NATO forces in Baltics put Russia on edge

Alliance's expansion betrays sense of mistrust, Russian officials say


VILNIUS, Lithuania - The fighter jets that landed this week at the airfield northwest of here do not pose much of a threat, but their arrival at what was once one of the Soviet Union's largest bases underlined in bold the new borders being drawn between Europe and Russia.

The jets - four Belgian F-16s supported by 100 Belgian, Danish and Norwegian troops - have come to police the skies over the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, former Soviet republics that officially joined NATO on Monday, along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The operation is purely defensive, NATO officials and military commanders here say, but the territory being patrolled abuts some 500 miles of Russia's western frontier, including the isolated enclave of Kaliningrad.

To Russia, at least, the meaning is clear: The alliance still views it as a potential enemy rather than a partner.

While Russia has resigned itself to NATO's expansion, albeit grudgingly, the reality of NATO forces being deployed in the Baltics - on short notice - has deeply unsettled and angered its politicians and commanders, prompting some of the sharpest criticism of the alliance since its war against Serbia in 1999.

Russia's lower house of parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution on Wednesday denouncing NATO's expansion generally and the deployment of the F-16s specifically.

Echoing warnings in Russia's new military doctrine set forth last fall, the resolution called on President Vladimir V. Putin to reconsider Russia's international agreements with NATO and its own defense strategies, including its nuclear posture.

"The further approach of alliance infrastructure toward Russian borders is in collision with the new relations built between Russia and NATO within the last few years," the resolution said.

Few expect a new Cold War to erupt in Europe, but NATO's expansion has further chilled a not very warm peace, especially between Russia and the Baltic states.

Lithuania and Estonia have recently expelled Russian diplomats accused of spying on, among other things, NATO activities, prompting tit-for-tat expulsions by Russia.

More alarmingly, Estonia alleged last month that a Russian fighter jet ventured into its airspace - exactly the kind of intrusion the squadron of F-16s based here is meant to answer.

Meeting with NATO ministers in Brussels yesterday after a ceremonial raising of the new members' flags, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, called NATO's expansion a mistake.

"The presence of American soldiers on our border has created a kind of paranoia in Russia," he said, according to Agence France-Press, even though no U.S. troops are participating in the operation in the Baltics.

In Moscow yesterday, Putin, meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, played down NATO's expansion, though he warned that Russia would closely monitor the deployment of NATO forces and "build our defense and security policy correspondingly."

`History is close'

In Lithuania, the rising tensions have only underscored the comfort and pride of joining NATO's embrace. More than one official contrasted the welcomed roar of the F-16s - heard Wednesday over this capital's richly preserved Old Town - to the rumble of Soviet tanks that suppressed Lithuania's nascent independence movement in January 1990.

The symbolism runs deep in a country forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, fought over in World War II and freed from the Soviet stranglehold less than 13 years ago.

"For us, history is close," Col. Edvardas Mazeikas, commander of Lithuania's air force, said in an interview at the base where the jets are stationed, outside of Siauliai. "We are in a very dangerous place. All through our history, war has passed through here - from Napoleon to the Nazis to the Soviets. Lithuania is a very good place for tanks. That's why collective security is so important to us."

NATO's expansion may not amount to a new containment of Russia, as many in Russia fear, but it has nonetheless created an armed division from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea that has left Russia on the other side.

Although Russia has a seat at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, allowing it to discuss areas of cooperation and concern, it remains outside of the alliance's decision-making process.

While NATO has significantly reduced its forces in Europe and shifted its focus to new threats such as terrorism and proliferation, Russian officials have said that deployments like the one here betray a sense of mistrust.

"In admitting the Baltic states and arranging guarantees for their security, many in NATO apparently proceeded from previous perceptions that a war is possible in Europe," the spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, Aleksandr V. Yakovenko, said Monday.

He added that NATO's expansion "undoubtedly affects the political, military and, to a certain extent, economic interests of Russia."

Military limits

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