CARACAL, Romania — When asked about the new American base in the nearby village of Deveselu, 59-year-old bakery employee Ilie Stoica mimicked the whistle of an incoming bomb and pantomimed an explosion. “Russia!” he laughed.
Russia likely won’t bomb the U.S. missile interceptor site in Deveselu anytime soon, but its opposition to the base is well known in this remote farming region, which, like the rest of Romania, was once under the sway of the Soviet Union. Yet for many people here, the idea of new jobs and spending outweighs any perceived drawback to the American presence.
“I think it’s good for the village,” said Andrea Spiraeala, an employee at the Deveselu municipal hall. “But you know how some people are. They worry about war and the Russians.”
Formally activated May 12, the interceptor system is armed with 24 SM-3 missiles that are designed to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles fired toward Europe. It’s set on a 430-acre Navy base completed in 2014 and manned by roughly 150 American personnel.
The U.S. and NATO say the site will stop any Iranian attack as part of a larger missile shield that includes Navy warships in Spain, an early warning radar in Turkey and a second ground site being built in Poland.
Russia argues the system could negate its own strategic nuclear weapons, a claim denied by the U.S. and NATO. Russian leaders said they would take unspecified “measures” in response to the activation of the Romania site.
It’s a dispute that can feel far away for residents of Deveselu, a village of about 400 families where men still drive horse-drawn carriages and livestock graze on the road shoulder. The Navy base is barely visible from the main road, its command center a distant blip on the horizon.
The base employs about 75 locals through contracts for services such as translation, cooking and maintenance. Its reach occasionally extends into the community itself, such as a project last year by the Navy and U.S. European Command to renovate the Deveselu village school and build a new kindergarten next door.
Americans working with the base have become a more familiar presence in places like Caracal, a city of about 30,000 just a few miles north of Deveselu. Yet bar and hotel owners say American business has actually fallen as base construction ends and Americans stick to the installation.
“Some people thought Americans would bring development,” said Cristina Soimu, 27. “But not so much. They mostly stay on their base.”
Soimu works at Caracal’s tourist office, which opened seven months ago with European Union funds. A textile town that helped support a large military population in Communist days, Caracal is now overshadowed by bigger regional cities like Craiova and Slatina to the north.
The young and educated often leave, Soimu said, seeking jobs in larger cities like the capital, Bucharest. Others look outside the country. While their parents learned Russian, today’s youth study English and French, or even Japanese, said Soimu’s co-worker, Stan Noni George, 24.
Both shrug at the geopolitical significance of the American base, although they noticed one hint of it online — the town website was getting a lot of traffic from Russia.
For Izabella Minca, 37, who works at the Fornetti bakery in Caracal, the role of the base matters less than the jobs it brings. Her sister-in-law works on base, she said, and makes good money.
“We don’t have so many places to work here,” said Minca. “It’s a small town. It’s a poor town.”
“It’s normal to be curious,” he said. “Because it’s here.”
Yet he said he had few concerns. Despite the turbulence of past decades, little has changed across the region.
“The trains ran east in the past,” Buzatu said. “Now they run west.”