As the Ukraine crisis escalates, NATO is drawing closer - as highlighted by Ursula von der Leyen's visits to Romania and the Czech Republic. Both had been on the German defense minister's to-visit list for some time.
The last visit of a German defense minister to Bucharest dates back more than a decade. Ministers meet each other at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and those meetings usually suffice. However, Ukraine's civil war has changed everything: In the face of perceived aggression by Russia, which is seen as a threat predominantly by Central and East European NATO states, there is much to talk about. Joint maneuvers are set up, troops are deployed, and strategies of deterrence are tested.
Increasingly, this process has come to involve countries like Romania, which shares a long border with Ukraine and is located on the strategically important Black Sea. An important role is also played by Moldova, Romania's neighbor country and its "godchild" as it were, which has turned toward the European Union but is also heavily burdened by the conflict with its breakaway Trans-Dniester republic.
Following recent visits to Poland and the Baltic states, there was sufficient reason for Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to travel to Bucharest, a city in which NATO banners are ostentatiously placed in front of public buildings. On her way to the Defense Ministry press room, the Christian Democrat passed a kind of hall of fame of Romania's army: "A reliable ally," read words inscribed in big letters.
Photos and medals displayed in glass cabinets bear witness to various operations abroad and praise Romanian troops. Predominantly, those highlighted were missions in which the German army was involved - an aspect that is impossible to overlook.
New NATO bases in Romania
A glimpse into the overcrowded press room showed that Romanians appreciate Germany, like they do the US, as a "provider of security": A long row of camera lenses was facing the guest from Berlin. Von der Leyen duly began by pointing out that Romanian and German soldiers trained together as "a matter of course" and then congratulated her Romanian counterpart, Mircea Dusa, on the "speed at which the Wales decisions are being implemented."
At its summit in Wales in September 2014, NATO had decided to increase its presence in Eastern Europe and to improve its ability to rapidly deploy troops. A new regional headquarters is located in Romania, and, like troops from other nations, German soldiers will be deployed there.
Bucharest will also be the seat of NATO's Multinational Division South-East. "All these are measures that are defensive and appropriate, but that also show our unity," von der Leyen said of the new tasks before NATO, which has often been pronounced dead.
Rapid response training
Currently, Germany's remit is to test the rapid deployment of troops to a potential area of crisis - in terms of logistics, a Herculean task. Whether NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force will indeed live up to its name still remains to be seen. The first major deployment exercise, involving troop movement to Poland, is set to begin on June 9. Valuable experience is to be gained from this exercise, which will also see the participation of soldiers from the small Czech army: That subject was discussed during von der Leyen's visit to Prague.
There, officials also pointed out that they had waited many years for a German defense minister to visit. Martin Stropnicky, von der Leyen's Czech counterpart, said the time had come for closer cooperation on security issues - and that there was still room for development. Von der Leyen nodded.
The most important conclusion one might draw from von der Leyen's visit: Since alliance defense has been declared NATO's core task again, the "smaller" partner nations appear to be receiving much greater appreciation.