Both NATO and the governments in Bucharest and Sofia have firmly rejected Russia’s demand for the withdrawal of NATO troops from countries that joined after 1997.
The request came amid a deterioration in relations between Russia and the West and ahead of the start of a new round of talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The meeting aims to find common ground between the two sides to prevent the crisis from escalating, although both Blinken and Lavrov have said they do not have high hopes for progress.
As bne IntelliNews has reported that Russia has already started redeploying troops to Belarus ahead of unscheduled military exercises in February and the Kremlin has just sent naval vessels from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea for further exercises; These will arrive in the next 10 days.
On the western side, Blinken announced on January 18 that the US will give Ukraine another $200 million for weapons. The following day, US President Joe Biden said Washington would increase its troop presence in eastern NATO members, such as the two Black Sea states. Russia is sending more armed forces to Ukraine.
“We’re going to increase the troop presence in Poland or Romania, etc., if he actually moves, because we have a sacred obligation under Article 5 to defend those countries because they’re part of NATO,” Biden told a White House press briefing.
This prompted Moscow to ask NATO to withdraw forces, equipment and weapons from its newer members, which include several of the former Eastern Bloc countries.
“We are talking about the withdrawal of foreign forces, equipment and weapons and other steps to return to the 1997 configuration on the territory of countries that were not NATO members at the appointed time. These include Bulgaria and Romania,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in response to a request for clarification from journalists.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu responded on Twitter: #Russia’s demands [would] #NATO members 1st & 2nd class create what we cannot accept. We reject any notion of spheres of influence in Europe. And we will not sacrifice our ability to protect and defend one another. My reply to @mfa_russia claims regarding @Nato Allies #Bulgaria #Romania.”
Lungescu also released a lengthy NATO statement on the matter, stating: “NATO will not relinquish our ability to protect and defend one another, even with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance. Russia’s demands would create first- and second-class NATO members, which we cannot accept. We reject any notion of spheres of influence in Europe. We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defenses. NATO remains vigilant and continues to assess the need to reinforce the eastern portion of our alliance.”
Officials in both Romania (which borders Ukraine and also has a Black Sea coast) and Bulgaria also firmly dismissed the Russian statement.
“The Romanian [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] MFA recalls this [the] The NATO presence in the Allied countries, which is the result of decisions made at the highest levels by Allied leaders and implemented by the respective Allied political and military structures, is a strictly defensive response to the increasingly aggressive behavior of the Russian Federation , especially in the eastern neighborhood starting in 2014, when the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was illegally occupied by Russia. This behavior continues to intensify in the present, despite NATO’s attempts to engage in constructive dialogue,” the statement said.
“The demand that NATO forces in all Allied countries that joined after 1997, including troops, should be reduced in accordance with Moscow’s demands is already included in Russia’s list of demands on European security published in December 2021. This demand has already been clearly rejected as unacceptable by the North Atlantic Alliance both publicly and within the framework of the NATO-Russia dialogue and the US-Russia dialogue. Such a demand is unacceptable and non-negotiable.”
Romanian officials had previously welcomed Biden’s testimony. “I welcome President @JoeBiden’s explicit announcement to increase the US military presence in Romania on the eastern flank if the security situation continues to deteriorate. RO-US strategic partnership and @NATO solidarity are very strong,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said on Twitter.
The demand also created tensions in Sofia and provoked an immediate reaction.
“Bulgaria is a sovereign state and decided a long time ago to join NATO. As such, we decide for ourselves how to organize national defense in coordination with our partners. The Washington Treaty does not provide for a second category of member states for which collective defense will be applied selectively or to a limited extent,” Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said in parliament in response to the Kremlin.
He urged Russia to continue to engage in constructive dialogue to de-escalate tensions.
President Rumen Radev also addressed the issue in a statement on January 21. He said Russia’s insistence on withdrawing NATO troops from Bulgaria was unacceptable and pointless. Radev pointed out that there are no permanently stationed Allied contingents and military equipment in the country and it is up to Bulgaria to decide on such a presence.
“Our country does not accept ultimatums from anyone,” Radev said.
The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement saying that the national territories of NATO member countries are alliance territories and the member countries’ armed forces are also NATO forces.
“We call on the Russian Federation to show respect for the conscious foreign policy decision of the Republic of Bulgaria for NATO membership and for the decisions of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court,” the ministry said in the statement.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands also said it was sending two F-35 fighter jets to Bulgaria because of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Dnevnik news agency reported. A day earlier, Spain said it was preparing to send fighter jets to Bulgaria as well.