Waiting for Russia’s Next Move in Southeast Europe

Today’s Russia is still looking over its western borders and is luring some European countries. Greece, for example, is strongly dissatisfied with the European Union and went to Moscow for assistance. Serbia has just been visited by Russia’s foreign minister and is inclined toward Russia. Macedonia is following suit. Hungary is upset with the EU policies and is now befriending Moscow. Slovakia is tilting toward Russia, while the Czech Republic is caught between East and West. Only Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states are standing fast by NATO and America.


By Nicholas Dima l May 27, 2015

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To a Westerner southeast Europe appears peaceful and changing for the better, but beneath the surface people are struggling and some are worried about Russia. I gathered various impressions during a recent trip to Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria. While Romania and Bulgaria are now members of the European Union and NATO, Moldova is under Moscow’s thumb and Ukraine is facing Russian aggression. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine keeps Kiev’s leaders on edge, threatens Chisinau, and worries Bucharest.

Ever since the start of the Ukrainian conflict and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the tension between NATO and Moscow is palpable.  Russia  provokes the NATO allies and even speaks of a possible nuclear specter. Is Moscow just posturing, or is the threat of war real? It is probably both and Russia’s military threats are taken seriously by its neighbors.  Moscow is conducting masterful psychological warfare which could jeopardize NATO’s unity and drive a wedge between Europe and America.

In Bucharest I attended a lecture titled “U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense and Non-Proliferation Policy,” given by Frank Rose, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Arms Control.  Romania has been threatened by Russia for accepting an American ballistic missile shield on its territory.  Moscow alluded that Romania had exposed itself to potential reprisals and it could be annihilated within a matter of hours. On the psychological front, ever since Romania joined NATO, Moscow has spread the rumor that America should not be trusted. The lecture was an assurance that Romania is in no danger and that any threat to a NATO country would invoke the collective defense of Article 5.

Romania makes a good post-communist case study. The Romanians have a justified fear of Russia and a strong pro-Western attitude. Ever since the tsars, Moscow has wanted to reach the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea. If only Romania would not be in the way.  Indeed, the Romanian lands have been invaded repeatedly by Russia. The historical background has changed, but the geo-political situation has remained.

Today’s Russia is still looking over its western borders and is luring some European countries. Greece, for example, is strongly dissatisfied with the European Union and went to Moscow for assistance. Serbia has just been visited by Russia’s foreign minister and is inclined toward Russia. Macedonia is following suit. Hungary is upset with the EU policies and is now befriending Moscow. Slovakia is tilting toward Russia, while the Czech Republic is caught between East and West. Only Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states are standing fast by NATO and America.

To my chagrin I found my native country, Romania, confused and in doubt. People have begun to distrust America and the assurances Washington is giving Romania. I argued that Romania is not in imminent danger. Russia is not capable of any further expansion and that if NATO would not react, the organization would disintegrate.

I traveled with a Romanian-American friend to his native village in central Moldova, where we were received with great hospitality. In the capital, Chisinau, we also met young Moldovans dreaming of union with Romania and desiring to be part of Europe. There are, however, many poor people in Moldova and the society is split. Without economic opportunities, many local people work in construction in Moscow and favor Russia. The powerful Russian minority of Moldova is also chiefly siding with Moscow. The local Ukrainian minority, generally pro-Russian, is now confused.  As for the authorities, they are divided, corrupted and manipulated by Moscow.

We left Chisinau heading south toward the Danube accompanied by a local man who had been an officer in the Soviet Army. He was a tremendous source of knowledge and information about the former Soviet Union. As a native Moldovan with a Romanian passport, he could pass easily as a Russian. He was our driver and guide along the Danube and on to Odessa.

The small region adjacent to the Danube, currently in Ukraine, was part of historic Moldova and, therefore, of modern Romania. After the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Russia annexed the entire province of Bessarabia and for better control over the Danube granted this piece of land to Ukraine.

When Moscow decided to modify the border of the former Romanian province of Bessarabia in favor of Ukraine, it embittered the two nations. Now, in spite of Romania supporting Kiev in its conflict with Russia, privately, Ukraine considers Romania an enemy country.  Actually, Moscow has already alluded to this territorial issue and tried to lure Romania on its side. With Odessa on their mind, certain Russian circles even began to mention an independent pro-Russian “Bessarabian” republic along the Danube. A Russian-controlled Odessa together with Transnistria and this region would constitute what some circles call “The New Russia.”http://www.ogj.com/content/dam/etc/medialib/platform-7/ogj/articles/print-articles/Volume_107/december-7/50751.res/_jcr_content/renditions/pennwell.web.600.455.gif

Returning to this Danube piece of land, one is shocked by its state of neglect and decay. During the Soviet era, Moscow developed the Danube harbor of Reni, which was an important hub of economic activities. Now the harbor is idle and its big cranes are rusting. The entire area seems to have undergone little development since the Second World War and its roads are almost unusable. The population of the area is ethnically mixed and their main language is Russian. We could not figure out, however, which way this population would turn in case of a Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Eventually, we reached the Dnestr estuary. A bridge took us over the river and to better roads when we arrived in Odessa. In spite of its neglected buildings, the city appears European and is beautiful and full of history. The Black Sea frontage is also well-kept and the national theater nearby is magnificent. Nevertheless, local people speak predominantly Russian and even have Russian affiliations. Apparently, Ukraine’s independence did not help the people of Odessa.

Upon my return to the U.S., I found a number of analyses claiming that Russia is preparing new actions against Ukraine. Some of these mention they are expected during the next few months. My sources also thought that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict would escalate in the future, and in their opinion could lead to the disintegration of both countries.  And where is Russia going to stop: Eastern Ukraine, Odessa, or the Danube and the NATO border?  It seems that NATO and the United States will not go to war with Russia for the defense of Ukraine.  However, Washington should take Senator John McCain’s advice and give Ukraine the necessary arms to defend itself.


Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.