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NATO just opened a new airbase in Albania. That’s a good thing

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NATO is stepping up its presence in the Western Balkans. In a show of support for the region, NATO has transformed a Soviet-era airbase in Albania into a new centre of operations. Albania has welcomed the initiative with open arms, showing its enthusiasm for bolstering security partnerships with NATO. Albania's decision reflects its alignment with the West, particularly in response to recent tensions arising from Russia's actions in Ukraine - writes Arta Haxhixhemajli.

Construction on the airbase began just before the war in Ukraine, prompted by Moscow's anti-Western sentiment in the Balkans. Albania's strategic location and escalating geopolitical tensions in the region made setting up a base there a no-brainer.

Albania is a member of NATO but still has no fighter jets of its own. Albania opened the airbase for NATO and Force Eurofighters landed for the first time. Moreover, NATO funded the airbase to the tune of around 50 million euros including storage facilities, control towers, runaways and hangars.

It was the first NATO Security Programme execution in Albania, and the ceremony of the airbase was a huge milestone, emphasising Albania’s role in advancing security in the region.

The new airbase underscores the connection and collaboration between NATO and Albania. It signals Albania’s willingness to be more active and support NATO’s objectives in the Western Balkans. NATO’s acting spokesperson Dylan White stresses the importance of the airbase for its strategic significance in terms of deterrence and defence in Europe and the region. 

The renovation of the Kucova airbase in Albania is a strategic and geopolitical investment which demonstrates NATO’s stance in the Western Balkans. Albania is in a strategic location from the geopolitical perspective in the Mediterranean region.

With the new airbase, NATO’s hub interest will increase further. It will receive and accommodate troops and aircrews with the importance of the security and securitization of the region. The Kucova Base will host fighter jets from Greece and Italy to protect the Albanian airspace as part of NATO’s integrated Air and Missile Defense System. 

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The Western Balkans region plays a crucial role in Russia’s geopolitical influence and confrontation with the West. While Russia is pursuing hard power in Ukraine, its influence and economic influence in the Western Balkans region have decreased. NATO’s presence is taking the upper hand. With the opening of the airbase, NATO demonstrates once again that Russia’s geopolitical footprints can be set aside.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky co-hosted the Ukraine Southeastern Europe Summit in Tirana with the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama. The Ukrainian President requested at the summit to have military equipment from the Western Balkans so it could help in the fight against Russia. Zelensky also said he wants Balkan support for the vision of peace in Ukraine and promoted the idea of joint arms production during the summit in Tirana. While Ukraine is trying to enhance its defensive capabilities and counter Russia, having an ally like Albania with such strong ties with NATO gives Ukraine leverage. Despite the opening of the airbase, Edi Rama empathizes with the other desire to open a new naval base at Porto-Romano in his country for NATO to use. 

The decision to re-open the Kucova airbase reflects NATO’s intention to enhance the security landscape in Europe and the Western Balkans. NATO is modernising its infrastructure as part of its security and opening new bases which will respond quickly in case of any security challenges in the region.

The airbase signifies more than just military capabilities. It is a symbol of the deeper cooperation and collaboration between NATO and Albania and ongoing countermeasures against malign and conflictual influence in the Western Balkans. It’s a sign of friendship and safety for people in the Western Balkans, like me.

Arta Haxhixhemajli is a Kosovar researcher, a non-resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a fellow with Young Voices Europe. Her research covers international relations, security, and geopolitics.

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