Southeast European countries have backed NATO’s military build-up in the Black Sea region as tensions escalate between Russia and Ukraine, with Hungary striking a lone chord of defiance.
Budapest, which has good relations with Moscow, has threatened to stay out of the alliance’s efforts to support Kyiv, citing longtime disagreements with Ukraine, but is expected to be part of a broader strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank as fears of conflict rise.
Romania is strongly in favor of NATO’s preparations. President Klaus Iohannis said on Wednesday that “the security crisis created by Russia is not just about Ukraine. . . but about the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area ”. He added that Russia wanted to “unacceptably change the parameters of the European security architecture”.
Romania, which shares a 600km border with Ukraine, was preparing for war and potential consequences such as a refugee crisis, an economic downturn or Russian curbs on energy supplies, Iohannis said.
According to a survey by pollster Avangarde, two-thirds of Romanians feel Russian-Ukrainian tensions threaten their country, with a majority in support of a NATO build-up in response. About three-quarters of respondents in another poll by Inscop support the country’s NATO membership, including the presence of US military bases in the country.
“We are ready to host an increased allied presence in our territory,” Iohannis said, adding that Bucharest was in contact with allies over increasing the number of troops in the country.
France has said it is ready to send troops to Romania, while US President Joe Biden has also said NATO’s troop presence in Romania may be increased as Ukrainian conflict intensifies.
In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has discussed his country’s level of involvement with his security council. “We will focus on developing further Bulgarian military capabilities and potential under Bulgarian command, with the help of our allies where needed,” Petkov tweeted.
According to a strategy presentation on Wednesday by Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, a Bulgarian army battalion may join NATO exercises if needed. “The position is difficult to interpret as a positive signal,” Yanev said.
Spain and the Netherlands have already sent fighter jets to Bulgaria to help it maintain air patrols as Sofia lacks sufficient air defense capabilities. Spain has also sent a frigate to the Black Sea several weeks ahead of schedule.
Nato wants stronger defense capabilities in the region, including the four countries that share a border with Ukraine or the Black Sea – Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
Asked about a troop deployment to Slovakia and Hungary, a NATO spokesperson quoted Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Monday said the enhanced presence in eastern Europe “could include the deployment of additional NATO battlegroups. These deployments are proportionate and in line with our international commitments and they reinforce European security for all of us. ”
Slovakia’s foreign minister Ivan Korcok told the Financial Times: “In this critical situation I consider this proposal a logical step aiming at strengthening defense and deterrence in our eastern flank.”
Hungary has remained silent about plans to participate in the NATO forces’ build-up. Its foreign ministry told the FT that it wanted to “avoid a new cold war” and preferred direct talks between Russia and the west rather than amplifying tensions, without going into detail.
Around 1,000 NATO troops could be deployed to Hungary in battle groups similar to those already in the Baltics, CNN reported on Wednesday. Hungarian news website HVG quoted an unnamed government official who confirmed talks were continuing but said no decision had been taken.
Budapest has threatened to stay out of western efforts to support Ukraine.
“We ask [Russia and the west] to speak to one another directly, and we very clearly tell them we want no part in their conflict in this region, ”Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Wednesday in the daily Magyar Nemzet, which usually reflects the government’s political line.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban is due to travel to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin next week.
Szijjarto told Magyar Nemzet that Budapest was committed to Moscow while it was wary of Kyiv. Asked about western demands for Hungary not to tighten bilateral ties with Putin, Szijjarto said: “Nobody can request such a thing from us.”
He said Russia supplied Hungary with Covid vaccines when supplies from other sources were scarce, bought gas cheaply from Moscow, and that “a single text message to the Russian foreign minister” had been enough to evacuate Hungarian citizens from Kazakhstan this month.
In contrast, Kyiv curtailed the rights of more than 100,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine, Szijjarto said in the interview. He recounted long disagreements over the use of minority languages or rights to hold public office. A failure to resolve the disputes led Hungary to veto Ukraine’s bid to start accession talks with either NATO or the EU.
“Even in the context of Eastern European security, I honestly told my EU and NATO colleagues: unless Ukrainians step back from this policy, the Hungarian government will have very limited options to support Ukraine in any way, even in this conflict,” he said. .
He added that the approach to Ukraine was not influenced by strong bilateral ties with Moscow, saying it had “no Russian dimension”.