Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- NATO plans to protect the airspace of the Baltic states and other candidates after they become fully fledged members of the alliance this month.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are scheduled to join the 19-country military alliance on 29 March. Also joining on that day will be Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Last week, the North Atlantic Council announced it would apply the same air-defense protections to new members as afforded to current members. The alliance also said it would offer air-surveillance equipment to new members that don't already have it. This is expected to apply Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
He said NATO fighter planes would be permanently deployed in Lithuania, with reserve airports in Latvia and Estonia.
The announcement was welcomed in the Baltic states. Lithuanian Minister Defense Linas Linkevicius said it was natural that if Lithuania becomes a NATO member, its airspace becomes a part of an integrated NATO airspace.
"There should be no gray zones, reservations, or exceptions," he said. "The same standards are applied to everybody, and from the day [Lithuania] becomes a member, these standards will be applied and implemented. It is a natural development and it would be strange if it was otherwise."
He said the move was important both practically and politically, but did not elaborate. He said plans are now under way to implement the decision.
"Right now, negotiations are under way. After NATO made the decision, the chief commander got an order to generate forces, and now this work is under way. I think it is too early to provide details, but everything will be in place when [Lithuania] becomes a NATO member," he added.
He said NATO fighter planes would be permanently deployed in Lithuania, with reserve airports in Latvia and Estonia: "The reserve airports will also be in Estonia and Latvia, but [the planes] are planned to be deployed in Lithuania."
Local news agencies are reporting that four F-16 fighter planes, their crews, and portable radar could be based in Lithuania.
The reaction from Russia to NATO's plans has been less enthusiastic. Earlier this month, Russian presidential envoy Sergei Yastrzhembskii said he could see no reason for NATO to deploy in the Baltics since the area was not involved in the international fight against terrorism. He said it is difficult to see why NATO forces are needed so far away from the Middle East or Central Asia.
Kiril Koktysh is a Russian political expert at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. He says Russian objections are not driven so much by a genuine fear of the NATO deployment but by public opinion -- which is strongly against any NATO activities in neighboring countries.
Koktysh says Russian officials, in general, realize NATO does not present an immediate threat because as an alliance NATO can only make decisions on the basis of consensus.
"The move is more likely to be understood as a demonstration of an unfriendly attitude," he said. "[But] it makes no sense to speak about real danger coming from NATO because in fact NATO, as a military organization, is a thing of the past. NATO will survive as a political club. However, as long as a principle of consensus remains, NATO can hardly be able to take decisions on mutual military actions or military operations."
But, he says, the reaction of the Russian population is different. Most Russians, he says, see NATO as a military organization and not as a "political club."
Koktysh says in any event, Russia is unlikely to take military steps to counter NATO expansion.
"I don't think Russia will take any military measures," he said. "It can probably be ruled out entirely because there is no specific [reason] for doing so and there are no specific possibilities for it anyway. The [Russian] anti-air defense system [on the western border] was built long ago and is based on Russian-Belarusian treaties and the Russian-Belarusian union. It is hardly possible to destroy it or even to dismantle it. It is also hardly possible to make it [the system] stronger."
Koktysh says, however, Russia can certainly be expected to react diplomatically: "Without any doubt, diplomatic steps will follow. Probably, they will be more or less symbolic in character. However, as NATO's enlargement has only a symbolic meaning and little practical importance for European policy, diplomatic steps will be nothing more than a symbolic expression of Russian discontent about this move."
He says many Russians feel they have no other choice but to protest what they see as NATO breaking a promise not to deploy to the Baltic area.