A scrambled military deployment to the eastern borders of the European Union is being assembled on ground that bears the unmistakable look of neglect. Not far from newly arrived Dutch soldiers walking on muddy gravel at Mihail Kogalniceanu, a Romanian air base near the Black Sea, mouldering Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets sit parked amid the trees.
The base still boasts a bunker built under Nicolae Ceausescu, though dirt has now slumped into the entrances and concrete is peeling from the ceiling. It offers, in any event, little protection against modern munitions, like those being used by Russian troops in Ukraine not far from here, in a war that has underscored the need for stronger military defences in eastern Europe.
But a plan to build a more modern base will take years, Romanian officials say, even in a place that occupies strategic ground for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Across Europe, countries have rushed to boost defence budgets and fortify NATO’s eastern flank, in fear that military success for Moscow will bring its forces to the borders of Romania and other countries. Germany pledged to double military spending. Romania’s President has called for a 25-per-cent increase in its armed forces outlay. “There is a need for a fundamental rethinking of the way, and of the philosophy in which the allied structure on the eastern flank is conceived,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said Monday.
The border with Ukraine is situated less than 100 kilometres from here. Mihail Kogalniceanu is the closest NATO airfield to Crimea, where Russia has staged a major military expansion since annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
The air base today shares a runway with a civilian airport. The Romanian government, NATO and the U.S. have already allocated nearly US$3-billion for a major upgrade, with plans for a second runway and improved military facilities. The money is already secured.
But building that could take “five, six years,” Eduart Dodu, the deputy base commander, said Monday.
Creating new defences on the eastern reaches of NATO has become an imperative from the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was activating its defence plans, allowing it to place “troops where needed.”
Many of those have come to Mihail Kogalniceanu, which is now home to more than 2,000 soldiers, including French, Italian, Germans and Dutch – in addition to a large U.S. presence. Italian and German Typhoon jets are stationed here, along with French army vehicles and a considerable repository of U.S. equipment: Blackhawk helicopters, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, fuel trucks and Humvees. The U.S. has installed fuel storage tanks and even a new terminal building for arriving troops.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the base on Monday, underscoring its importance. He has been travelling through Europe, meeting with military leaders in Belgium, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
On Monday, groups of Dutch soldiers walked in flip-flops on a rocky avenue built between soft-sided dormitories. Some stood on wooden pallets to keep off the mud.
Since 2017, Canadian CF-18 fighter jets have been stationed at Mihail Kogalniceanu five times for NATO aerial policing missions. A half-dozen jets, and roughly 200 personnel, are due to return in July. Such deployments typically last four months.
“We are willing to do our share to make sure that the entire eastern flank, and in particular Romania, is protected,” Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday, when she visited the air base.
The Canadian military uses two large flexible structures when it operates here, akin to hangar-sized McPherson tents. Their pliable roofs have raised concern in the Romanian military that they could collapse in a heavy snowfall.
The U.S. has had problems, too. An apron with parking for several aircraft that was supposed to be complete last year remains unfinished. “They poured the concrete, then they destroyed it,” Commander Dodu said. “They poured the concrete, I think, three times.”
Underinvestment by Romania in its military was a conscious decision. After the overthrow of Mr. Ceausescu in 1989, Romania began to divert national funds to other purposes. Its military contracted from more than 300,000 people to less than 60,000 today. Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.
Over the past three decades, “it was so peaceful for so many years that it made no sense for the Romanian government to invest money in a military base,” said Iulian Fota, deputy minister for strategic affairs in the Romanian foreign ministry.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 began to change that calculus, and Romania started to open Mihail Kogalniceanu to foreign forces. The U.S. built fencing, a road and a series of buildings. NATO forces, including Canadians, began joint exercises.
“We know what we have for the moment in place. At the same time, you have seen we are investing a lot of money to improve the situation,” Mr. Fota said.
But he dismissed concerns about how much time it will take to see Mihail Kogalniceanu turned into a more effective military air base. “They will try to do the work as fast as possible,” he said.
Instead, he pointed to the foreign troops that have poured in over the past week.
“If you look at the Cold War, you will see that the Americans did not have many troops in western Berlin,” he said. “Numbers are not important. The message is important.” The military collection already taking shape at the air base is soon to be augmented by other countries, he said.
“The fact you see so many allied troops coming here in a matter of weeks is a very strong signal,” he said. “This is the best proof that solidarity works.”
NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, ROMANIA
The Globe and Mail, March 8, 2022