New Hub for NATO Jets: Remodelled Soviet-Era Air Base Opened by Albania  

Foreign Affairs

Rome: Albania reopened a refurbished Soviet-era air base on March 4, 2024 which will host NATO jets as fears grow in the Balkans over creeping Russian influence. Italian Eurofighters and US F-16s and F-35s flew in for the inauguration of the base at Kucova, 50 miles south of the capital Tirana, which was formerly named Stalin City when Albania was allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“This is a base that (will add) another element of security for our Western Balkans region which we all know is endangered from the threat and neo-imperialist ambitions of the Russian Federation,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said during the opening ceremony. Work on reopening the base started just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has gained urgency since as Moscow foments anti-Western sentiment in the Balkans.

The €50 million ($54 million) makeover of the Cold War-era base will allow it to support NATO logistics missions, air operations, training and exercises with a 1.2 mile runway, the alliance said. “The makeover of Kucova air base is a strategic investment and shows that NATO continues to strengthen its presence in the western Balkans, an area of strategic importance to the alliance,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said.

Albania does not operate jet fighters but on March 4 it flew its new Bayraktar TB2 drones at the ceremony. Tirana purchased three of the Turkish drones in 2022. Albania joined NATO in 2009 and is pushing to join the European Union while fellow Balkan state Serbia has by contrast maintained close ties with Russia and China.

Moscow backs Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo, a former province of Serbia which declared its independence in 2008. Kosovo accused Serbia of backing about 30 gunmen who entered the Kosovo village of Banjska in September and killed a Kosovar police officer during a firefight.

“The terrorist attack in Banjska proved how fragile security is in our region and that there are actors who want to project the future through a past that shouldn’t return,” said Albanian president Bajram Begaj during his speech at the opening of the base.

Following the speeches, two F-16s and two F-35s from Aviano Air Base in Italy flew overhead while two Italian Eurofighters landed at the 860-acre base. Kucova still hosts rusting MiGs and Antonovs left over from its days as a Communist base.

Albania’s decision to reopen the base for NATO use follows the establishment in 2022 of a forward operating headquarters for US Special Operations in Albania. On March 4, Albanian prime minister Edi Rama said he also hoped to open a new naval base at Porto Romano in Albania for NATO use.