BUCHAREST, Romania — For Romania, if there is an upside to Russia's recent land-grab in neighboring Ukraine, it is this: It has earned Romania the attention of the Americans that leaders here have long felt was lacking.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is traveling to Romania this week as part of a parade of high-level U.S. visits intended to remind the Eastern European nation — and the Russians — that the West is not sleeping while President Vladimir Putin attempts to expand the Russian sphere of influence.
Russia is not a direct threat to Romanian territory, yet conversations here are fraught with concern about Russian expansion, in part because it was only 25 years ago that Romania overthrew Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Soviet- backed communist dictator. Romanians are convinced that Putin's territorial appetites are not sated, and that Moldova, a neighbor with much closer historic ties to Romania is the next target.
Ioan Mircea Pascu, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, told a conference hosted by the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest last week that Russia's incursion into Ukraine was not without costs to Moscow.
"The cost to Russia is a reinvigorated NATO," Pascu noted, adding that NATO forces have stepped up military activities in Romania, so "the military presence of NATO got closer to Russia." In addition, Pascu argued, in the wake of the Crimea annexation, "Russia is more isolated than before and Mr. Putin is more compromised than before."
However, Pascu noted, Crimea shows a pattern of behavior that remains of concern. "Russia moves decisively and grabs the pieces," and the West responds with sanctions and condemnations. The West then "feels relieved" when Russia steps back from its aggressive posture toward other nations in the region. A kind of peace is restored, but "Russia retains the prizes," which include Crimea and the energy-rich and strategically important waters surrounding it.
Iulian Chifu, foreign policy counselor to the Romanian president, said the result has been a transformation of Romania's Eastern border from a "civilized border" — conceived as a "partnership of peace" between Russia and the Western world — to "a strong border, an enforced border... a border from the containment period. On one side we are going to have one world and on the other side you are going to have the other one. This reality — hopefully it will happen on the borders of Ukraine — means that everything that is behind these borders should move eventually to NATO and the EU."
And Romania could be on the front lines of that border.
The Russian deputy prime minister visited the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria last month. The visit raised concerns that Russia intends to deploy the same strategy there it has used in Ukraine: fan a pro-Russian separatist movement to destabilize the country ahead of the November election in Moldova that will become an East vs. West referendum.
"We have seen increased activity of the intelligence forces of the Russia Federation in the Republic of Moldova," Vladimir Filat, a former Moldovan prime minister, told The Daily Beast last month. The goal, he said, appears to be "destabilization in order to 'prepare' for the elections in autumn."
The European Union has already been reaching out to Moldova in hopes of wooing the nation toward a Western alliance. Later this month, Moldova will enter a free trade agreement with the European Union and the EU has extended visa-free travel benefits to Moldovan citizens as well as providing more than $40 million in direct aid this year.
Together, Moldova and Ukraine make up the entire northern and eastern land borders of Romania.
Meeting with Vice President Biden in May, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta emphasized his country's concern about Moldova.
"We have talked quite a lot about the Moldovan state," Ponta said. "Every time we have the opportunity to meet, I keep telling Mr. Vice President how important Moldova is for Romania, how important it is to support the United States, the European Union for this pro-European and pro-Romanian development of the Moldovan Republic. And I want to thank for the support that the Washington administration is providing in an explicit manner."
Ponta said Romania is working to boost its own energy production so that "Romania can ensure for itself and for the Moldovan Republic an energy independence that is even more important in the current crisis conditions." Throughout the region, Russia has been using its energy dominance as a club to force poorer nations into concessions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has engaged in a sustained campaign of reassurance of Romania, to emphasize Western commitments there. As an official member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Romania is covered by the joint defense provisions of that treaty that guarantee that the entire alliance will rise to the defense of any member. During his May visit, Biden expressly reconfirmed the US commitment to Romania's defense.
Earlier this year, the U.S. began operating an air base in Romania as the primary transit hub for military operations in Afghanistan, replacing a transit center in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the Pentagon plans to open a missile defense installation in Romania later this year, and U.S. military exercises and naval visits have increased since the Ukrainian crisis erupted.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced he is seeking a $1 billion package from Congress to maintain and expand these efforts across Eastern Europe, including Romania and Moldova.
There remain challenges on both sides: Romania has for many years failed to meet its NATO requirement of spending 2% of GDP on national defense, though the government now promises to do so by 2016. And the U.S has failed to appoint a new ambassador to Romania, leaving that post vacant for more than a year.
"One of the great embarrassments here is that it has been 19 months without a US ambassador and Romanians want to know 'Do we matter to you?'" said Larry Watts, an associate professor at the National School and an author of several books of Romanian history.
Mark Gitenstein, the last U.S. ambassador, said Romania will be critical to U.S. interests moving forward.
Romania is "the most trustworthy ally in that region right now," he said, both as "a bulkhead against any further (Russian) expansion" and as "the anchor in southeast Europe for NATO."