Russian presidential envoy Sergei Yastrzhembskii told NATO headquarters last week that Moscow would understand if NATO wants to deploy troops in new member states like Bulgaria or Romania. This could be justified as part of the international fight against terrorism.
But he said troop deployments in the Baltics -- far away from Central Asia and the Middle East -- would be a different story. He said it would difficult to see why troops would be needed in the Baltics.
The Baltic countries were annexed by the Soviet Union and only regained their independence with the USSR's breakup in the early 1990s. The three are the only former Soviet states so far to join NATO. Along with the Baltics, NATO will also take in Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Analysts say there are several reasons why Russia may be sensitive to a possible NATO deployment in the Baltics. Boris Makarenko, an analyst at the Center of Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, says any troop deployment in the Baltics would call into question NATO's credibility. He says he participated in meetings in 1996 at which NATO officials said the alliance would refrain from any deployment in the Baltic states.
"At that time , during all discussions when we raised this problem, NATO officials always gave a standard answer -- which later was put into the founding act on mutual relations between NATO and Russia. NATO did not oblige itself to refrain from deploying troops on the territory of its new members, but it gave a clear message that it did not see any reason or cause to deploy troops," Makarenko said.
Makarenko says NATO's failure to adhere to its commitment would mean it is not keeping its word. And he says he sees some signs that worry Moscow. One sign, he says, is a recent NATO AWACS reconnaissance flight over Lithuania. Makarenko said Moscow asked Lithuania to allow Russian specialists to monitor the flight, but Lithuania declined.
Other Russian experts say Moscow may be exaggerating the threat that NATO troop deployments may pose. Aleksandr Goltz, an independent Russian military analyst, says the main reason for Russian concern is the lingering perception among some in the Russian military that NATO is an enemy. "These statements and this concern [about NATO deployments in the Baltic states], which were voiced many times, come from the fact that Russia, contradicting its numerous public declarations, has not yet decided if NATO -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- is a threat for Russia or a partner," he said.
He says high-ranking Russian military officials may be trapped in a Cold War mentality, which prevents them from looking at the world from a different perspective. "It is much more comfortable [for them to view the world] as it used to be during the Soviet times -- to prepare to counter a mythical danger from NATO," he said. He says this mentality leaves them unprepared for new global security challenges.
Meanwhile, reports say Russia may already be taking precautions to counter a perceived NATO threat. Yesterday, the German news agency dpa quoted a Russian Defense Ministry source as saying Moscow will deploy sophisticated air-defense systems further west in Belarus, close to the Baltic states. There was no official comment from the ministry.
This is not the first time rumors of a possible deployment of Russian armaments have been floating around. Three years ago there were reports Moscow was deploying tactical nuclear weapons in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad as a countermeasure to a possible NATO enlargement. That move never materialized.