The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became law on January 1 of this year, requires the Department of Defense to provide, for the first time, “an assessment of the value, cost, and feasibility” of an increased U.S. military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, specifically in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and other relevant locations in the regions. The legislation comes as policymakers are paying closer attention to Russia’s and China’s global influence and requires an assessment of “the strategic significance of Russia’s and China’s military posture and activities in the region.”
Although other regions of the world traditionally receive more security assistance, the Balkan region is drawing increased attention for its strategic importance to the United States due to its access to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and its stance as a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, most of the Balkan countries have drawn on some form of U.S. security assistance to develop their security and military capabilities.
This security assistance takes place against a political backdrop of U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region, including the possibility of NATO’s expansion eastward. Eight out of the eleven Balkan countries are NATO members, and two others — Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo — wish to join the organization in the future. The Russian embassy in Bosnia & Herzegovina has recently responded to the possibility of the country’s NATO membership, saying Russia would “have to react to this hostile step.” One member of the three-person Bosnian presidency has called this response part of Russia’s “geopolitical game,” a recent move that highlights the continuing great power competition playing out in the Balkans.
Over the past 20 years, approximately 45 percent of the total U.S. security assistance to Europe, excluding Ukraine, has gone to the Balkans. In the past decade, Romania received the largest share of U.S. security assistance sent to the Balkans, around $222 million total, and more than $5.6 billion in arms sales, as outlined in the Security Assistance Monitor’s recently published factsheet. Romania also holds a close security relationship with the United States and has made “significant contributions of troops, equipment, and other assistance” to support U.S. and NATO-led operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Kosovo.
U.S. security assistance in the Balkans is part of a longstanding policy of maintaining U.S. access to the region. By providing security assistance and stationing troops in Romania and Bulgaria, the United States has sought to gain access to the Black Sea. In 2014, the U.S. Navy established Naval Support Facility-Deveselu, the first new Navy base since 1987, where they constructed the Aegis Ashore defense system meant to intercept potential ballistic missile attacks from countries such as Iran. Additionally, Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania and the Aitos Base in Bulgaria have become major logistics and supply hubs for U.S. equipment and personnel traveling to the Middle East. The base in Romania has served as the primary hub for the entry and exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and could potentially be used again for the U.S. troop withdrawal by September 11. The significance of the U.S. access to the Black Sea also resurfaced after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the recent military build-up in Ukraine.
In the Western Balkans, the power competition is playing out through U.S. security assistance to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as Russian arms sales to Serbia. Most of this assistance is meant for peacekeeping operations, ranking Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo as the first and second largest recipients of this security assistance program in Europe since 2000. Despite also receiving U.S. security assistance, neighboring Serbia has strong historical ties with Russia and has pursued the procurement of sophisticated Russian weapons. In 2019, Serbia cancelled plans to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system because of the cost, unfazed by U.S. sanctions warnings, and has continued with other Russian arms deals, the most recent one proposed personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. officials have threatened Serbia with sanctions on the grounds that these deals could destabilize the security of NATO-member states and Balkan countries that host U.S. troops.
Unlike Serbia, Greece has strengthened its relations with the United States despite its acquisition of both U.S. and Russian arms. Most of the U.S. security assistance that Greece receives is centered on two programs, Excess Defense Articles and Section 333 Authority to Build Capacity, according to the Security Assistance Monitor’s database. Greece purchases the largest share of U.S. arms in the Balkans, after Romania, mainly to deter regional threats such as those that may come from Turkey. On the other hand, U.S. troops deployed in Greece have access to one of the largest deep-water ports in the Mediterranean, Souda Bay, and the chance to secure Western and NATO interests in the region. While Greece owns a Russian S-300 system and conducts drills under strict NATO strategic oversight, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 system — according to Greek press reports — has been used to track a US-made F-16 jet of the Hellenic Air Force and as such has diminished relations with the U.S. and NATO.
Although China’s influence in the Balkans remains mainly within the economic sphere, it is also beginning to get more involved in security cooperation. The U.S. Congress’s decision to request an assessment from the Secretary of Defense on “China’s military posture and activities in the [Eastern Mediterranean] region” reflects growing interest among policymakers, particularly considering that Beijing has already entered the European arms market through arms deals of armed drones and missile systems with Serbia.
Despite the relative lack of attention it has received in recent years, the Balkan region is a critical strategic area for both the United States and Russia and increasingly for China, with the potential for competing interests to complicate a fragile stability. A peaceful, stable Balkan region is critical for its citizens and for the goals of the United States, Russia, China and neighboring regions such as the Black Sea and the Middle East. It is important for those tracking security cooperation to recognize the geostrategic significance of the Balkan region and monitor the security assistance and arms sales levels as an indicator of how strategic rivalries will play out in Southeastern Europe and beyond.