Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has seized on the SU-27 crash in Lithuania to reaffirm Moscow’s proposal for joint airspace monitoring and civilian and military air traffic control by NATO and Russia over the Baltic states, through the aegis of the NATO-Russia Council (NAC). Russia’s Defense Ministry will probably submit such a proposal to NAC and/or lobby certain countries to that end. Moscow bills its proposal as a confidence- and cooperation-building measure along the line of contact between Russian and NATO forces in the Baltic region, as well as a means to counter possible “airborne terrorism” (Interfax, October 7). The proposal is designed to turn the Baltic states into less-than-full allies of NATO and create a precedent for such NATO-Russia arrangements over other NATO sectors as well. The United States and most other allies as well as the Baltic states themselves firmly oppose this proposal.
Politically, NATO assumed a neutral position in the Su-27 incident, treating it as a bilateral issue between Russia and Lithuania (Lietuvos Rytas, October 6). Lithuanian and other Baltic leaders are doing their best to play this down, so as to protect the alliance’s credibility from any possible damage. NATO’s official position that the three Baltic states’ air space is by definition NATO air space would logically have presupposed assistance from NATO allies in investigating the incident, particularly since Lithuania lacked the means to cope on its own. Yet NATO seemed to distance itself from this issue altogether. During the three-week period, the alliance’s Brussels headquarters issued just one statement, infelicitously phrased as if to urge a quick end to the Lithuanian investigation in the higher interest of NATO-Russia partnership (BNS, September 22; see EDM, September 27). After some delay in Brussels, Lithuania received assistance from non-NATO member Ukraine with decoding the Su-27’s flight-recorder (UNIAN, October 10).
The incident also demonstrated that disorder and decay within the Russian military and irrational overmilitarization of Kaliningrad region pose twin threats to Baltic security. Russian warplanes shuttling to and from Kaliningrad have been responsible for most of the violations of NATO airspace. This situation should refocus attention to the need for demilitarization of Kaliningrad region. This is an issue for the European Union to handle with Russia. In the wake of the Su-27 incident, the Baltic states seem prepared to redouble efforts for this issue to be included on the EU-Russia agenda.
The spirits in the EU do not seem to be up to the task at this moment. A recent meeting in Brussels of parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committees of EU member countries excluded the Kaliningrad demilitarization issue from the meeting’s agenda. The Lithuanian parliament’s national security and defense committee chair, Algirdas Sadeckas, asked Javier Solana during that meeting about the EU position on this issue. The EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, however, “did not answer the question at all” (BNS, October 6).
If all sides concerned — Lithuania and the other Baltic states, NATO, the EU, and Russia — draw the proper lessons from this incident, then Lithuania’s Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas may be proven right for his statement that the Su-27 incident could turn out to have been a blessing in disguise.
(BNS, ELTA, Interfax, October 1-12; see EDM, September 20, 27)