NATO races to counter Russia’s threat in Europe’s weak spot

NATO races to counter Russia’s threat in Europe’s weak spot

Members of US Army's 101st Airborne Division leave a helicopter during a demonstration drill at Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase near Constanta, Romania on July 30 (Photo: Daniel Mihailescu / AFP)
Members of US Army's 101st Airborne Division leave a helicopter during a demonstration drill at Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase near Constanta, Romania on July 30 (Photo: Daniel Mihailescu / AFP)

BUCHAREST: It didn’t take long after Russia attacked Ukraine for French Colonel Clement Torrent to get his orders: He had six months to build a base for 1,000 soldiers on NATO’s eastern frontier.

He and about 200 troops from France, Belgium and the Netherlands are now busy leveling a hilltop in the Romanian region of Transylvania.

“Our due date is before the first frost,” Torrent, who leads the engineer task force, said from the base near Cincu, about 260 kilometres north of Bucharest by road. “It’s a sign of solidarity. An alliance needs to be tangible.”

As Western powers race to confront the threat posed by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s war on its neighbour has answered a fundamental question that North Atlantic Treaty Organization states have been asking for years: whether older members like the US, France and Germany will fight for less wealthy ex-communist allies if they’re attacked.

But it has raised others, including whether the alliance is doing enough to deter Russian expansionism after years of underinvestment and ignored warnings, and whether the effort to reinforce the previously neglected Black Sea region should have happened long ago. 

Six months after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s focus is firmly on how to thwart Russia in Europe’s southeast corner and prevent one of the continent’s poorest regions from becoming its soft underbelly of security. 

The Black Sea divides Europe from Asia and is surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia. It’s a critical trade route for agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia and links with the Mediterranean Sea via Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait. Moscow has prioritized southeastern Europe, according to Matthew Orr, a security analyst at Stratfor.

Its buildup there “shows how much the Russians are concerned about this region, how much they want to have a strong military footprint there — to which NATO has to respond,” he said. For years, Eastern European leaders had warned that the threat from Russia was building after Moscow attacked Georgia in 2008.

- Crimea -

Then in 2014, Putin instigated a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and seized Crimea. During that time, the Kremlin bolstered its military capabilities in the Black Sea, shifting land forces, strengthening air defenses and modernizing its sea fleet as it stepped up activity in war zones including Libya and Syria, where it has a naval base.

“The Black Sea itself is Russia’s gate to warm water, particularly to the Mediterranean,” said Iulia Joja, the director of the Black Sea program for the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank. “It’s Russia’s gateway to projecting power and force into the Middle East, into Africa and beyond.”

Just weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion, the alliance agreed at a summit in Brussels to create four new battle groups for Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, to complement four it had deployed to Poland and the Baltic states as part of a so-called “tripwire” approach.

Romania, a country of almost 19 million that shares a border of almost 640 kilometres with Ukraine, was already hosting about 1,000 mostly US NATO soldiers before the war, with the Black Sea base at Mihail Kogalniceanu serving as a transit point for conflict zones in the Middle East. Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO allies significantly bulked up their presence at the alliance’s eastern borders, deploying more troops, jets and ships.

The plan now is to create garrisons in the remaining borderline NATO states where new units of international forces comprising about 1,000 troops will be regularly rotated. In addition, allies will identify units at home that can swiftly join up with troops already on the ground in the eastern states if needs be. That added presence is something the Baltic States and Poland have been advocating for years. Russia has threatened to respond, though hasn’t taken any concrete action as yet.

By creating ties with host-country militaries and pre-positioning weapons, ammunition and heavy equipment, those forces can be multiplied to the size of a 5,000-strong brigade in days, said Colonel Flavien Garrigou Grandchamp, France’s senior national representative in Romania. 

“We are preparing to be able to fight side-by-side with the Romanians, the US and other contingents,” he said. “In the worst case, if it happens we will fight.” Hundreds of thousands of allied troops are currently at heightened readiness, with that set to become more formalized under NATO command as part of a major overhaul to the alliance’s defenses agreed by leaders in Madrid in July.

- Investment needed -

While most officials doubt that Russia would attack a NATO member directly, the alliance now plans to keep international troops arrayed across its borders for “many years to be sure that the situation has stabilized,” Garrigou Grandchamp said.

That will require investment, which has been sorely lacking in Romania and its southern neighbour Bulgaria. The ex-communist countries joined NATO in 2004, three years before becoming members of the European Union. They are still trying to close a wealth gap with their richer partners that’s hampering efforts on everything from sheltering refugees to helping Ukraine export grain. 

“It’s not only about defence, it’s about food security,” Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said in an Aug. 2 interview. “So all these decisions taken to increase deterrence and defense along the whole eastern flank are very welcome.”

Yet coming good on those decisions posed an immediate challenge for Torrent and his team of army engineers. The main bridge to the town of Cincu, which lies bang in the middle of Romania, is in such terrible condition that holes run straight through the asphalt to reveal the river flowing below. Trucks must detour through sunflower fields to move tens of thousands of tonnes of material to and from the hilltop construction site.

Romania has little over 950 kilometres of highways, ranking last in the EU as a share per capita. In the county where Cincu is located, salaries average about 3,500 lei ($730) a month for employed people, but in the case of many small towns and villages, the majority of the population lives from subsistence agriculture and state aid.

Aurel Sorin Suciu, the mayor of Cincu, is counting on the government in Bucharest to pave the town’s roads and on an EU-funded education project for locals to support the military base, including grants to set up restaurants and accommodation.

“It’s very hard to change the mindset of people and convince them to sell two cows and renovate two rooms to earn more money,” Suciu said in his office on Cincu’s main square. The other, more significant area of investment is into building up Romania’s military.

Most NATO members have long failed to fulfil the alliance’s goal to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence. But Romania has met that target since 2015 and will increase that to 2.5% next year as it prepares to splash out on everything from armored personnel carriers and fighter jets to tanks and submarines.

In all, the bill for military procurement will run to at least €12 billion (US$12.2 billion). The biggest item so far has been a €4 billion Patriot anti-air missile battery that will become operational this year. The French-led base at Cincu should also be running at full capacity by the year end as planned. That underscores not just the shift of NATO’s eastern members, but an overall change in outlook as the entire alliance pivots to confront Russia.

“We are the closest French soldiers deployed to the conflict zone,” said Colonel Christophe Degand, the commander of the Battle Group Forward Presence and of the 8e Régiment Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine. “If there is a spark and some people are deploying, you want to be in.”  

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