NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg delivers a speech as he reviews NATO multinational brigade in Craiova
By Robin Emmott
CRAIOVA, Romania (Reuters) - NATO launched a new multinational force in Romania on Monday to counter Russia along its eastern flank and to check a growing Russian presence in the Black Sea following the Kremlin's 2014 seizure of Crimea.
The force will initially be built around a Romanian brigade of up to 4,000 soldiers, supported by troops from nine other NATO countries, and complementing a separate deployment of 900 U.S. troops who are already in place. The plans are to include additional air and sea assets to give the force greater capabilities.
"Our purpose is peace, not war," Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told the NATO Parliamentary Assembly of alliance lawmakers, which is meeting this year in Bucharest.
"We are not a threat for Russia. But we need dialogue from a strong position of defense and discouragement," he said, before flying to the Craiova military base in south-eastern Romania.
At the base, as military bands played, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stood alongside Iohannis, addressed some of the troops in green face paint and inspected vehicles and weapons.
"We are sending a very clear message: NATO is here, NATO is strong and NATO is united," Stoltenberg told assembled Polish, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese soldiers.
Russia accuses NATO of trying to encircle it and threatening stability in Eastern Europe, which NATO denies. Around the Black Sea, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are NATO members while Georgia and Ukraine aspire to join.
The NATO force aims to develop its presence in the Black Sea region, rich in oil and gas, without escalating tensions as it seeks to counter Russia's own plans to create what military analysts say is a "buffer zone".
The 2008 Russian operation to put troops in Georgia's South Ossetia region, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and its annexation of Crimea have raised the stakes, with all sides warning of a new, Cold-War style scenario.
Apart from Romania, Poland is the biggest troop contributor. Bulgaria, Italy and Portugal will train regularly with the force in Craiova, and Germany is also expected to contribute.
In additional to existing NATO Black Sea naval patrols, a maritime presence will include more allied visits to Romanian and Bulgarian ports, training and exercises.
Britain is deploying fighter planes to Romania. Canada is already helping to patrol Romanian air space, and Italian planes are helping patrol over Bulgaria.
'WEST BERLIN' MODEL
Some Eastern Europeans want NATO's new ballistic missile defense shield, which includes a site in Romania, to be part of NATO's eastern posture vis-a-vis Russia.
"The Aegis Ashore system would add another level of deterrence," said Maciej Kowalski, an analyst at the Polish Casimir Pulaski Foundation, referring to the U.S.-built system.
NATO says the system is to intercept any Iranian rockets.
As in the Baltics and Poland, where the U.S.-led alliance has some 4,000 troops, NATO says the relatively light multinational model recalls allied support for West Berlin in the 1950s, when the presence of British, French and U.S. forces ensured the Soviet Union could not control all of Berlin.
Under NATO's founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all, meaning all 28 NATO nations would be required to respond in the case of any potential Russian aggression.
While months in planning, the establishment of the force comes as Russia winds down its biggest war games since 2013. The Zapad, or West, games showed off Moscow's latest weaponry and its ability to quickly mass forces on NATO's borders.
The enhanced NATO presence in Romania and Bulgaria marks a diplomatic success for Bucharest, which gained greater persuasive power because it is set to reach a NATO goal of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense this year, a priority for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Romania pushed for bigger NATO naval presence on the Black Sea for more than a year, but found its neighbor Bulgaria wary of provoking Russia.
Turkey supports only limited NATO reinforcements, concerned about breaking international rules limiting the scale of patrols in the Black Sea. Turkey has played down the extent of Russia's militarization of Crimea, which NATO says involves deploying surface-to-air missiles and communications jamming equipment.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott Additional reporting by Luiza Ilie and Radu-Sorin Marinas; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt, Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff)