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.