June 22, 2010
Srdja Trifkovic

Presented at the AIU forum in Kiev, June 17, 2010

Ukraine faces sustained security challenges from its southwestern neighbor Romania. Those challenges reflect a remarkable continuity of Romania’s geopolitical objectives, regardless of the nature of its domestic regime. They require carefully calibrated policy responses from Kiev. This fact was blurred by the visceral Russophobia of Ukraine’s previous government, to the detriment of both parties. It is now finally possible to look at the challenges Ukraine faces on its southwestern borders through the realist prism, and to consider specific counter-measures that are proportionate to the challenge, feasible, and useful.

THE PARADIGM – The notion of interests and the policies that they engender are defined by the ideological framework in which they are embedded. Both the old Soviet notion of the “fraternal community” and the current notion of “European integration” are derived from neo-Marxist utopianism. Both hold that Man is improvable and that permanent peace within a stable, supra-nationally controlled system is the attainable order of things. Both believe in their ability to make the international system as they wanted it to be, rather than dealing with it as it is.

It is realism that, unlike either utopian school, places national interest, pragmatically defined and quantifiable, at the basis of international affairs. It accepts the reality of a world where might is often right, rivalry the norm, and the immutable constants of history, culture, and geopolitics outweigh propositional slogans emanating from Moscow (before 1989) or from Brussels (today).

From the realist vantage point, it is evident that Romania’s cultural narratives, national objectives and state interests – as articulated by its political elite ever since the Congress of Berlin (with the exception of two decades following World War II) – make that country Ukraine’s most adversarial and potentially dangerous neighbor.

THE CHALLENGE – At this time, four key elements of the Romanian elite consensus directly affect Ukraine:

  • Romanians are claimed to be a civilizational outpost of “the West” amidst the Slav-Magyar sea, and in the 21st century they supposedly remain Europe’s “last bastion before the immense, vague and unsettling space left behind in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
  • Moldovans east of the Prut speak the Romanian language and are Romanians (even when they do not acknowledge the fact); therefore, they should be incorporated into Romania on the basis of the right to self-determination.
  • Not only the Republic of Moldova, but also Ukrainian territories to its south and north (Bukovina), annexed by the USSR in 1940, should be “returned” to Romania based on its legal rights – by undoing the fruits of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Last January President Traian Basescu thus declared in Kishinev that he would not sign a Border Treaty with Moldova: “I will never sign what Hitler with Stalin have signed. I will never confirm that Romania’s border passes on Prut River. There may be discussions about a contract, an agreement concerning the border regime, but there is no way I can discuss an agreement based on which I will confirm that the border passes from here to there.”
  • In any event, Bucharest has a valid title to the territories of pre-1940 Romania mare on the basis of its historic rights. In May 2010, President Basescu thus stated: “If Kiev has pretensions concerning the return of Transdniestria to Ukraine, then officials there should not forget about the return to Chisinau of Southern Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, territories which the former Ukrainian SSR received after the Second World War.”

HISTORICAL LEGACY – Before 1878, the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (united in 1859) looked upon Russia as an essential source of external support in their emancipation from the Ottomans. The United Principalities took part in the siege of Plevna, but their hopes of enlargement along the Black Sea were soon dashed. Russia took back Bessarabia (lost after the Crimean War) and awarded southern Dobruja to its then favorite, Bulgaria. The effect on the political class of the newly established Romanian state (“undeserving of statehood” as it was, according to Bismarck) was both immediate and decisive:

  • The early-19th-century national-romantic myth of the Romanians as linguistic and cultural heirs to Rome morphed into the nationalist ideology of Romania as an outpost of the Western civilization amidst the allegedly inferior ocean of Slavs and Magyars.
  • The irredentist aspiration to Bessarabia and resentment of Russia outweighed the bitterness over the Magyar treatment of the Romanian minority in Transylvania, drawing Romania to the Central Powers in the three decades preceding World War I.

Romanian nationalism, freshly minted, weak and insecure, thus came to rest on two pillars, and the equation has not changed in essence for almost a century and a half:

  • Audacious territorial aspirations, primarily directed eastwards, and
  • Antagonism to “the Other,” directed at Budapest and St. Petersburg.

The collapse of Austria-Hungary and imperial Russia made possible the creation of the Greater Romania (1918-1940), by crook more than by hook. East of the Prut, however, Bucharest proved singularly unequal to the task of nation building. Bessarabia remained un-integrated socially, undeveloped economically, resentful politically; most of its Moldovan-speaking plurality remained reluctant to embrace a “Romanian” identity.

The disasters of 1940 – the loss of northern Transylvania to Horthy, southern Dobruja to Boris and Bessarabia to Stalin, without a shot being fired – were to be alleviated by Hitler’s gift of Bukovina and an insanely expanded “Transnistria” all the way to the Bug, comprising a fifth of Ukraine, as a reward for Romania’s participation in the Barbarossa. Ethnic cleansing started right away, justified by an openly racist attitude of Romania that treated Jews and Slavs as equally sub-human. The hasty switch of allegiance came in August 1944, however, enabling Romania to avoid facing squarely the demons of its recent past. They are still with us today.

PLUS ÇA CHANGE… – A radical change in the composition of Romania’s political class took place under communism. Its core consensus and nationalist agenda have not changed, however. In 1991 Romania rushed to be the first country to recognize the newly-independent Republic of Moldova. The government of Ion Iliescu, Nicolae Ceausescu’s neo-communist successor, saw its independence as a step towards its reunification with Romania. It hailed the event with a rousing statement that could have been counter-signed by Marshal Antonescu:

“The proclamation of an independent Romanian state in the territories annexed by force following the secret agreements of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact represents a decisive step toward the peaceful elimination of that pact’s unfortunate consequences directed against the rights and interests of the Romanian people.”

During the Transdnistrian conflict, Romania sent a contingent of volunteers and military advisers to fight alongside Moldovan forces, and supplied them with weapons. When Moldova started having second thoughts about the union, however, the reaction in Bucharest was acerbic. On April 14, 1994, the Romanian Parliament adopted a declaration of protest against the decision of the Moldovan Parliament to join the CIS. The protest contained an audacious blend of nationalist claims based on ethno-linguistic, historic, and late-19th-century “civilizational” arguments:

“The vote of the Parliament in Chişinău regrettably reconfirms the criminal [Ribbentrop-Molotov] pact and irresponsibly cancels the right of the Romanian nation to live within the integrity of its historical and spiritual space. [...] Through the geographical position, culture, history and traditions, the natural place of our brothers from across the Prut is, undoubtedly, together with us, in the great family of the European nations, and by no means in a Eurasian structure.”

Sixteen years later, in May 2010, President Traian Basescu used the same terms of reference in his aggressive reaction to the unsubstantiated claim that Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovich had reached a secret understanding on the future of Moldova and Transdnistria:

“Moscow and now Kyiv are trying to create on the territory that, at the end of World War II should have been returned to Romania, a pseudo-federation of three political-legal pseudo-subjects. But we will do everything to oppose the Russian-Ukrainian plan for the amputation of Bessarabia.”

It is remarkable that the head of state should feel compelled to react to an allegation that is unconfirmed and unproven; it is even more noteworthy that he should use such bellicose language. But at he last he is consistent and open: already in January 2006, Basescu had declared that “the minimal policy of Romania is for the unification of the Romanian nation to take place within the EU.” Note the phrase minimal policy, implying the existence of a maximal policy that presumably goes way beyond mere unification with Moldova. The reality of the project is apparent in the decision to grant Romanian citizenship to all residents of the territories belonging to the pre-1940 Greater Romania and their descendants, up to the third generation – including the denizens of Bukovina (Chernovtsy) and southern Bessarabia (Budjak).

UKRAINIAN RESPONSE – The policies and stated positions of Bucharest represent an open challenge to Ukraine as a state and a threat to its core interests. The response to that challenge has been muted and indecisive thus far. Its articulation in realist terms should be a priority for the decision makers in Kiev.

To start with, Ukraine should overcome the previous government’s propensity to embrace the Euro-integrative discourse, which inhibited asserting its interests in a reasonable, clear and unambiguous manner. Ukraine’s reluctance to do so over the years has created the expectation in Bucharest that it can get away with a dual-track policy of pursuing its revisionist-nationalist agenda, and at the same time pretending to be Ukraine’s special friend and advocate within the EU. With “friends” like Basescu, Ukraine needs no detractors.

ROMANIA’S WEAKNESSES: Kiev’s response to the challenge should take account of the fundamental weakness of Romania’s position, both internally and externally:

  • Romania does not enjoy a carte blanche from Brussels, or from any major West European capital, for its irredentist-revisionist policy. In fact, its status within the EU – low to start with – has been further eroded, albeit indirectly, by the Greek financial crisis. Key European countries are more impatient than ever with their poor relations along the periphery of the Union. They have no time for their special pleading, and do not care one way or another for whose flag flies over Kishinev or Tiraspol. They will not hesitate to express their lack of support for Romania’s designs if asked to state their preferences. The reason Romania has been able to pretend that it enjoys the support of “Europe” in its aspirations has been Ukraine’s reluctance to force the issue and test that proposition.
  • Romania does not enjoy the support of the Obama administration either for its irredentist-revisionist designs. Admittedly, Bucharest gets private encouragement for such ambitions from various neoconservative “analysts” who still pursue a Russophobic, NATO-for-ever agenda, yet those people represent nobody but themselves. They may pretend to have official connections and influence, and their Romanian hosts may be lured into believing it. Ukraine can and should call their bluff, in view of Yanukovich’s high stock in Washington after his visit last spring.
  • Romania is no longer able to count on the Orange animosity to Russia as the welcome focus of Ukraine’s external priorities. To the contrary, Ukraine is now able to discuss and coordinate its policies with Moscow, since their interests in the region are “objectively” identical. This is particularly significant in view of the growing special relationship between Russia and Germany, manifested in the opening of the North Stream pipeline: Europe’s overall indifference to the rekindling of regional tension is strengthened by Moscow’s ability to exert influence in Berlin on specific issues it deems worthy of attention.
  • Romania cannot count on clear support for its agenda in Moldova – not even for what Basescu calls the “minimal policy” of unification. The Unionists may be ascendant right now, but the opposition to “the reunion with the Romanian motherland” remains strong. The support is largely pragmatic (i.e. EU membership and associated presumed benefits) rather than emotional and cultural, which makes it soft and volatile.
  • Within Romania itself, there is no real consensus on the irredentist objectives of the political elite. Ordinary Romanians are too preoccupied with the daily struggle of making ends meet in what is officially the poorest EU member-country (per capita GDP). Polls indicate that barely one-half of the population supports a union with Moldova and a third rejects it. Among those supporting the union, it is worthy of note that a half would be willing to give up Transdnistria. The cost of the project is broadly suspected of exceeding (in relative terms, of course) FRG’s cost of integrating GDR. Anecdotal evidence also indicates a sense of cultural detachment from the trans-Prut Moldovans, who are perceived as less than diligent and generally “primitive.”
  • Romania’s aspiration to “regional leadership” – a theme that had inexplicably resonated in Kiev for years until last January – is entirely bogus, and it is the source of actual or potential friction with Warsaw and Budapest. “Leadership” presumes the qualities of legitimacy and cultural, political or economic power that underpin the leader’s willingly accepted benevolent authority. On no account can Romania aspire to such a lofty position. In the words of a Bucharest-based Western diplomat, “it needs to be led, rather than lead.”
  • Romania has ambiguous relations, at best, with all of her neighbors, and tense with two. (a) The new Fidesz government is Hungary takes an active interest in the status of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, and it advocates autonomy for the Hungarians of Transylvania, which the authorities in Bucharest say they will not accept. (b) In eastern Serbia, the Romanian government is actively promoting the “awakening” of the Vlachs, traditionally well integrated, and the unprecedented establishment of parallel ecclesiastical structures of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
  • Romania has no military option a la Saakashvili, being within NATO and having no green light from any quarter for an act of reckless adventurism. Far from giving it the muscle for assertiveness, EU and NATO membership create salutary constraints in the behavior of Bucharest and provide affected third parties (in this case Ukraine and Russia) with the means of exerting indirect influence, and – if needed – pressure.

Ukraine should assert its interests with five low-cost, low-risk policy moves:

  • Ukrainian law does not recognize dual citizenship, but it should be augmented by the prospect of the loss of Ukrainian citizenship by permanent residents of Ukraine who accept the citizenship of another country. This would not affect the Ukrainians e.g. in Toronto who take the citizenship of Canada, but it would quite properly affect those living in Chernivtsi or Izmail who take the citizenship of Romania and thus implicitly accept the validity of its continuing claim to the pre-1940 Romania mare.
  • Ukraine should intensify its relations with the new Hungarian government, with which it shares common interest in denying Romania any special or privileged position in the context of regional cooperation and Euro-integration. Budapest has already signaled its interest in a new chapter in its relations with both Ukraine and Moldova.
  • Ukraine should increase the awareness of Romania’s problematic positions and policies by indirectly supporting and promoting events, research and publications – primarily in Western Europe and North America – conducive to its views on regional stability.
  • Ukraine should indicate to its West European interlocutors that it needs no third parties as its pleaders in the process of drawing closer to the EU. There will be no eastward expansion of the Union anyway, but Romania nevertheless should be disabused of its pretensions to be Ukraine’s self-appointed chaperone in Brussels.
  • Ukraine should proceed with the Bystroye project, and indicate that it would treat any attempt to dig a counter-canal upstream as an overtly hostile act.

The challenge Ukraine faces from Romania is not going to fade away because it is based on the cultural, strategic and geopolitical realities that are relatively constant. That challenge can and should be met more forcefully than before, and recognizing its existence would be the necessary first step. The source of the challenge is relatively weak and vulnerable. With its size, resources, and comparative advantages, Ukraine has nothing to fear in tackling it responsibly but firmly.