The military alliance has announced, it plans to carry out a series of air force exercises over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from March 17-20.
The exercises will represent "the most recent demonstration of NATO solidarity and commitment to its member countries in the Baltic region”, says Thomas Dillschneider, spokesman for the Allied Air Headquarters in Ramstein, Germany.
The training mission will involve French Mirage, Polish F-16 fighters, Lithuanian L-39 Albatross aircraft, as well as U.S. aerial tankers.
The announcement comes shortly after the news that NATO-member France is in “exclusive talks” to sell Russia up to four warships. The French 20,000-ton Mistral-class command and control helicopter carriers will significantly enhance Russia’s naval ability to project power over greater distances. The deal, estimated at about $2.2 billion, is the first military sale to Russia by a NATO country.
However, NATO has denied there is any link between the Russia-France arms deal and the planned exercises: “There is no relationship between our training event and the potential Mistral deal,” said Dillschneider.
News of Moscow’s intent to buy the French warships have put the Baltic states on alert over Russia’s escalating military power, as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania still see Russia as a threat to their national security. France, however, argues that Russia must be treated as a partner, and not as an enemy, calling on the allies to “turn the page” of the cold war.
“How are we to say to Russian leaders – ‘We need you for peace, like on Iran,’ but then say: ‘We don’t trust you!?’ That would be totally inconsistent”, said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, who just wrapped up a three-day trip to France, said the deal is “a symbol of trust” between the two countries, and called for Russia and France to be partners on European security.
However, not everybody wants to move to the next page.
“I’m not sure that the best way to turn the page on the Cold War is by trading in items of hot war,” said Latvia’s Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins. Meanwhile, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvilli also denounced the sale, calling it a threat to his country’s security and to that of Eastern Europe. Estonia’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots also expressed concerns over the deal: “We don’t know what they are going to do with a Mistral. Are they going to keep them in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Northern Fleet?”
Russia’s increasing presence in the Baltic Sea, compounded by its recent military exercise with Belarus, “West 2009”, have combined to set off the panic button in the Baltic States, prompting them to seek protection from their “big brother” NATO.
According to the joint statement by presidents of Latvia and Estonia, made in October last year, they are looking for contingency plans from NATO states on how to defend the Baltic states in the case of “Russian aggression”.
The “West 2009” exercises were seen by the three Baltic States as a direct threat to their national security. Latvia’s defense minister Imantas Liegis said that during the trainings, Russia and Belarus were rehearsing for an invasion of the Baltic States. Estonia’s foreign minister said that “the aim of the maneuvers was to figure out how to cut the Baltic States from NATO”.
Among the “increasing threats” from Russia, the Baltic States have even tossed around the idea of hosting US troops on their territory, a plan that received little support from Washington, which is already stretching their troop levels to the maximum.
In their attempts to placate Washington and demonstrate their NATO loyalty, Lithuania said it is discussing the possibility of acting as a transit route for NATO military cargo to Afghanistan, before heading on to Belarus and Russia.
“Former Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas has received an important appointment related to Afghanistan, for one of the provinces of which Lithuania is responsible and where our troops are stationed. He is well aware of the problem of transit of military cargo though Belarus and Russia”, said Lithuania’s vice foreign minister Evaldas Egnatavicius. “Therefore, we are discussing the transit of NATO cargo through our country, the Republic of Belarus and Russia to Afghanistan”.
The Lithuanian vice foreign minister called the country’s foreign policy towards Russia and Belarus “stable” while noting that it did not depend on the change of the Foreign Ministry leadership.
He also stressed, however, that “our countries are interested in neighborly relations”.
Olga Masalkova, Robert Bridge, RT