March 24, 2004 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Russia has warned NATO against assisting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in monitoring their air space when the countries become members of the NATO alliance in a few days.
Russia says it reserves the right to take retaliatory steps, if NATO
goes ahead with plans of deploying fighter planes and military equipment in the ex-Soviet Baltic republics.
"It is clear that such plans would directly threaten Russia's security", says Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for the Russian Foreign Office.
The three Baltic states, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, are not able to defend their own air space, since they do not have their own fighter planes.
plans to deploy four F-16 fighter jets in Lithuania to support the three nations until the Baltic nations are able to manage on their own. Later, on a rotation basis, Belgium
and the Netherlands
will send similar forces to the Baltic region. Norway
has also offered to provide an Air Control Unit.
Relations between NATO and Russia have been tense of late, notably ahead of an April 2 ceremony to formally welcome four former Soviet bloc countries ï¿½ Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia ï¿½ plus the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the alliance fold.
Last month Russian military officials accused the NATO of having spied on its military installations using AWACS surveillance planes over the Baltic region. NATO said the AWACS in question were simply flying demonstration flights for incoming member Latvia, and that Russia was kept fully informed.