BUCHAREST (BLOOMBERG) – It’s “wishful thinking” to expect relations between Russia and the West to return to their pre-war status soon after the fighting stops in Ukraine, as the Kremlin appears bent on creating a buffer between itself and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), Romania’s prime minister said.
Mr Nicolae Ciuca, a retired general who once led combat forces in Iraq, said Russia’s invasion has re-opened a civilisational rift akin to the Cold War, and Nato will have to maintain its expanded troop presence on its eastern frontier for at least the medium term.
While he said he didn’t think Russia would attack a Nato country – triggering an open conflict – the current war confirmed more than a decade of warnings from the alliance’s eastern members that President Vladimir Putin is bent on taking back territory once controlled by the Soviet Union.
“Russia is not thinking like us. Russia is not behaving like us,” Mr Ciuca, 55, said in an interview in his office in Bucharest on Tuesday (Aug 2).
“The situation now, it seems, is recreating that hole between western civilisation and eastern civilisation – between free, democratic countries and autocratic regimes.”
Romania, a former communist country of almost 19 million people that joined Nato in 2004 and the European Union (EU) three years later, has become a front-line support nation for Ukraine since Russia attacked on Feb 24.
Its 624km border with Ukraine is the EU’s longest and the country has raced to rebuild rail lines and refurbish ports to help Ukrainian exports circumvent the Russian occupation and blockade of Black Sea ports.
It has also helped more than 1 million refugees who have fled across the border to escape the conflict.
Still, concerns are intensifying that resolve among richer western countries to maintain pressure on Russia via sanctions and continuing the flow of weapons and financial aid to Ukraine may wane as winter approaches and constricted Russian gas flows drive energy prices higher.
According to Ciuca, the pressure must not falter.
If the Russians “don’t want to stop as quickly as possible and to negotiate, to find a solution, to recognise Ukraine’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty, they will do the same with other countries”, he said.
Mr Ciuca’s government plans to raise Romania’s defence spending target beyond Nato’s prescribed floor to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
About a third of that will go toward acquiring weapons including fighter jets, submarines, corvettes, armoured fighting vehicles and drones, he said.
Following Nato’s decision to bolster its troop presence on its eastern flank, Romania is also now hosting a multinational battle group comprised of French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers, as well as a US contingent, which Mr Ciuca said highlighted the growing strategic importance of the Black Sea region.
“It’s not only about defence, it’s about food security” globally, he said.
“It’s about a region that’s very close to the Balkans region as well, so all these decisions taken to increase deterrence and defence along the whole eastern flank are very welcome.”
Mr Ciuca also said he expected Romania – after more than a decade of waiting – to win entry into the EU’s passport-free Schengen area before the end of the year, a step that would eliminate lengthy waits at Romania’s borders with other EU states and boost its attractiveness for foreign investors.
Brussels will also drop a regime that monitors Romania’s progress on reforming its judiciary and stamping out corruption, he said, after years of criticism from the EU executive.
“Everything we did since the conflict started shows that we are prepared to become a member of Schengen,” Mr Ciuca said. “We really do expect all the other EU leaders to recognize everything we did.”
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