MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania (Reuters) - The United States and Romania have started military training exercises to test installations that will become the first U.S. facilities in the former Soviet bloc, a plan opposed by Russia.
The new bases, located in Romania and Bulgaria, are part of a shift in Pentagon’s focus from large Cold War-era facilities in western Europe towards smaller installations closer to hot spots such as the Middle East.
Romania and its smaller southern neighbor Bulgaria have been NATO members since 2004 and are staunch allies of Washington, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is important we continue to develop and mature our military to military relationships,” David D. McKiernan, Commanding General, United States Army in Europe, told reporters.
“We should train in a coalition environment.” The training exercises started on August 17 and will end in October.
The U.S. signed the deal with Romania to open the bases in December 2005 and has already used the Black Sea facilities to shift equipment and personnel at the start of the Iraqi war in 2003.
Its link-up with Romania has drawn criticism from Moscow and added to tensions between Washington and Russia over the proposed U.S. missile shield in eastern Europe.
“It will be a Romanian facility, not a U.S. facility ... We are guests, tenants,” McKiernan said. Regular training rotations in Romania are due to start next year, and possibly this year in Bulgaria.
“It’s a pre-rotation to test how this works. How we can make improvements when we come back next year,” said Troy Darr, an army spokesman.
Romania hopes millions of dollars in U.S. investment will help revitalize the region along the Black Sea.
Like many regions in the new European Union member, the area suffers widespread poverty and struggles to attract foreign cash, largely due to its dilapidated communist-era infrastructure.
“We hope the base will bring commerce,” said Claudia Albu, a 33-year-old shopkeeper in the nearby town of Mihail Kogalniceanu.
“The girls in town are learning English. And we already have a few mixed-race babies here from the last time the Americans were here.”