The Latvian Defense Ministry says Moscow is intentionally spreading false information about the installation of a U.S.-made radar system in the eastern part of the country, near its border with Russia. ITAR-TASS recently ran a story that said the sensitive radar system was being deployed in Latvia by the United States. Latvia, however, says the radar system is part of a joint Baltic system of air surveillance, and that there will be no U.S. staff on site.
Prague, 11 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's Defense Ministry expressed its concern this week that the official Russian news agency ITAR-TASS may have intentionally spread false information about the installation of an American-built radar system in Latvia, near its border with Russia.
Last week, ITAR-TASS, citing unidentified sources at the Russian Defense Ministry, reported that "by the end of 2002, the United States is planning to deploy a powerful radar station in the east of Latvia capable of detecting high-speed, small air targets, including warheads of different missiles." The story said the radar system represents a "potential threat" to Northwest Europe.
In its story, the agency said the new radar system will be "capable of detecting air targets at a distance of around 1,000 kilometers at an altitude of 20 kilometers."
The Latvian Defense Ministry says the new radar system is simply part of a regional project called BALTNET, a military air surveillance network being implemented by Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Estonia and Lithuania plan to set up similar radar systems in the near future.
Last week, Latvian Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis said the information in the ITAR-TASS story may have been "intentionally falsified."
This week, the Latvian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Russian news agency also reported false technical data about the system, the TPS-117, a long-range, transportable radar system that Latvia is buying from the American aeronautics company Lockheed Martin.
Some Russian newspapers picked up on the ITAR-TASS story, concentrating on the dangers posed by the so-called "American spying center" located near the Russian border.
The Russian army newspaper "Krasnaya zvezda" quoted unidentified analysts as saying the new radar system "may become a threat for Northwestern Europe and also for Russia."
Another Russian newspaper, "Vremya novostei," in an article titled "Pentagon's Eye," says the U.S. Defense Department "insistently pushes Russia on all fronts."
The head of the Military Affairs Department at ITAR-TASS, Boris Kinkeev, told RFE/RL that he was informed only yesterday about the story, which first ran on 3 September: "You know, I simply was on vacation, and the problem sprang up yesterday in the evening and today in the morning. Now I am conducting an investigation, trying to find out how the information came out." Kinkeev declined to comment further.
Aleksandr Goltz, a military observer for the Moscow-based magazine "Weekly Journal," told RFE/RL he has no doubt the information is false and that it was intentionally leaked by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Goltz says that knowingly leaking false information is a relic of the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. used to misinform each other to seek some political or military gain.
Goltz says he is uncertain, however, about the purpose of spreading disinformation about a U.S.-built radar system purchased by Latvia: "We can admit that there are some reasons why the Russian military would be very concerned that the Americans are building a radar station in the place of a former [Russian] radar station at Skrunda [a Latvian town 150 kilometers from the capital Riga], which was demolished. So they [the Russian military] produced this leak to the press and made the Latvians say that there are no such plans."
Airis Rikveilis, the head of the press department of the Latvian Defense Ministry, told RFE/RL that Latvia -- not the U.S. -- is setting up the radar site. He strongly denies that American military personnel will work at the site: "The information that the site will be 50 percent staffed by the Americans or fully staffed by the Americans is totally false. The radar will be staffed by Latvian Air Force [officers]."
Rikveilis says the radar will be set up at the end of next year and that its range will be 450 kilometers. The exact location for the radar is still being debated. The final decision will be taken by the new government following October's parliamentary elections.
Rikveilis says the radar will have a dual purpose. In addition to being a military installation, it will also be used for the control of civilian flights. The system will cost nearly $14 million. Its purchase as part of the BALTNET project represents one of Latvia's biggest defense investments during the last decade.
The BALTNET project started in 1998. The project aims to monitor the region's airspace and ensure the security of military and civilian flights. The regional center for BALTNET is in Lithuania. BALTNET interacts with NATO and will be connected to NATO's own air-surveillance systems after the Baltic states join the alliance.
Atis Lejins is head of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, a think tank in Riga. He says the installation of the new radar is part of Latvia's integration into the NATO alliance: "If we are in NATO, and if we are in the European Union, we need something to integrate the whole air surveillance of the skies above Europe. Every country has this [air-surveillance system], and we will be part of the project, part of the 'net.' And this is part of the integration process. We are a modern state, and we are doing it."
Lejins says the new radar cannot be compared with the Soviet military radar base in Skrunda. He says it would be like comparing "an ant with an elephant." Skrunda housed a huge Soviet antiballistic-missile radar system and was 18-stories tall. Latvian authorities demolished the facilities in Skrunda in 1995.