A Conversation with DAS Robin L. Dunnigan – Alianta – Strengthening the Romanian American Alliance

On September 21st, 2022, John Florescu interviewed DAS Robin Dunnigan centered around the U.S.-Romania bilateral relationship, with particular focus on Romania’s NATO contributions and close defense cooperation with the United States.. Read the transcript of the entire interview below.


Raluca Bucur: Welcome everybody.  I’m going to now hand it over to John Florescu, who is going to introduce the Deputy Assistant Secretary.

John Florescu: Thank you. Thank you very much. And, uh, I’m John Florescu in Bucharest and we have the secretary for 30 minutes.

So thank you in this busy. It secretary to spend time with us a few words on her background. She is, uh, Robin Dungan, who is, uh, the assistant secretary for, uh, of state for central and Eastern Europe. She has been in a whole slate of countries and I’ve noticed all in all corners of the world, atric Chile, Cuba.

Vietnam Turkey. Uh, just to name a few, she is a California and a graduate of UC Berkeley, and then went to Georgetown, so educated on both coasts and then at the national war college. So I wanna welcome and thank you for coming. Uh, the first question has been a busy day overseas, where at the end of our day, and of course what’s dominating the news.

Is, uh, right now the president, but a little bit earlier on this comment of president Putin about not bluffing about the use of nuclear weapons, what do you make of that comment,


Robin Dunnigan: And I think the president just addressed this as well in his remarks, which is, it is completely irresponsible for a nuclear power to threaten or talk about using nuclear weapons and nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought.

And the United States continues to urge, um, president Putin to be a responsible nuclear power and including wi with the words that he use.

Your ambassador or our ambassador, I should say, in, in Kev, um, said yesterday, Bridget brink, that this referendum, a referendum that’s planned for this weekend is a sham, referendum, and mobilizations are signs of weakness and of Russian failure.

John Florescu: Um, do you think Putin’s gonna go ahead with this referendum and what is it, what can we do about it?

Robin Dunnigan: I absolutely agree with, um, ambassador brink and I, and other us leaders who have said this. I, I believe that what we’re seeing right now with the threats to go through with the sham referenda and in Donetsk and Luhansk and with the calls from mobilization, by president Putin, that really this reflects that Russia is operating from a position of weakness and not strength.

And I believe that if Russia mobilizes. More soldiers to send them to Ukraine, to fight a war that they don’t even know what they’re fighting for against a, a force that is fighting for their very lives in their territory. Then he is sending soldiers into a needless death. Um, there is only there’s one country that started this war and that country can end this war any day.

So I, I really do think it reflects, uh, uh, that president Putin is operating right now from a position of weakness.

And Putin always has a habit of sort of upping the ante. And I noticed that the, uh, Russian ambassadors United nations made the distinction, made a comment in the last 24 hours that nuclear weapons would only be used for protecting mother Russia.

And it wasn’t implied to be a threat to the west, but with this slight, uh, discussion or with this, this comment about a referendum and essentially annexing. Those regions in the east. Would this give the Russians a pretext to say that an attack on those former Ukrainian territories is an attack on mother, mother in Russia?

I mean, certainly that might be one of the motivations and it’s why we’ve been clear. For months now that we had evidence that this is something Russia intended to do to hold sham referenda in the future sham referenda, for which there is no doubt what the outcome will be, because the outcome is not real.

And then to use that as a pretext would be, um, completely irresponsible. And I just wanna reiterate that NATO and Ukraine. Are not, and have not been threats to Russia. NATO is a defensive Alliance. Ukraine was, is, was not, and is not a threat to Russia. Ukraine. What Ukraine has really been trying to do is build a modern democratic state that, that adheres to universal values, universal values that in fact are enshrined in the UN charter of which Russia is a member.

And so I think any pretext that, um, That suddenly the DNR and LNR are Russian territories and therefore can be defended with nuclear weapons is completely irresponsible and, and, and comes from an inaccurate basis.

John Florescu: Right right here on the, in, in Romania, we’re sort of on the Eastern flank where we have a border with Ukraine and we have a lot of troops here and when weapons and so forth, and the Romanian seemed pretty much at ease.

I don’t sense any sense of uneasiness that we saw at the beginning, but how would you describe just to give the Romanian audience a sense? How would you describe this military Alliance? This kind of marginal line from world war I to say. How, how, how solidly is it built? How many soldiers are here? How many boats give us a sense of if you possibly can?

Robin Dunnigan: Well, maybe I could just step back one level from that be. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to say this, because I want to be able to say this, that. My marching orders. My leadership’s marching orders from president Biden when we started was to strengthen our relationships and our partnerships with our allies and partners in Europe and all of our, within the NATO Alliance and bilaterally with our NATO Alliance partners.

And. I believe that the last year has shown more than ever how essential this Alliance is our partnership with Romania, our bilateral relationship and our partnership within the NATO Alliance has literally never been stronger this year. We’re, we’re celebrating 25 years of our strategic partnership with Romania, but we’re also seeing.

What we can do together as a NATO Alliance. So you you’re absolutely right. Romania’s right there on the Eastern flank. And so much of what Romania has done to strengthen its own defenses and its abilities to defend itself within NATO right now, really matter. So Romania is a leader among NATO countries in meeting, um, its Wells pledge to commit GDP 2% to, to its defense.

Romania has been a key contributor to Black Sea security and has really led on that conversation. Uh, Romania has signed a 10 year, uh, defense cooperation roadmap with us to modernize its military. Romania’s taking all of these critical steps. Yeah. And I think you saw at the Madrid summit that we committed to putting a rotational brigade in Romania.

Again, it’s another testament to, to our relationship. Uh, so. I think Romania has prepared itself to defend itself and, and particularly within the NATO Alliance and is a critical NATO partner for the United States.

John Florescu: That’s very helpful. I mean, it’s good to point that wider framework in which this country, uh, in, uh, defense posture rest.

Um, I think though that if you were here and walking around this, walking around Romania, they probably think the United States will take due the heavy lifting. Obviously, if there’s any trouble. And I just wanna get a sense. I know that the administration gave troop levels a few months ago. We are putting more up in the ball to countries, more people down in, in Poland.

How many what’s can you, are you at Liberty to say what the troop level is down

Robin Dunnigan: here?

Um, not only am I not, not only am I not at Liberty to say it, but I actually don’t know exactly. One of the, one of the key tenants of, of our NATO troops is that they are flexible and can move where, where they’re needed.

And so I don’t know how many troops are in Romania right now, but I, I do wanna say. It, the, the United States is a, obviously a critical partner in NATO, but, but countries like Romania, Poland, all of our NATO allies are as well. So it’s not just a US, it’s not just US participation that makes NATO effective.

It’s the Alliance that makes NATO effective. And I think you, the last six months, since this war started, has really shown us how close that Alliance is. Seeing something like Sweden and Finland. Join NATO, um, which is almost done. We have a few more ratifications to go in the time that they did is incredible.

And I think it’s a Testament to the power of this Alliance. And if I could just say one more thing about Romanian placement, cuz it’s something I wanted to mention at the top, which is to thank, thank Romania, but to all the Romanians who are on the line, but also to thank, thank Alianta for what you all have done in supporting the refugees.

Because we, we can talk a lot about the military conversation, but I always wanna remind folks that this war has a real human. Face to it. And it’s a real true tragedy. And for the 14 million refugees, 7 million within Ukraine, they’re displaced persons, but 7 million outside of Ukraine. It. It is completely life changing.

And for a country like Romania that saw 2 million refugees cross through its border still has 85,000 refugees there. And, and the society has embraced these people and has fed clothed educated. Taking care of given healthcare. Um, it’s just been an incredible showing of humanity. And I know Alianta has played a really key role in raising funds through different third party organizations to, to do that work.

So thank you, John, to you and to all of the members, um, and to the Romanians in the audience for what you’ve done. Well, that’s

John Florescu: very kind and, and, and I know people will very much welcome those kind of comments here, and I’ve been lucky enough to be at the border. And it shows one of the unique characteristics of the Romanians is what a big heart they have.

And you see it as people cross those borders and those kids, the kids as well, and the adults and so forth are there to receive them. I wanted to shift, uh, to the United nations, cuz so much is going on at the UN right now, president Biden, I guess, was a bit late to get here because of the Queen’s funeral.

But, uh, it seems like president Macron is playing a pretty much a, a leadership position. I would say in trying to articulate a grounds for an understanding between Moscow and Kiev. Does the United States participate in that understanding or does it, uh, do you have a joint plan, uh, that, uh, both nations look at?

Robin Dunnigan: Well, let me say that our, our view about how this war ends. This war has to end with a negotiated settlement, but it has to be a negotiated settlement. On Ukraine’s terms. We have some core principles that are guiding our strategic approach to this. And the first principle is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, and that Ukraine alone can decide its fate and it’s future and can decide what an into this war looks like.

So we welcome the work of president Macron, any of our partners or allies. Actually any country who can contribute to ending this war, but in the end, there’s only one country who can decide what, what the end looks like. And that’s Ukraine. And I have to say, um, secretary Blinken was just in Kiev a couple of weeks ago.

He had a long, extremely good meeting with president Zelensky, president Zelensky. Did not start. This war does not want this war and has said this war needs to end with a negotiated settlement, but it’s very hard to negotiate a settlement with a country that is bombing civilian infrastructure, committing atrocities every single day.

Um, It looks like deliberately targeting civilian targets or targets where civilians would be conducting sham, referenda, conducting filtration, operations, sifting through people at filtration points, deporting some, putting others in detainment. It’s hard to negotiate with a country. That’s doing that to your.

John Florescu: Right. Very the, um, the, uh, Henry Kissinger was in Davos remember in may and made a number of interesting comments. And one of his comments was. Unless we come to some kind of understanding, uh, with Russia, they’ll make, they’ll find new alliances. They’ll make new friends around the world and he gave it two months.

So we’re well, beyond that two months, do you think Russia has entered into, into new alliances or do you think he, he, as an individual, as a leader can resurrect the relationship with the west?

Robin Dunnigan: Uh, I think by almost any measure, this has been a failed operation and endeavor by president Putin, um, much of what he had hoped to achieve. He has had to recalibrate the goals or has completely failed at achieving those goals. So plan to take Kiev that didn’t happen. Plan for the war, the war to be quick, that hasn’t happened planned on NATO in the west, not being strong and United.

We’re stronger and more United than ever thought the sanctions or export controls wouldn’t hurt his economy. The Russian economy is really hurting. The export controls in particular are taking a toll on key sectors in Russia. So I don’t see that this war is a strategic win for president Putin in any way.

And. I don’t what I, what I think it will become is a burden also for any country that aligns itself with put.

John Florescu: That’s an interesting point because here we are at the United nations. And I, I, I think in terms of populations, global populations, you have perhaps half the world sort of being mute or quietly sympathetic or somewhat understanding.

I add, of course we can add China into that. We can add India to that. We can add lot of Africa. What do you feel about that as a diplomat? Uh, working in this area. How do you, how do you do reckon with that fact,

Robin Dunnigan: you know, one, one area where I think, um, we, we can all do a better job is telling the story of the impact of this war beyond Ukraine and.

One of the impacts is, has been on food security globally. Mm-hmm , there were already difficulties given post COVID supply lines, and other other factors contributing to some insecurity on food supplies globally. This war has only exasperated that problem, you know, Russian forces are on Ukrainian, agricultural lands.

They’ve they’ve blown up roads that were used to export grain. Until recently the Black Sea, the port of Odessa were blocked. So grain shipments could not get out. That’s had a real impact on countries that need those food in the global south, in Africa, in south America, in Asia. Um, so I, I think that we need, when I said that we could do a better job at reminding the world that.

Those impacts on energy security on global food security, um, the potential for the conflict to cause you know, economic woes, globally inflationary pressures that really starts with Russia’s invasion on February 24th and, and, and Russia alone can, can help remediate these, these challenges by ending this.

John Florescu: It’s interesting. I mean, if Russia ends the war, it’s hard to imagine how the west can sort of look the other way. I can’t think a moment in history where a, a, what they call a fact, we, the word used in London in the, in the, in the daily mail, but essentially a kind of behavior that is impermissible, but let’s just leave that aside because we’re not there yet, but let’s go back to a question of what kind of solution we see to the war because we’ve talked generally, we talked about war reparations in the past.

We’ve talked about atrocities and the human atrocities seem to pop up all the time. And when gets a little bit the sense. We see it, we see it, we see it. It’s a long load to happen. Remember the war in the ball counts and so forth. Are we keeping track of this? And do you think these people will ever be called to account?

Robin Dunnigan: Yeah. If I, when I sort of think about all of our strategic priorities and objectives related to this war, one of those is holding. Those who have committed war crimes or atrocities accountable. We’ve put considerable resources already into this. And we’re working really closely with our European partners and others, our G seven partners on helping Ukraine start to do that, to document and account for the crimes that are happening.

Um, much of our economic assistance, a portion of our economic assistance. That’s going to Ukraine. Is going for exactly this helping their prosecutors and their investigators on the ground at the war sites, collect document, put into the record, what they’re finding. Um, and we’ve already seen some of that.

I’ve actually met with the prosecutor general of Ukraine and, and what the evidence that’s been collected so far is horrifying, frankly. And, um, Those who have committed those crimes need to be held accountable. And another piece of any settlement is going forward. Those responsible for the in unbelievable destruction in Ukraine need to play a significant role in paying for the recovery and reconstruction of that, of that country.

John Florescu: I was talking earlier with people from the IMF and the figures that we’re throwing out within, in billions and billions of billions. Do you have a running total of what it would take or sense? Do they make those kind of projections on what it would take to rebuild all these semi or fully destroyed cities?

Robin Dunnigan: Some unofficial estimates are it is going to be a 750 billion project. So it. It is, um, daunting what’s ahead of us. And I think we’re going to need to work with the global community to, to ensure that we all play a role, but Russia is going to have to pay for some of this, a lot of this. Um, and we, the, you know, I think it’s hard to make all of these estimates, but.

Already, there are some immediate needs, not even long-term needs in some of the areas of Ukraine where families can come home now because it’s safe in the west. For example, schools are destroyed. Hospitals are destroyed, roads are destroyed. So Ukraine needs some assistance now to start helping people come home.

Uh, so that, you know, we, it, it’s a big challenge ahead of us.

John Florescu: Um, you, you were saying earlier that, and as many people do, that’s impossible to read Putin’s mind. Uh, he’s a he’s un.. undiscernible in so many ways. And Wesley Clark was saying last month that he thought that, um, if it just got too painful Putin, our, our objectives to make it the cost of this so painful that he’ll pull.

Now the thing is you can think he can pull out or you may think he can go get it, go, go nutty. And what’s your general view about the likelihood that Putin will cry uncle and say, listen, you know, I’ve had it with this.

Robin Dunnigan: I’ll make a couple of comments about that question. One is I wanna reiterate because president Biden has made it extremely clear.

The United States does not want this war. This is not about between the United States and Russia. We did not wanna be in a position to put more sanctions on Russia. We have no desire to escalate with Russia. But Russia needs to come to the negotiating table. And from our perspective, the only way to do that is to strengthen Ukraine’s hand on the battlefield and to increasingly put the pressure on.

On Moscow and on the economy there. So together with our partners and allies in the G seven, we’ve put together a very robust sanctions package and set of export controls that we believe month by month are really, really, really starting to bite. In particular. I just wanna say one word about the export controls because many analysts look just at this GDP, the size of the GDP.

Growth or how much the economy is contracted, but what’s happening now is there’s a real supply chain problem in, in Russia of, of importing critical. Products like semiconductors, for example. So the auto industry is slowing down to almost a dead, a dead stop. Um, the defense sector is really feeling the pinch of missing inputs.

The, um, in the, their Naval sector is feeling it. So the high tech industry in Russia is really starting to feel the pain of these sanctions. So we hope. Combined with the battlefield losses combined with president Zelenski’s stated view that he wants to negotiate an into this war will, will, will help bring president Putin to the table.

John Florescu: One of the, uh, concerns here is our neighbor here. Moldova well, just right over the board. And you talked earlier about president Sandu it’s it must be a tough sales job to go to Moldova to Chisinau. And try to make ’em feel comfortable. What do you say to the leadership in Moldova, uh, and the situation they find themselves in?

Robin Dunnigan: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a really good point. Um, and it, and again, it, it kind of highlights the impact of this war across borders, because you have president sand who is working very, very hard to get Moldova on the right track toward a democratic. Country that that decreases corruption that looks toward the west that eventually joins the EU.

Now they’re on the EU track. Um, it’s very hard to do that when you’re hosting refugees with a war raging on your border, and you’re completely dependent on Russia for much of your energy supplies. Um, And so I think it’s a time where the global community needs to really step up and support Moldova. And we’ve done that.

Uh, Romania has provided, um, significant assistance to Romania. I mean, to Moldova, I think 110 million euros. Yeah. We we’ve increased our assistance to Moldova significantly. We’re up over 150 million, what that’s going toward humanitarian assistance, but also toward helping defray the costs of energy, helping you Moldova.

Port electricity from Ukraine. Like I think this is really a time where European partners and others have to look at how do we support Moldova, because it’s a very difficult time for president sand, as she’s trying to strengthen her government and grow the democratic institutions in that country.

John Florescu: In, in the it’s interesting because in Eastern central, Eastern Europe, you wanna have, seems to have a greater sense of unity than in Western Europe.

At times, Western Europe, you see site variations. I mean, obviously the German chancellor Schultz has to keep his economy moving along. So he’s very dependent on that Russian energy you have, uh, sec, uh, president macro, who’s trying to keep a dialogue going. With, uh, with Putin directly, you have a new leader in Britain who seems to be as strong.

So you have different levels of hawkishness in a way, you’d have the strong Hawks. And, and what’s your sense of how, whether this Alliance in the Western part of the, of the continent can keep together as we push toward the winter.

Robin Dunnigan: I believe that we will that Europeans and the United States, we will absolutely stay aligned.

It is absolutely correct. What you said, that the heart that as you move into winter where energy prices are, high inflation is high in Europe, as it is here. Um, it gets more and more difficult to maintain tough sanctions that really start to impact your own country. But the bottom line. We, we won’t be better off in a year if, if president Putin has been successful.

And one of the silver linings of this terrible war is that it’s gotten it. It’s really mobilized Europeans to think seriously about their energy dependency on Russia. And I think after this winter, We, I think we will get through this winter and after this winter, we will make even more progress together on decreasing dependence on Russian energy, which is one of the key factors, um, affecting industry and affecting inflation and affecting sort of public support for continued sanctions.

John Florescu: Yeah. Um, we have, uh, just a few minutes left, so I just wanna see if anybody, uh, out there has any questions to put the secretary. You’re very nice to, to give your time when you disappeared for two minutes, I thought you signed in Finland and Sweden and NATO, but I wish

Robin Dunnigan: I wish we’re

John Florescu: close. Other questions there.

Jim, how about you? Yours

Robin Dunnigan: have a question. We’d have to tell you one anecdote about that. Yeah. I didn’t know until this happened, but we are actually, I guess, for every treaty, probably you, many of you know this, but I didn’t know. Someone actually holds one country. Holds the documents. So as every country ratified, it comes to the state department and deposits their ratification documents.

So we’ve done a small ceremony every time a country has come and deposited their documents. And I have to say, it’s been very moving to watch this happen. So, um, the United States is the holder of the NATO ratification

John Florescu: documents. Oh, well, that’s a precious document. I can’t imagine anything more valuable.

Um, Jim or one of our other guests. Do you have any question?

Jim Rosapepe: I wanna

ask a question. It does relate to the expansion, uh, is Turkey. I mean, Turkey, a longtime NATO member, and Turkey has a different relationship with Russia, let’s say than many other countries. Uh, what is your take on where Turkey fits into all these issues at this point?

Robin Dunnigan: You know, we just had our, um, an annual dialogue with Turkey last week at the deputy minister level. And I’ve served in Turkey and, um, been engaging with Turkish diplomats for decades. And, you know, first and foremost, Turkey is in very important NATO ally. Um, Turkey is facing many of the challenges that.

That other countries are facing with energy prices and inflationary prices and taking an economic hit. Um, I, I believe Turkey will ratify. The expansion and NATO will continue to be extremely strong with two new members, which is an unintended consequence for, for Vladimir Putin, but Turkey’s an absolute essential NATO ally.

And, um, our dialogue last week, we, we have very frank conversations about our shared challenges and opportunities, but we have a deep relationship with Turkey. Thank you.

John Florescu: Um, again, let me ask a question. I know you spoke rather, uh, heart in a heartfelt way about the atrocities on the ground. You must have, uh, been very acute and aware to this.

Effort of the Putin leadership to indu induce criminals and mercenaries to come to come into the war zone and, you know, promising the, the, the joy of stealing and brutality and rape and everything else. It’s, it’s really stomach turning. Did you see that? And do you have any comment on that?

Robin Dunnigan: You know, one, one consistent.

Factor I’ve seen over the last eight months from, in talking to dozens of analysts, private sector, public sector, NGO analysts, um, Europeans Americans is a tendency to overestimate Russia’s military abilities and underestimate Ukraine’s abilities. And, and I, that gets back to your question because, um, I think one of the driving factors here is the difference between being sent to fight a war that you don’t know why, and you don’t know why you’re losing your life and fighting for your lives and for your territory and for your country.

And I think it has been a decisive factor. The stories. And the evidence we have, uh, and very credible evidence that we have of the atrocities that are happening on the ground by Russian soldiers, filtration, operations, the rapes, the deportation of children, the, um, torture. I mean, some of what the evidence that we’re seeing is truly horrifying.

This is 2022, and that this is happen. Is heartbreaking. And again, it puts us back to the human tragedy of this war, of this completely unnecessary unprovoked unjustified war that violates every principle that rushes agreed to within the UN charter.

John Florescu: Absolutely. Absolutely. Right. Well, secretary, I wanna thank you one minute over time.

So when I hope we’re not holding you up and I think ending on the point of saying when people fight for their country, um, it’s like no other. And so we as Americans know that from our own history, but thank you very much for your time. Certainly

Robin Dunnigan: appreciate it. Thank you, John. And thanks again to ATA for all.

You’re doing

John Florescu: so long. Bye-bye. Bye bye.