As NATO expands in East Europe, locals feel protected – and targeted

Part 11 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Sara Miller Llana / The Christian Science Monitor
Tadeusz Krajnik, a retired military officer, stands outside the US air base in Redzikowo, Poland. Mr. Krajnik says his residential community, just steps from the barbed wire that delineates the base, 'will be the most dangerous military point in the world' because it would be a first target in fighting between NATO and Russia.

This airfield in the Polish town of Redzikowo was built by the Germans in 1936, and three years later used by the Luftwaffe to launch the first German strike of World War II against Poland. As soon as the war ended, the Soviets took it over.

If any place highlights Poland’s historical memory of invasion and occupation – which has driven its call for a greater security guarantee from the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since the fall of the Soviet Union – it is here, near Poland's Baltic coast.

But since the US broke ground on a new missile shield at this site in May – as part of NATO’s ballistic missile defense system – sentiments have been decidedly mixed about the allied footprint in their backyard.

“We understand that the missile defense system is needed and it will improve Poland's security, but it won't necessarily make our region safer,” says Marek Biernacki, the deputy mayor of Slupsk, a city of 100,000 that sits half a mile from the base. “It could be just the opposite.”

NATO officials say the defense missile shield system is not directed at Russia. But that’s not how locals or the Kremlin see it. Russian President Vladimir Putin rattled Romania when the first part of the missile shield became operational in May, saying Romania is now in the “crosshairs.”

The East and West are ramping up military capabilities and defenses to their greatest extent since the cold war. And officials at a two-day NATO summit in Warsaw, which begins July 8, will announce another buildup along its eastern flank. Some are now bracing for a backlash. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently accused NATO of “saber-rattling.” And the reactions in Slupsk, in a country that has long clamored for a greater NATO presence, reveals a fraught path ahead in responding to a resurgent Russia.

While to some extent a reflection of simple NIMBY-ism, locals’ concerns mirror larger ones about the fragile balance needed to maintain regional stability. They also show the disconnect between politicians and ordinary people, who often view defense not necessarily as the over-arching consideration of their lives but instead weigh the economic, health, and even environmental consequences.

'We are a target'

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a military buildup in Russia, NATO has responded with a show of force in the bloc's east. The spring saw a flurry of exercises, the largest of which was Anakonda 2016, held in Poland in June with 31,000 troops.

In the next few days, NATO will officially announce the deployment of four 1,000-troop rotational battalions in Poland and in each of the Baltic states where the fear of a Russian invasion is highest. It will also send a multinational brigade to Romania to shore up the southeast, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week.

For these nations, where suspicions of Russia are deeply rooted, the moves are a relief. “Russia has the legacy from Peter the Great, it must conquer all of the land that makes it easy to access the seas,” says Romanian pensioner Victor Danciu, sitting in a park in central Bucharest, the capital of Romania, which shares a border with Ukraine and sits on the Black Sea.

The missile defense base in the Romanian town of Deveselu, which features the Aegis Ashore missile system, adds to a greater sense of security, says Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels and a former Romanian diplomat. “Not so much for its capability, but that it is a physical NATO asset that comes with a commitment to protect those assets,” he says.

NATO officials have argued that, because of geography and physics, it is impossible to intercept Russian missiles at the site – or the one in Redzikowo, set to be operational around 2018 – and thus clearly is intended to stop nuclear missiles from Iran. But Putin has reacted angrily. "If yesterday in those areas of Romania people simply did not know what it means to be in the crosshairs, then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security," he said on May 27.

Marian Zulean, who previously worked for Romania’s ministry of defense and was heavily involved in Romania’s 2004 entry into NATO, says the missile shield does not increase risks. “Anyway we are a target. Putin is just using rhetoric, but there is no increase in threat,” he says. “The danger was there anyway.”

But in Redzikowo, residents say they do feel newly vulnerable.

Tadeusz Krajnik, a retired military officer, says his residential community, just steps from the barbed wire that delineates the base, “will be the most dangerous military point in the world.” He says that “In case of conflict between the US and some country in the East, the first missiles will be directed at Redzikowo.”

Michal Nielub, from the Association of the Friends of Slupsk and the Region, which has led protests against the missile shield, says Putin is not so provoked by the rotating battalions – because his own military buildup dwarfs that of NATO.

But he says he is conflicted about it all the same. “On the one hand, the NATO army should be in Poland because Russia is seeking to intimidate the region,” he says. “On the other hand, NATO’s army in our region can provoke Russia.”

Balancing defense and diplomacy

His views seem to match public opinion. In a poll by SW Research in June, for the Polish edition of Newsweek, 47.4 percent of respondents said they supported the presence of NATO foreign soldiers in Poland, while 27.1 percent were against. The rest were undecided.

A majority of Poles and Romanians support NATO generally. After Crimea, Polish support jumped by 15 points, according to the German Marshall Fund of the US (GMF), with 62 percent describing NATO as essential for their country’s security. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Poles consider Russia a major threat to neighboring countries, compared with 49 percent in seven other NATO countries surveyed in 2015.

But some worry that by bolstering the eastern flank, the alliance risks escalating tensions, something the NATO summit must address.

“Russia has been modernizing its military massively in the last decade. There is a major military imbalance in that part of the world and such an imbalance can be destabilizing. … So by beefing up NATO security, you are actually beefing up stability,” says Nicu Popescu, a senior analyst on Russia and the eastern neighborhood at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. “There is an overriding consensus that you have to beef up the eastern flank while at the same time not launch an arms race with Russia and a cold war.”

Perhaps even harder to convince will be regular citizens, who may see defense through the prism of economics. A report prepared for the local government showed that the region of Slupsk stands to lose 2.8 billion zlotys ($700 million) because of the defense missile shield. Miroslaw Kaminski, president of the board of the Pomeranian Regional Development Agency, says that investors are scared away by new restrictions and the building permissions now required by the US military. “People are more concerned about the economy and their daily life,” Mr. Kaminski says.

Skepticism about the possibility of armed conflict is also stronger among a younger generation of Eastern Europeans, who did not grow up in the cold war and feel more protected by the institutions to which they belong. To them, the threat from Russia is hard to fathom, especially when their countries are backed up by the might of their Western allies.

Flavian Calafatis, a young doctor in Bucharest, feels firmly anchored in the West and protected by current frameworks.

“People here aren’t so scared. Russia logically wouldn’t attack a NATO country,” he says, vehemently. “Attacking us would be like attacking the US.”

• Monika Rebala contributed reporting from Poland.

This was part 11 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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