The leaders of Romania and Slovakia, two former communist NATO members that border Ukraine, called for the European Union to unite in the face of resurgent Russian expansionism.
The 28-member bloc must come together to send Russia a clear message after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in an interview yesterday. Slovak President-elect Andrej Kiska in a separate interview said the EU’s ability to confront Russia with a united stance is being undermined by a narrow-minded pursuit of business interests by some member states.
The unrest in Ukraine is sending shockwaves across eastern Europe, a region that broke free of Soviet influence 25 years ago. For Romania, the events in Crimea across the Black Sea make the crisis “more intense” than for countries in other parts of the continent, Ponta said.
“Russia has been for centuries -- in different names, Russia, Soviet Union, it doesn’t matter -- but it has been a great power and a great power must have a clear answer from Europe that this is the red line,” Ponta said in Bucharest yesterday. “Nobody wants confrontation, but there must be a red line which can’t be crossed.”
Romania, which hosts a U.S. military base, has already boosted defense spending and is working with the Pentagon to develop missile defense, Ponta said. The EU also needs to present a unified energy policy to counterbalance Russia’s position as an oil and gas exporter, he said.
Debate over further penalties against Russia is splitting the EU, which relies on Russia for 30 percent of its natural gas. Tension between Russia and Ukraine, which flared into the biggest standoff since the Cold War, has led the U.S. and the EU impose asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies. They stopped short of broader curbs on investment and trade that may also damage their own economies.
“We see division in the EU, which some say is based on pragmatism, but I would call it a bit of an egoistic approach of individual countries,” Kiska said in a June 11 interview in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. “The European Union’s position has been weakened by its approach to Russia. European values are based on democracy, not oligarchy, and we need to preserve this.”
Slovakia, a member of the euro area and a key transit link for Russian gas to Europe, was too slow to react to the escalating crisis in Ukraine, according to Kiska, 51, a businessman-turned-philanthropist who will be sworn in as president on June 15 after winning a ballot in March.
Eastern Europe’s former communist countries are also divided over plans to boost the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military presence on their soil. While Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sought and received reinforcements from the alliance and Poland is advocating more U.S. troop deployments, the Slovak and the Czech prime ministers last week rejected allowing foreign soldiers on their territories.
The U.S. will bolster its military presence in Europe through a $1 billion initiative, President Barack Obama said June 3, unveiling a program that is in direct response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ponta didn’t say whether Romania would welcome the deployment of NATO troops in addition to the more than 1,000 soldiers serving at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base on the country’s Black Sea coast.
“We have important military facilities and we have increased our military expenses,” Ponta said. “The idea is that prosperity, economic development and the rule of law cannot be” guaranteed “when there is always a danger very close.”
Kiska said Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million wedged between Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, needs to have “an honest, open debate” about its military budget as it’s among NATO members whose defense spending is below the minimum limit required by the alliance.
In Slovakia, “nobody is really afraid that something can happen to us even as we watch fighting in a neighboring country,” Kiska said. “Our attitude is that we have big allies, who will protect us if anything happens. But, sometimes we forget that if we are getting something, we should also be giving something back.”
Europe can’t accept Crimea’s annexation by Russia as a fact and must not abandon former Soviet republics including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova -- which is “the most important one for Romania,” Ponta said.
Moldova, which shares its language and history with Romania, plans to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU this month. The 28-nation bloc needs to help the country of 3.6 million wean itself off Russian energy, Ponta said.