. We are extremely concerned with what is happening in Eastern Europe and around the Black Sea region. We are part of the region. We are the eastern flank of NATO. As foreign minister, I strongly criticized the actions of Russia.


Do you worry about the Russian incursion into Ukraine?

Yes … but also looking to the south of Ukraine, going toward Odessa and even toward Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova. [Monday] the mayor of Kharkiv was shot.

Do you think Russia will actually send troops into the south and east of Ukraine?

I think Russia is very active in the region. First of all in the east of Ukraine, but not only in the east of Ukraine. The subject of the federalization of Ukraine, this is something that appears to be very valued by the Russians.

Do you mean the Russians say Ukraine should be federalized, which basically means that Russia would take control of the regions?

It is a form of blocking the European aspirations of Ukraine as a whole and maintaining a certain influence on Ukraine. The interest of Russia is to maintain its strong influence in the former Soviet Union space. It is related to Ukraine and to the Republic of Moldova. Yesterday, based on the political decision of the EU, Moldovan citizens started to be the beneficiary of free movement within the EU, so the need for visas was eliminated for Moldovan citizens. The most important objective in the near future is the signature of the [EU] association agreement and the free-trade agreement with the EU.


But Russia has control over Transnistria, the strip of land inside Moldova.

This is something we are extremely concerned about. We were among those allies within NATO advocating for a faster and stronger military presence on the eastern flank to consolidate the confidence of Romania, Poland, and the Baltic states in the collective security, which is guaranteed by the alliance.

What do you want to see exactly?

The redeployment of military capabilities of NATO starting with Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states. I welcome the redeployment of troops in some cases, the air support, the AWACS.


Do you mean in Poland?

Poland and also in Romania because Romania is also the subject of the surveillance of AWACS. They are patrolling and monitoring Poland and Romania. Recently we had military exercises together with the American F-16s coming into Romania together with our military fleet. There was a recent announcement of a supplementary six air fighters sent by Canada to Romania—F-18 Hornets. And then also the American and the French military ships in the Black Sea are participating in military exercises together with the Romanians. This is consolidating the confidence of public opinion. It is extremely important to have a solid U.S. presence in our countries, including Romania.


In Ukraine people told me that they felt they had been betrayed. The Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 guaranteeing the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and now nothing has happened other than a few sanctions.

We have to make a distinction. In the end, the [NATO] alliance gives security guarantees for the members. For us it is a subject of our own choice. Ukraine abandoned its candidate status for NATO for its own internal political reasons. At that time, we were very serious and committed and became members of the alliance. So we have our national security guaranteed by the alliance. Those who are not members of the alliance do not have a direct guarantee.

What should the strategy of Eastern European countries be?


What is important in these dramatic circumstances is to have a strong and coordinated political position at the level of the Europeans and the Euro-Atlantic family while condemning in firm terms the violation of the fundamental principles of international law and the illegal annexation of Crimea as an act of aggression by Russia.

Do you feel that Europe has had that strong a position?


The European mechanism is different than the U.S. mechanism because we have to harmonize 28 voices around the table. We advanced by adopting different sanctions, and we have to continue to send very firm messages and positions.


Do you honestly feel that Washington has sent firm messages?

I think both sides—Europe and the United States—can adopt even more firm attitudes. We asked Russia to take action to de-escalate. And what has followed in the past few weeks and days is definitely going in the wrong direction.


So Putin is doing whatever he wants to do.

In the short term, the current Russian leadership thinks they are the winner. But in the long term, there might be serious negative consequences for Russia. We need to have a strong coordinated voice and not make concessions for economic reasons. We need to ensure respect for the main fundamental principles of international law. Because if you accept the rewriting of the international legal order, everybody will lose. To change borders through military action without any firm attitude from the international community is wrong. So we are in favor of having a very clear attitude on this.

But there doesn’t seem to be a clear attitude here. Are you disappointed in the U.S. reaction?


A lot of people [in the West] believed in a different sort of relationship with Russia. I think being less naive is a must.


Do you think Mr. Putin has made the decision to stop cooperating with the West?

I think he counted on the weaknesses of the Western world and we have to prove a firm attitude and solidarity among the Europeans and our Euro-Atlantic allies.

What is the reaction from countries in the region?

We have concluded a strategic partnership with Poland. We are maintaining close contact with Poland, with the Baltic states, with Bulgaria, which is also directly concerned about having access to the Black Sea region.


The Baltic states are under threat from Putin, aren’t they?


They were the subject of political threats, even very recently, yes, indeed.

Do you think he will invade them?

They are members of the alliance, so they have the assurance of the security of the alliance. I hope not.

Latvia has a large Russian minority, and Putin has stated he would protect Russian minorities, like, for example, in Moldova.

You can imagine what sort of pressure the Russians are putting on those who are not members of the EU or of NATO, as is case with the Republic of Moldova. They have Russian troops in the Transnistria region of Moldova. The current Romanian government started last year a very ambitious project of advancing with interconnecting gas pipelines between Romania and the Republic of Moldova, offering a connection to the European network of energy.


So you are trying to liberate them from energy dependence on Russia?

Yes, because they want to be part of the European Union, they want to have very strong cooperation with Romania.

The gas situation is a huge problem for Europeans. And of course it comes from Russia through Ukraine.

Absolutely. Romania is less dependent on Russian gas because we have our own national resources. Romania can be a regional hub, but the problem is that Russia—in controlling Crimea and that part of southern Ukraine—is limiting the access of Ukraine to the Black Sea and its own natural resources. This is a very serious risk for Ukraine.

So this is part of Putin’s strategy?

It might be a strategy, yes. It controls their access to the hydrocarbon resources of the Ukraine.


You are in a difficult position—you have Moldova on one side and Ukraine on the other.

We have the largest border among the EU member states with Ukraine.


Do you think Ukraine will make it?

It will be extremely important to support the current Ukrainian government to organize presidential elections on May 25 because having ensured the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian leadership is extremely important. We hope the legitimate sovereign will of the Ukrainian government will be successful. The former Soviet Union remains a complicated region. But when you see political will to put in place reforms and advance according to a European path, then of course we have great sympathy and expressed great support for this.


And that is what you did in your country?


Yes, but many years ago. We chose our direction freely. We chose to be members of both the European Union and NATO. And Romania today is fundamentally different than it was 20 years ago. Last year we had the highest economic growth in the European Union. Romania is the second-biggest market in southeast Europe, after Poland.

Do you think Russia will stay on the border of Ukraine? Or will they send troops in?

I don’t want to speculate. One of the most important things is to maintain a firm, coordinated attitude among our European family.

Do you really see that coordinated attitude today?

We can do even more. Unfortunately, the actions taken by Russia are not helpful and are going in the wrong direction. I think we will continue to adopt a different level of sanctions. Coming from history, every time the Russians perceived the weakness of the Western world, they profited because of these weaknesses. We don’t have the right to be weak during this period.


Do you think the U.S. is weak?

The fact is that the U.S. has rediscovered the geostrategic importance of Eastern Europe. Previously the Asia-Pacific region was extremely important for the U.S. We encourage the United States to be more present in our region. On our side, Romania favors increasing our share in the burden of our alliance and our share in terms of the budget for [defense] expenditures. The Romanian government increased the budget for defense expenditures. Our target is to reach 2 percent of GDP allocated to the defense budget by 2016. We encourage other European allies to do the same.


What are you seeking from the U.S.?

We are interested in having a more substantial U.S. military presence in Romania. We are the first country in which the missile defense system will be deployed. In 2015 the system will be operational [in Romania]. We are interested in having a strong political, military, and economic presence of the United States in Romania.

Do you think the officials here are interested?

I think we increased the level of interest in Washington. We are in favor of a more substantial American presence in Romania, and this is my message.

Is it being well-received?

The Russian threat is a reality. Romania represents the eastern flank of NATO. So we need support. Our expectation is for a more substantial American military presence in Romania and maybe a permanent military base of NATO.

Do you think people here understand the threat posed by Mr. Putin?

I think in Washington it is better understood—the potential threat of Russia putting challenges on different countries.

Will Russia stop with Crimea?

They remain very active in our region, and that is why we have to be very firm.

Are you worried about your country?

Not for my country but for the region—for Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova and for Georgia, yes.

The Russians are going into Georgia again?

Already 30 percent of Georgia is under Russian [control]. They are willing to stop any European or Euro-Atlantic process of enlargement in the region of the Black Sea. It is our task to support those countries to become members of both the EU
and NATO. This is the wish of Georgia, Ukraine, and the Republic of Moldova.