Romanian President Klaus Iohannis is in Washington today meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Romania, a member of NATO, is a key strategic partner of the U.S., hosting a U.S. missile defense site. But the eastern European nation also sits in a precarious location along the Black Sea, where the Russian fleet conducts operations in Syria and maintains control over Crimea, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder sat down George Cristian Maior, the Romanian Ambassador to the U.S., to get his take on security challenges in the region – and what’s topping the agenda in today’s meeting.
The Cipher Brief: You’ve been the Romanian Ambassador to the U.S. since 2015. Before that, you had multiple positions in politics in both the defense and foreign ministries and the intelligence community. How has the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration impacted your day-to-day activities?
Ambassador George Cristian Maior: My mission here as Ambassador is to keep the strategic conversation ongoing with the U.S. administration, because, as you know, Romania sits in a complex region, with a complicated security environment. In terms of our transatlantic link and our strategic partnership, we need to constantly review those dynamics, which are sometimes unpredictable. I was very well-received in 2015. I had very good communication with the Obama Administration. Of course, any transition is difficult from many points of view, but we were very quick to adapt to the new political context here.
We have had initial contacts with the new Administration and, of course, the culmination point of those discussions and conversations is today’s visit of our President – that will be the perfect context to see where we stand in our bilateral relationship, in our strategic partnership.
TCB: What are the main issues that your President wants to discuss with President Trump?
Maior: First of all, the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Romania. This year we mark 20 years since the inauguration of this partnership. It has developed a lot during 20 years, in terms of our military cooperation, in terms of our political communication, in terms of our economic relations. It is one of the most solid in central and eastern Europe. This is the main subject of the conversation.
We’ll see also what we can do more in terms of enhancing our military cooperation now – with the role that Romania plays in its region in terms of being a NATO ally and sitting on the Black Sea. All those issues will be discussed.
TCB: There has been some concern on both sides of the Atlantic with President Trump’s position on NATO. He did not, at the recent NATO heads of state meeting in Brussels, confirm that Article 5 [NATO’s collective defense clause] will be upheld. After that and the subsequent G7 meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe needs to take more responsibility for itself, while also maintaining the alliance with the United States. How do you view all this?
Maior: The commitment to the transatlantic link is solid – even though sometimes those kinds of discussions and perceptions create a certain narrative. I think it was reiterated several times.
Secondly, each country should assume more responsibility in terms of developing and adapting that transatlantic link to current and future challenges. We are doing just that in Romania. For example, we already increased our defense budget to two percent [of GDP]. That was based on a decision taken two years ago in the context of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. This decision adds to the alliance in terms of NATO and its posture in the eastern flank, which is very much exposed because of the reasons I already mentioned and partly because of asymmetrical threats related to terrorism coming from the south.
So there are two aspects to this: one is classical geopolitics, and the other is asymmetrical, related to illegal migration, terrorism, and other aspects related to issues affecting Europe.
TCB: So are you saying that you think that, regardless of President Trump’s current and future policies toward Europe, we are at a moment in which Europe and Romania are and need to continue taking more responsibility for their own security and defense?
Maior: In the context of the transatlantic link, absolutely.
TCB: Can you talk a little bit about defense in the Black Sea region?
Maior: We’re very preoccupied there. The acquisition of territory by Russia in the Black Sea – that is, the illegal annexation of Crimea – is a huge, major event in terms of the structure of international relations after WWII. But apart from this, since then, we have noticed a process of militarization taking place in Crimea. Crimea is being used more and more as a platform for power projection in the Black Sea. And even further, in the eastern Mediterranean, with certain ramifications toward Syria. So we have to respond to this dynamic, which is a negative for our security. We are trying to generate a more solid position of deterrence on the eastern flank of NATO. Certain decisions were taken in this respect at the Warsaw Summit to try to enhance our strategic cooperation with NATO countries that are relevant in the region.
For example, Romania is engaged with Poland and Turkey in a triangle. We periodically have meetings at the Foreign Minister and Defense Minister levels to review the situation and to try to adapt to this environment in the Black Sea.
Add to this, of course, the situation in Ukraine, which is still unstable. We share a border with Ukraine in Romania – we have the largest border with Ukraine in the EU – and that matters a lot. We are trying to assist Ukraine to stabilize, reform its systems, and become more and more engaged with the EU and NATO. The frozen conflicts in Moldova, Transnistria, Georgia, and Abkhazia all create a very unpredictable and negative security environment as well.
TCB: What’s the current relationship between Russia and Romania like?
Maior: We would always rationally like to have a predictable relationship. It’s not the case right now. The communication is not very developed because we want to have a discussion on equal footing, as a NATO ally, and to bring those issues I mentioned to the table and to have a rational response from Russia, in terms of Russia contributing more to generating a more positive security environment. But that’s not the case right now, unfortunately.
TCB: I want to to talk a little bit about intelligence. You were the director of Romania’s intelligence service for eight years. During that time, you worked on reforming bilateral and multilateral relationships. How does Romania work with the United States on intelligence-sharing?
Maior: It’s one of the most-developed relationships – which might be a surprise for you, but you can review several visits by several of your directors to our agencies in Romania over the last 10 years, and vice versa. I visited four or five times.
It’s not a relationship based only on solid exchange of intelligence in terms of counterterrorism or counter-proliferation, but also it’s operational in terms of engaging globally to tackle those big challenges we have to face, especially counterterrorism.
TCB: How does Romania work with NATO’s intelligence unit?
Maior: We are the second biggest provider of intelligence to NATO, according to our estimates. I personally think that NATO should do more in terms of reforming its intelligence component – both civilian and military – because intelligence is the first line of defense in terms of threats we face.
TCB: Is NATO the correct outlet for that or do you think the EU should do more with regards to intelligence-sharing?
Maior: In terms of cooperation in the EU, there has been a lot of progress in the last years. Club de Berne, for example, is a very solid multilateral format for discussion among the EU services. Bilateral cooperation is also needed; I think the EU can do more in this respect.