Albania's Air Base is being Modernized, NATO is Investing 50 Million Euros to Turn it into a Strong Balkan Base

 In the town of Kucova, formerly known as Stalin City, NATO is modernizing an airbase to improve alliance capabilities in the Western Balkans, a region where Russia appears to be expanding its influence.

NATO is spending 50m euros ($ 56m) to renovate its six-decade-old base, further cementing its foundation in part of Europe destroyed by wars two decades ago, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The alliance also aims to project power from here to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, where Russia has deployed ships involved in its conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

While the West has often fought to oppose Russia's political interference and foreign military engagements, NATO has overseen Russia's intervention in the Western Balkans in recent years. Albania joined the military alliance in 2009, and its northern neighbor Montenegro was accepted in 2017 after a Russian-sponsored coup attempt, according to the government there.

The US used NATO to drag Central and Eastern European countries into the West's orbit after the fall of communism, offering membership to countries such as Poland and Romania, several years before they became members of the European Union. The alliance is playing a similar role now in the Balkans, where NATO membership, along with European investment and trade, has deepened ties with the West.

At the same time, EU membership has become a distant prospect for Albania and some of its neighbors, due to the bloc's internal problems and criticism by some European officials that these countries remain dysfunctional and at a high rate of crime.

French President Emmanuel Macron hit the region in October by blocking the start of EU membership talks for Albania and North Macedonia, arguing that deepening integration among current members of the European Union is more important than expanding the bloc.

Meanwhile, NATO is strengthening ties in the region. In a visit to the Pentagon in April, Albanian Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka welcomed the importance of developing the Kuçova airbase in an area that "has become a hot spot for geopolitical rivalries and has witnessed a very strong effort coordinated to undermine security and stability."

Albania, a Muslim-majority nation of about 2.9 million people, was for decades a communist dictatorship allied with the Soviet Union and later China. The Kuçova base, built in the 1950s with Soviet help, housed a large part of Albania's air force, supplied with warplanes built by its Communist allies.

Longtime dictator Enver Hoxha led the country into isolation, first quarreling with its patrons in Moscow then in Beijing and building tens of thousands of bunkers to protect them from neighboring invasions, NATO and even the Soviet Union. Communism fell in the early 1990s and Albania is now strongly pro-American.

Some remnants of Albania's communist-era air force - a dozen Soviet-built MiGs and Chinese - are rusted in Kuçova. The only flying objects for Albania are some helicopters, and its skies are protected by Italian and Greek planes.

Major Arqile Olldashi, the base commander, said locals were pleased in November when two C-130 military transport aircraft arrived in Kucova for drills by the US and Albanian special forces.

Planned improvements to the base include rebuilding the runway, upgrading the control tower and building new fuel and ammunition storage facilities. The modernization will bring Kuçova to NATO standards and make it an operational base for refueling and ammunition refueling, but no NATO planes seem likely to be deployed there forever.

"Upgrading Kuçova airbase will give the alliance an important strategic structure in the Western Balkans," said NATO Deputy Spokesman Piers Cazalet.

The US is helping Albania upgrade its military, deploying three Black Hawk helicopters and 37 heavily armored vehicles.
Albania's Air Base is being Modernized, NATO is Investing 50 Million Euros to Turn it into a Strong Balkan Base Albania's Air Base is being Modernized, NATO is Investing 50 Million Euros to Turn it into a Strong Balkan Base Saturday, January 11, 2020 Rating: 5
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