Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 21

Speaking on January 24 in Tallinn, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott went further than any United States official has publicly done thus far in reassuring the three Baltic states that they are eligible to join NATO and that Russia will not influence the ultimate allied decision. While reminding Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that they must meet a set of demanding criteria for admission to NATO, Talbott pledged continuing American assistance to the Baltic states’ effort to “cross the threshold and walk through the door” of the Atlantic alliance.

Indirectly addressing Russian objections, Talbott urged Moscow to view the Baltic area “not as a fortified border, but as a gateway; not as a buffer against invaders who no longer exist, but as a trading route.” And in further remarks, seemingly intended for certain irresolute West European policymakers as well as for Russia, the U.S. official defined “the fate of the Baltic states as a litmus test for the fate of the entire continent.”

Talbott delivered the speech–“A Baltic Homecoming”–in his capacity as the U.S. co-chairman of the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Commission, the quadrilateral body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Charter, one of the main goals of which is to prepare the Baltic states to qualify for eventual admission to NATO. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are working to improve their defense posture to the level that would earn an invitation to accession negotiations in 2002 (BNS, January 24, 25).

Defense Ministers Juri Luik of Estonia, Girts Kristovskis of Latvia and Ceslovas Stankevicius of Lithuania conferred on January 24-25 in Riga to assess the progress achieved in 1999 and finalize joint military programs for 2000. The tripartite programs dovetail with the national military plans, and those in turn are geared to meeting the NATO Partnership Goals, which are contained in documents handed over by the alliance to each individual country in December 1999. The Riga meeting discussed the possibility of joint procurement of weapons and equipment. This novel concept aims to cut the procurement costs and standardize the three countries’ military inventories. A follow-up meeting of logistics experts will assess the three countries’ requirements in this regard. An early joint purchase might be that of radar installations for the Baltic joint air space control system, Baltnet. Latvia and Lithuania urge that step in the wake of the failure of Estonia’ separate tender for the radar.

Priorities in the procurement of combat equipment will be antitank and air defense weapons, as well as the strengthening of mine-clearing and mine-laying capabilities of the Baltic joint naval squadron, Baltron. A major naval exercise, Cooperative Banner-2000, involving units of the three Baltic states and nine NATO and Nordic countries, is scheduled to be held in May and June off the Lithuanian coast; the planning conference, coordinated by NATO’s EASTLANT naval headquarters, is being held in the port of Klaipeda, Lithuania this week. Joint training of land troops will focus on the Estonian-Latvian-Lithuanian battalion, BaltBat, elements of which take part in peacekeeping operations under NATO command (BNS, January 25-26).

Russia’s Defense Ministry lost no time airing objections via the official Itar-Tass news agency. Unnamed officials of that ministry singled out Lithuania for reproof. They charged that Klaipeda is being upgraded to accommodate warships of NATO countries; that a U.S.-supplied eavesdropping station has been set up on the Kursiu Spit in Lithuania, close to Russia’s main naval base at Baltiisk in the Kaliningrad region; and that Lithuanian mine warfare specialists are being trained at the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia. The Russian officials decried the “growth of American influence” in Lithuania, a process they traced to the fact that the country’s president and top military officials are Lithuanian-Americans (Itar-Tass, January 26).

Yet Lithuania’s quest for NATO membership is a matter of internal political consensus, just as in Estonia and Latvia. On January 28, Lithuania’s five main political parties–Fatherland Union/Conservatives, Christian-Democrats, Center Union, Democratic Labor Party and Social-Democrats–issued a common statement in support of the national goal of joining NATO. The first two of those parties form the government, while the last two represent the bulk of the left-of-center opposition. Initiated by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, welcomed by President Valdas Adamkus and endorsed by the three opposition parties, this statement will be followed by a more comprehensive document in which the same five parties will list the direct and indirect economic advantages of NATO membership. The move represents the political mainstream’s response to a campaign recently launched by small leftist groups–in opportunistic alliance with marginal radical-right groups–against the participation of Western, particularly American capital in the privatization of Lithuanian state property, against accession to the European Union and NATO and against the goal of raising the defense budget to the NATO benchmark level of 2 percent of the gross domestic product (BNS, January 26, 28; Vilnius Radio, January 28-29; see the Monitor, January 11).