NATO risks losing Russia's trust

What would Nato leaders have said if the rumours of three years ago about Russia's intention to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad Region, its exclave squeezed between Baltic countries, turned out to be true? It would have been a shock for Nato, wouldn't it?

Now you can imagine Moscow's feelings over the recent news concerning Nato's forthcoming enlargement. Here is the background. During a ceremony in Chicago or Brussels on April 2, Nato will accept seven new members, the largest bunch in the history of the bloc. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are waiting for the ceremony in hushed raptures, but Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have submitted a highly "interesting" idea to the alliance's leadership. The three former Soviet republics have invited Nato to protect their air space, or rather, to deploy interceptor-fighters of a nearby bloc member in one of the three countries.

They argue that they do not have air forces but they do have an enemy that can claim their blue skies. This "enemy" has not been identified, possibly out of diplomatic considerations.

The initiative fell on fertile soil in the bloc. The leading news agency of Denmark, Ritzaus Bureau, reported that on March 31 Lithuania would get the desired aid - four Danish fighters, a mobile radar and about a hundred servicemen, pilots and technicians, who would service this hastily created foreign air force base in Lithuania, close to Russia's borders.

The Lithuanian Defence Ministry refused to comment on this news, but President Rolandas Paksas, who has nothing to lose in view of the forthcoming impeachment, was more forthcoming. He did not rule out the possibility of Nato bases being deployed in Lithuania after it joins the bloc. "If Nato asks for it, it will get it," Mr Paksas said rather too clearly.

This excessive openness will presumably displease the new Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who will come to Vilnius for talks this Friday. In the little over two months since he assumed his position, Mr Scheffer has used every chance to remind the world that one of his key tasks is to maintain and develop good relations with Russia, because this policy "corresponds to the mutual interests of Nato and Moscow."

When the US-made F-16 fighters of the Danish air force rev up their engines in Lithuania, the Kremlin will have a very good reason to question the sincerity of the Nato chief.

Moscow is playing its hand openly: it does not want to see Nato weapons on the other side of its border and it does not think it necessary to conceal its displeasure. Nato and Moscow do have common interests, above all in the joint fight against international terrorism, but they do not include the encirclement of Russia with Nato bases in the south and northwest.

Russia will not tolerate the appearance of Nato forces in the Baltic countries, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov (who kept his post in the new government) said in late February. Presidential foreign policy aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky later voiced his negative attitude to the idea of Nato skies over the Baltic. He hinted in an interview with The Financial Times that any "traces" of Nato's presence in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia "irrespective of their size" would be interpreted as "an extremely negative move." "Nato should take into account the national concerns of Russia's policy," the presidential aide said.

He believes that Nato protection of the airspace of Romania and Bulgaria could be explained by the war on terror but "it is difficult to see any need in any counter-terrorist functions in the Baltic countries." If the alliance leaders do not heed these warnings and continue to "develop" the territory of its new members in the Baltic by deploying air force bases, radars and other forms of its military presence there, it may lose the main achievement in relations with Russia after the end of the Cold War - a palpable measure of trust.

Moscow remembers very well the joint conferences of 1996, when Nato brass hats assured Russian delegates that the bloc would not deploy its forces in the Baltic countries. The pledges were later sealed in the Nato-Russia Founding Act, which infers that the bloc sees no reason or pretext for advancing its military infrastructure to the highly sensitive (for Russia) Baltic region. Perfidy is a bad choice in relations with anyone, including Russia.

Vladimir Simonov, RIAN

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