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Romania Hosts First U.S. Bases As Russia Distrust Mounts


U.S. and NATO officials will gather in a small town in Romania tomorrow to declare a new American base ready to intercept enemy missiles. It's part of the long-planned European defense system designed to protect the continent from Iranian ballistic missiles.

Russia strongly objects to the U.S. base in Romania, even though the technology there isn't intended to knock out Russian missiles. Romania used to be a close ally of the Soviet Union, but NPR Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports Moscow's complaints don't seem to bother many Romanians.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: It's likely the Romanians who are happiest about the U.S. Navy building a base here in Deveselu are its 3,500 residents.

Almost every facet of their impoverished farming town is being upgraded to accommodate the American site that officially opened 18 months ago. Mayor Ion Aliman says it cost $8 million so far to spruce up Deveselu, most of it paid for by Bucharest and the EU. He adds the Americans donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help refurbish the local school and build a kindergarten.

ION ALIMAN: (Through interpreter) Like many Romanians, my grandfather had been waiting for the Americans since 1944, and they've arrived.

S. NELSON: Similar sentiments were repeated by most Romanians NPR interviewed this week, including Iulian Chifu. He was an adviser to the previous Romanian president here. Chifu says more visible U.S. and NATO deterrents are needed against Russia, especially in the Black Sea.

IULIAN CHIFU: Is one of the ports that we feel it's the most vulnerable at this point. Since Crimea is 340 miles away from our shores.

S. NELSON: Moscow, in turn, argues it's the Americans and their new NATO allies who are stoking tensions. The Russians object to the alliance beefing up its military presence on its eastern flank. It also might not help that the new American base is located on a former Warsaw Pact airfield.

Frank Rose, the assistant secretary of state for arms control verification and compliance, says the U.S. looked at 20 or more sites and that Deveselu was chosen because it met a number of technical operational and support requirements. He adds the defense shield is not designed to undermine Russia's advanced class of ballistic missiles.

FRANK ROSE: Well, what I would say is that the United States and NATO have been clear for over 20 years. U.S. and NATO missile defenses are not directed against Russia nor do they have the technical capability to undermine Russia's strategic deterrent.

S. NELSON: In Deveselu, some residents embrace the American presence as a way to protect themselves against a country that invaded Romania more than a dozen times.

ANCA NELSON: Well, the Russians will see everything as a threat anyway (laughter). So - I'm sorry.

S. NELSON: That's Anca Nelson from Highland, N.Y. The 34-year-old artist grew up around Deveselu, where her dad flew a Soviet-made troop transport and has retired in what used to be the base housing for Romanian pilots. She's one of the residents I interview who are surprised to learn the new navy system can't shoot down missiles fired from Russia.

A. NELSON: Oh, I'm hoping for the best. I'm hoping that it's not going to be a problem because my parents are living so close by and other Romanians as well.

S. NELSON: The U.S. missile facility here is expected to be handed over to NATO control this summer, although the American service members will remain to operate the system. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Deveselu, Romania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.