NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is visiting Latvia's capital, Riga, for talks with the Latvian president and the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
The visit was originally scheduled as a bilateral meeting with the Latvian president, but the NATO chief's schedule was altered to include private talks with the three Baltic governments about their concerns over Russia's invasion of Georgia last month.
Joining de Hoop Scheffer in Riga are the three Baltic foreign ministers -- Urmas Paet of Estonia, Maris Riekstins of Latvia, and Petras Vaitiekunas of Lithuania, who requested a meeting with the secretary-general.
According to NATO's chief spokesman, James Appathurai, "The secretary-general's visit to Latvia was long planned. So this is not something that was put together in response to the Georgia situation," But the Georgian crisis is on the agenda, Appathurai continued. "The countries of the Baltic region are very interested and, in some cases, have played a very active role as the crisis has gone on. I know that there is interest in the Baltic States to discuss defense planning --more specifically, whether or not more routine planning should take place within NATO for the Article 5 defense of NATO states."
Article 5 is a treaty commitment by all NATO members that is meant as a deterrent against attacks. Under Article 5, all NATO members have an obligation to aid the defense of any single NATO country that is attacked.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia became full members of NATO in 2004. But Georgia has not been formally invited to join the alliance -- or even received a Membership Action Plan to pave the way for eventual membership. That means NATO allies were not required under Article 5 to come to Georgia's defense.
In fact, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States marked the only time in NATO's half-century history that Article 5 has been invoked.
Standing With Georgia
Still, the three Baltic states and Poland -- all of which border Russian territory -- have been among the staunchest supporters of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili since Russian troops invaded Georgia last month -- alleging that Georgian troops were committing genocide against Russian passport holders in Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
Many observers see the talks in Riga on the NATO Treaty's Article 5 as a reflection of concerns that Russia might also invade the Baltics on a similar pretext of protecting ethnic Russians in the region from alleged rights abuses.
Appathurai downplayed the significance of those concerns. "They are there to have private discussions, so it is of substance. I know they are not there to discuss emergency planning against a possible attack. That is not the climate in which we find ourselves. And we should avoid getting carried away," he said. "Nobody is talking about an eminent Russian attack on the Baltic states. That is absolutely not in the cards. But in the context where there is concern flowing from the Georgian crisis, there are some who quite legitimately want to have a discussion about whether defense planning within NATO for Article 5 contingencies should be done ad hoc -- in other words, when you find yourself facing a crisis, which NATO can do -- or whether it should be done on a routine basis."
Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were seized by Moscow during World War II, after the Soviets and Nazis made a deal to carve up Eastern Europe.
They were occupied by the Nazis from 1941-44 after Germany turned on its erstwhile ally. But Soviet forces moved into the Baltics again when the Red Army drove out German forces.
Like Georgia, all three Baltic states won independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed -- and all continue to argue with Moscow over the past.
Scheffer's visit also includes plans to watch over a NATO naval exercise called "Operation Open Spirit 2008." Robert Pszczel, a NATO press officer in Brussels, said the exercise is intended to test communications and improve the interoperability of ships from the Baltic countries, Poland, Germany, and other participating countries, with an emphasis on demining and countermining measures.
Appathurai stressed that NATO's "Operation Open Spirit 2008" is not meant as preparation against the possibility of Russian naval maneuvers in the Baltic Sea.
Still, the naval exercise is seen by observers in the Baltics as a step toward fulfilling NATO's recent pledge to show, through planning and exercises, that it is prepared to defend the Baltic states from any future attack.