In 1984, during the darkest period of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Stalinist rule, I visited Targoviste, over an hour northwest of the capital, Bucharest, on the Wallachian plain. It was a hellish town of mud-strewn streets, a few battered cars, without any decent place to eat and garbage everywhere. People looked and smelled bad.
Two weeks ago, I revisited Targoviste for the first time in almost four decades. It is now a gleaming, vibrant town of new roads with speed bumps, clipped flowers and hedgerows, new supermarkets and restaurants, and late-model cars everywhere. People looked and dressed like anywhere in the West.
Targoviste is a miracle wrought by Romania’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union; the former having provided a seal of approval for initial investment in 2004, and the latter providing aid and standards for development for years now.
The countrysides of not only Romania but other Central and Eastern European states that joined NATO and the EU in the first decade of the 21st century look similar. A revolution of Westernization has occurred beyond the capital cities of formerly Communist Europe. The idea promoted by many in the Washington policy community that NATO and EU expansion was a mistake — and led inexorably to the war in Ukraine — is undermined by the reality on the ground, in which the political and economic stability of the West now extends all the way to the Russian border.
Had Targoviste and other towns northward across Poland not developed in the last three decades, the US and its democratic allies would face a stark economic and cultural division of Europe analogous to that of the Cold War, with colossal Russia, under any regime, sowing mischief.
Not every country has made equal gains over two decades. But the autocratic populism of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the political disarray in Bulgaria are but a small taste of what might have transpired across much of the European continent without NATO and EU enlargement.
Nevertheless, Romania, with the largest population and territory in southeastern Europe, is a worried nation. It has been trapped historically by its proximity to Russia, whose army has now invaded next door. Romania and Romanian-speaking Moldova have a longer border with Ukraine than does Poland.
So-called Greater Romania, including Moldova, has been partially occupied by Russia 10 times since 1711. At a seminar I helped conduct of Romanian intelligence and defense experts in Bucharest, several mentioned that I was visiting on the anniversary of the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia — the historical name for the Moldova region — on June 28, 1940.
Situated at the point where several empires — Russian, Ottoman, Habsburg, Nazi German and so on — have collided, Bessarabia’s subjugation by Stalin was not unusual given history. The prognosis for Ukraine among those at the Bucharest conference was, as you might imagine, bleak.
Romanian experts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to slog forward in eastern Ukraine, and eventually annex the Donbas region to Russia proper, declaring that any further Ukrainian military activity there will constitute an attack on Russia itself. They expect Putin to slowly build a land bridge to Crimea and beyond, eventually reaching Moldova and the self-governing region of Transdniestria.
Though Putin, his troops advancing slowly in the Donbas, momentarily lacks the capacity to invade Moldova, he doesn’t have to. Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is a weakly institutionalized state of only 2.6 million, with an inflation rate of 29% as of May, that is perennially ripe for destabilization.
As for European allies coming to the rescue, Romanians do not trust France and Germany at all. French President Emmanuel Macron, it is thought, will sacrifice any principle for the sake of making France a middleman between Russia and Ukraine.
As for the Germans, they have already built two Nord Stream pipelines for Russian gas. “And what gets built, eventually gets used,” a local analyst told me. It was a refrain I heard from others: When winter comes, and Germany and other parts of Europe suffer heating shortages, that’s when European resolve against Russia will erode.
Despite the economic development of the past three decades, the West still has to prove itself here. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Romanians waited in vain for a liberation effort by the Western democracies to topple the ruthless communist regime of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.
I remember what the late Silviu Brucan, the grand old man of Romanian communism, told me in 1998 when I asked him why he had become a Stalinist in his youth: “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because the West did not lose Eastern Europe at Yalta in 1945, it lost it in 1938 at Munich. You were nowhere. So after Munich, the only choice for Romanians was between Hitler and Stalin.”
The expansion of NATO and the EU in 2004 and 2007 occurred while Putin’s Russia was still comparatively weak. Thus, in Romanian eyes, only now comes the real test for the West. People are terrified that Europe’s fortitude will weaken. Only US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (about to depart office) are trusted in Bucharest.
I came to Targoviste to visit the place where Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were tried and executed on Christmas Day, 1989 — an event that has direct bearing on what is happening in Ukraine.
Because of a trick of the camera angle, the impression from the grainy video clips of the event is of a sizable hall. But the rushed show trial of the Ceausescus happened in a tiny room in the old Calvary school near the railway tracks.
Having drunk fully of the cup of power, having met presidents and prime ministers, having ridden in a coach with Queen Elizabeth and been the objects of adulation at heavily staged rallies, the two found themselves jammed into a corner of the cramped room before a plywood table and seated on two kindergarten-style chairs, with the panel of judges a few feet away. Only two days earlier, they had essentially owned a palace literally comparable in size to the Pentagon.
From the trial room they were marched down a short hallway into a courtyard, where they were summarily blindfolded and shot. Everything good that has happened in Romania originates in that moment. In all the visits I have made to Romania over the decades, I have never detected any remorse for how the couple came to their end.
Ceausescu’s foreign policy was superficially independent of the Soviet Union, but Romanians, unlike many in the West, were never fooled. People knew that had the Soviet Union not been so geographically proximate, Romania would have been spared its communist nightmare of almost a half century.
Through all the vicissitudes of weak and corrupt democratic governments since 1989, life here is better and more secure than at any time in their history. This is a lawful state dedicated to the rights of the individual, not to some mythical collective will and destiny like Ceausescu’s Romania and Putin’s Russia.
Putin’s authoritarian rule is not on the scale of Ceausescu’s, which featured authentic slave labor camps, food rationing and the destruction of a vast historic area of the capital — dynamited to oblivion to make way for a Stalinist City of the Dead housing bleak government offices.
But much like Ceausescu, Putin, by invading Ukraine, has embarked on an extreme and risky journey whose end cannot be fathomed. There is a lesson yet for Putin in Ceausescu’s fall.
Ceausescu never smiled. He always looked “worried, preoccupied,” a nephew of his told me some years ago. Romania, among so much else, teaches about the horror — and loneliness — of absolute power. From lording over a gargantuan palace, then within the space of 24 hours or so going to sleep on camp beds in a small room without a toilet or heating in the winter night, eating out of mess tins, awaiting trial and execution — such was the fate of the Ceausescus.
Romanians, as pessimistic as they are about Western resolve, are nevertheless wise to the fact that something similar might one day befall Putin.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Putin Wannabes Are a Growing Threat to Europe: Pankaj Mishra
• How to Be a Modern Autocrat: Clara Ferreira Marqes
• For a Dictator, Putin Is Surprisingly Vulnerable: Tobin Harshaw
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His most recent book is “Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.”
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