US, Bulgaria to hold Balkans military drills amid Ukraine crisis

Reuters/Ints Kalnins
NATO members Bulgaria and the US will hold a series of joint military drills in the course of the next three and a half months, following recent naval drills in the Black Sea and the shipment of over 100 US armored vehicles to Latvia.

About 350 US army officers, as well as US tanks, helicopters and armored personnel carriers will arrive in the Balkan country for the bilateral drills, the Bulgarian Defense Ministry said Friday, Reuters reported.

The drills are to begin Sunday and will be conducted at the Novo Selo training range in southeastern Bulgaria, with about $30 million spent by the US for the modernization of Bulgaria’s military infrastructure, according to Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev.

“The Bulgarian Army will use the drills to test its ability to react in crisis situations,” a Defense Ministry official said. “Of course, we cannot underestimate what is happening in Ukraine.”

The Bulgarian Armed Forces are also set to participate in a couple of annual drills to be held in Ukraine in July – the Rapid Trident and Saber Guardian military exercises, the ministry said.

READ MORE: 6 NATO warships take part in Black Sea naval drills

In March, Bulgaria, which joined NATO in 2004, also participated in naval drills in the Black Sea alongside Romania, Turkey, the US, Canada, Germany and Italy. Anti-air and anti-submarine exercises of six vessels were headed by a US admiral.

Upon finishing the exercises, the ships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG2) arrived in the Romanian port of Constanta on Friday for a scheduled visit. SNMG2 leadership is set to meet local authorities and Navy officials to discuss any further multinational exercises in the Black Sea, according to the NATO Maritime Command statement.

The presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea is likely to further antagonize already strained relations with Russia, as the US and NATO are outraged by Crimea’s decision to cede from Ukraine and join Russia. The Alliance has been increasing its military and naval presence in the sea, which borders Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and several other countries.

Previously, Russia’s envoy to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, said Moscow would respond to NATO’s increased presence in the Black Sea with “necessary countermeasures.” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov says allied forces are ignoring diplomacy and NATO is using the situation in Ukraine to push closer to Russia's border. However, he dismissed the idea that the drills being carried out in the Baltic States, Poland and the Black Sea were a threat to Russia.

On Monday, over 120 armored units, including tanks, were delivered by the US to Latvia. The country’s defense minister, Raymond Vejonis, welcomed the move, saying on Twitter that “the presence of our allies [US and NATO] in Latvia is a confirmation of solidarity and security in the region."

On Tuesday, Norway’s northernmost province, which borders Russia, saw the start of unprecedented week-long war games. The exercise, called Joint Viking, involves 5,000 Norwegian troops and 400 vehicles. The last time a similar military exercise was conducted in Finnmark County, above the Arctic Circle, it was aimed against the Soviet Union, in 1967.

In February, another NATO member state, Estonia held a military parade in the town of Narva, just 300 meters from the Russian border. The parade was dedicated to the nation's Independence Day, but among its participants were over 140 pieces of NATO military hardware. The Estonian government is among several vocally accusing Russia of waging a secret war against Ukraine by supplying arms and troops to anti-Kiev forces in the east.

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Moscow has repeatedly said that it is not part of the Ukraine conflict.

The recent developments are presented as a response to the crisis in Ukraine, which broke out last spring, claiming over 6,000 lives, as Kiev sent its military to the Donbass region. NATO seized on the Ukrainian conflict as an opportunity to argue for a military build-up in Eastern Europe, supposedly to deter Russian aggression.

Russia sees it as yet another proof that NATO is an anti-Russian military bloc that has been expanding its influence toward Russia's borders in an effort to try and compromise Russia’s national security. According to the Russian deputy defense minister, the Allied forces are ignoring diplomacy.

"Instead of uniting forces to fight evil, the worst of which is terrorism, Western nations are drawing new divisive lines, trying to realize containment schemes against unwelcome states. Today, Russia has been chosen as the target," Anatoly Antonov said.