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What Romania would like to see NATO do in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia today named a new general to lead its war in Ukraine. The move comes as the Russian assault has stalled or faltered in parts of the country and as the conflict appears to be shifting to the east. Russian troops have retreated from the suburbs around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after failing to capture the city. Now, military analysts expect those troops to regroup and prepare a new assault on eastern parts of Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials are urging civilians in the east to try and flee the region ahead of that offensive. Many are fleeing by train. And yesterday, a missile strike on a crowded train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk left more than 50 people dead. Thousands of Ukrainians have already fled to other countries to get away from the conflict, including here to Romania, where we are.

Yesterday I spoke about the military situation in Ukraine with a top Romanian defense official. She is Simona Cojocaru, a state secretary at Romania's Ministry of National Defense. The attack on that train station was very much on her mind as we began our conversation.

SIMONA COJOCARU: We strongly condemned the attack against civilians seeking to evacuate Kramatorsk. At the beginning of the week, we have seen the terrible atrocities in Bucha. And we do think that these are another evidence that Putin and his army are committing war crimes in Ukraine. You have mentioned the withdrawal of the Russian troops out of the region seen in Kyiv and Chernihiv. But this is more a repositioning in our assessment, in NATO's assessment. And we shared that U.S. assessment laid out by the U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, especially regarding Russian concentration on east in Donbas, in (inaudible) in the period to come. So we should expect next major offensive engagements on these main front lines. We are prepared to face a long war. So peace is still very hard to be achieved.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, as you may have heard, we started our trip here in Moldova. There is concern in Moldova that they could be threatened. And if that is the case, Romania would be very much on the front lines on two fronts, both on the border with Ukraine and also on the border with Moldova. Do you share that concern? Do you believe that Moldova is threatened?

COJOCARU: Moldova, Republic of Moldova actually is quite vulnerable. This is crystal clear. And I should add to what I have said previously that the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine brings very much concern for a country like Romania in relation with their objective to take the entire Black Sea Ukrainian shore and returning control of the entire northern half of the Black Sea. Here we see a potential corridor, a link with Transnistria in the - with the Republic of Moldova.

MARTIN: So I'd like to ask now about your view of NATO and what you believe that NATO ought to be doing right now and in the near future, because, as you've indicated, you believe that this conflict may go on for some time. I'd like to ask, what is your position about the best use of NATO/ Do you believe in, for example, a permanent base of NATO in Romania? Do you believe - are there adequate troops coming in and out or rotating in and out? I'd like to ask, what is your belief of the best use of NATO at this point?

COJOCARU: We are very much on the line that we need to create an effective defense and deterrence posture in the eastern flank. We have to take defense seriously and to reflect this also in our spending decisions. We do think that it is time to translate from forward presence to forward defense and the decision taken by our leaders on 24 of March in Brussels on the occasion of the extraordinary summit - President Biden was there.

MARTIN: Would you be open to having more American troops and perhaps even their families living in Romania? Would you envision this as a permanent base?

COJOCARU: I would say very, very strongly that we are positive on this. The answer is crystal clear. Romania is a country very, you know, very much focused on consolidating, as I said, defense and deterrence posture. U.S. has a fundamental role to play in supporting these in our region, in Romania. And we are very much grateful for the increased U.S. presence and contribution, the recent deployment of the Stryker battalion, F-16, F-18 aircrafts, and also the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman in the Mediterranean Sea, performing surveillance and reconnaissance missions also in the Black Sea. So this is about being pragmatic, being concrete, because NATO is here. NATO is not somewhere in Brussels, in the HQ. NATO is here at the Black Sea. It's on the ground.

MARTIN: Do you think - forgive me. I understand that your expertise is defense policy, but do you have a sense of whether the Romanian people agree with the leadership on this question? I guess the question would be, does the Romanian civilian population agree that this presence is warranted and would be welcomed?

COJOCARU: The polls conducted to the level of the public opinion are very much favorable. So in Romania is - the population is very much favorable for a U.S. presence, for NATO's presence, seeing such, such an important military presence in Romania. So the answer, in short, is yes.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

COJOCARU: Thank you so much. I wish you a good trip in Romania. Thank you for your commitment and contribution.

MARTIN: That was Simona Cojocaru, state secretary and chief for defense policy planning and international relations at Romania's Ministry of National Defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.