NATO footprint in Albania to grow with construction projects at former Soviet air base
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 26, 2019
NATO is set to boost its presence in the western Balkans — where the West and Russia have been locked in a struggle for influence — as Albania prepares to host the alliance’s first military base in the region in coming years.
U.S. and Albanian military officers on Thursday marked the first phase of the $58 million project to modernize Kucova Air Base in central Albania and bring its facilities in line with NATO-approved standards, alliance officials said.
Serving in his role as NATO’s allied air commander, Gen. Tod Wolters, who also leads U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa, attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Tirana at the Albanian Defense Ministry, where he spoke alongside Olta Xhacka, the country’s defense minister.
“What we anticipate over the course of the next months and years is the continuing improvement of the infrastructure and what will ultimately happen is there will be an aircraft haven at Kucova,” Wolters said in an Allied Air Command statement. “We are extremely, extremely excited about advancing that cause.”
Planned improvements to the base — built with Soviet assistance in the early 1950s — include runway restoration, control tower upgrades, construction of a fighter ramp, fuel and ammunitions storage facilities, and a new crash and fire station, the statement said.
The work will support NATO air transport, logistics, air policing and training, Albanian officials have said.
The Albanian air force no longer operates fixed-wing aircraft. Since 2009, when the former communist country joined the alliance, NATO neighbors Italy and Greece have been providing air policing over Albania.
NATO’s investment in Albania comes on the heels of Xhacka’s trip last spring to Washington. While meeting with former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, she said Albania wanted to host a U.S. or NATO presence to counter Russian efforts to expand its influence, as well as to balance growing interest in the region from countries such as China and Iran.
“I believe that a very strong message needs to be sent, that the Western Balkans is a Western-oriented region,” she said, according to the Pentagon’s transcript of her remarks.
The region has been the scene of a battle for influence between the West and Russia, which has criticized moves to expand NATO membership in the area, claiming it threatens regional security.
Some Western officials have stated that bringing all the nations of the Western Balkans into NATO and the European Union will foster stability in a region that was convulsed by a series of wars in the 1990s.
Moscow has been accused of fomenting an unsuccessful coup attempt in neighboring Montenegro to prevent its accession to the military alliance in 2017, and of trying to prevent Macedonia, another neighbor of Albania, from seeking NATO membership. During his visit to Serbia earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States and NATO of destabilizing the region.
The establishment of Kucova as the first NATO air base in the western Balkans gives the alliance an important strategic site about an hour’s flight from Syria, Blerim Reka, a professor at South East European University in Macedonia, wrote earlier this month in a piece for the think tank Emerging Europe.
The military buildup in the region, Reka wrote, “is part of a broader tug-of-war for strategic advantage around the Mediterranean Sea” between the U.S. and Russia.
Commander Allied Air Command, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, left, inspects the honor guard with the Albanian Chief of Defense, Brig. Gen. Bardhl Kollcaku, while visiting Tirana, Albania, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Wolters and Albanian defense officials were at a ceremony to mark the first phase of NATO-funded construction projects to improve Albania's Kucova Air Base.
COURTESY ELVIN HASANAJ/ALBANIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE