After Russia attacked Ukraine, French colonel Clement Torrent had six months to build a base for 1,000 soldiers on NATO’s eastern border, Bloomberg reports.
He and circa 200 soldiers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands must level a hilltop in the Romanian region of Transylvania.
„Our deadline is before the first frost”, said Torrent, who heads the engineering task force from the base near Cincu, about 260 kilometers north of Bucharest.
„It is a sign of solidarity. An alliance must be tangible”, he added.
As major Western powers scramble to confront the threat posed by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s war on Ukraine has answered a fundamental question North Atlantic Treaty Organization states have asked themselves for years: whether older members like the US, France and Germany will fight for the less wealthy former communist allies if attacked.
But he 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 shore up the previously neglected Black Sea region should have happened long ago.
Six months after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO is firmly focused on how to deter Russia in Europe’s southeast corner and prevent one of the continent’s poorest regions from becoming a security underworld.
The Black Sea separates Europe from Asia and is surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia. It is a critical trade route for agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia and connects to the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey’s Bosphorus.
Moscow has prioritized southeastern Europe, according to Matthew Orr, a Eurasia analyst at intelligence firm RANE. Its formation there „shows how concerned the Russians are with this region, how much they want to have a strong military footprint there – which NATO has to respond to”, he said.
For years, Eastern European leaders had warned that the threat from Russia was growing after Moscow attacked Georgia in 2008. Then, in 2014, Putin instigated a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and seized Crimea.
During that time, the Kremlin has strengthened its military capabilities in the Black Sea, changing ground forces, strengthening air defenses and modernizing its naval fleet as it ramps up its activity in war zones, including Libya and Syria, where it has a naval base.
„The Black Sea itself is Russia’s gateway to warm water, especially the Mediterranean”, said Iulia Joja, director of the Black Sea program for the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.
„It is Russia’s gateway to project power and force in the Middle East, Africa and beyond”, she added.
Weeks after the February 24 invasion, the alliance agreed at a summit in Brussels to create four new battle groups for Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, to complement the four it had deployed in Poland and the Baltic, as part of such a group. The approach is called „tripwire”.
Romania, a country of nearly 19 million that shares a nearly 640-kilometer border with Ukraine, was already home to around 1,000 NATO soldiers before the war, most of them American, with the Mihail Kogălniceanu Black Sea base serving as a transit point for conflict zones in the Middle East.
After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO allies significantly increased their presence on the alliance’s eastern borders, deploying more troops, aircraft and ships. The plan now is to create garrisons in the remaining NATO states on the border, where new units of the international force comprising about 1,000 troops will be rotated regularly. In addition, allies will identify units at home that can quickly join forces already on the ground in eastern states if necessary. This additional presence is something the Baltic states and Poland have been advocating for years. Russia has threatened to respond, although it has yet to take any concrete action.
By liaising with host country armies and prepositioning weapons, ammunition and heavy equipment, these forces can be multiplied to the size of a 5,000-man brigade in a few 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 USA and other contingents”, he said. „In the worst case, if it happens, we will fight”.
Hundreds of thousands of allied troops are currently on heightened alert, which is set to become more formalized under NATO command as part of a major overhaul of the alliance’s defenses agreed by leaders in Madrid in July.