Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 107

On October 14, defense ministers from NATO’s 26 member countries and Russia held an informal session of the NATO-Russia Council in Romania. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov used the meeting to air recriminations against allies, drive wedges among them, and announce a program of Russian military muscle flexing from the Baltic States to Central Asia.

Ivanov accused Lithuania of “hampering” Russian military transit from Russia proper to the Kaliningrad exclave via rail across Lithuania’s territory. Such accusations have been disproved repeatedly, but Moscow continues airing them as part of its effort to change the existing agreements on overland transit and obtain some corridor arrangements across Lithuania. Ivanov also criticized Latvia for not allowing Russian military overflights en route to Kaliningrad. He charged that Latvia had acted improperly when turning down two Russian overflight requests in September for planes carrying troops and weapons to Kaliningrad.

Dismissing Latvia’s and Lithuania’s views that their NATO membership precludes making separate arrangements with Russia on military transit, Ivanov contended that these countries’ “responsibilities” to the NATO-Russia Council (as distinct from NATO) require them to grant Russia those military transit privileges. In a separate conversation with Latvian Defense Minister Atis Slakteris, Ivanov tried to extract concessions on the issue of overflights. By zeroing in on these Baltic states, and by implying that Russia expected French and German goodwill on this issue, Ivanov hoped to divide the allies (Interfax, BNS, October 14).

According to Ivanov, Russia deserves military transit privileges via Lithuania and Latvia as a quid pro quo for permitting Germany and France to re-supply their troops in Afghanistan via Russia. A Russian-German agreement, signed in October 2003 and effective since February 2004, allows German military overflights bound for Afghanistan. A similar Russian-French agreement is due to be signed shortly. Agreements with Germany and France on military transport by railroad via Russia en route to Afghanistan are also being drafted. Russia now offers similar arrangements to Belgium and, for good measure, to Luxemburg (Interfax, Itar-Tass, October 14). These countries deploy very small contingents in Afghanistan as part of a multinational force under NATO. Russia is favoring these particular countries with transit arrangements to demonstrate that governments that obstruct U.S. leadership in NATO and defer to Russia on some other international issues can earn Russian rewards.

Ivanov told the meeting that “1,500 Russian peacekeeping troops” will remain in Moldova indefinitely to guard the vast Russian military stockpiles there. “I can be perfectly clear about this: they will be there until all our military assets are removed; [and] that is up to us” (Interfax, October 14). In reality, that Russian force has no peacekeeping mandate (and only 500 of those troops are cast in a peacekeeping role de facto). Russia’s 1999 Commitments to the OSCE required it to remove those troops and arsenals by 2003. Ivanov’s statement reconfirms Russia’s repudiation of those Commitments.

Russia will officially inaugurate its military base in Tajikistan in a few days, Ivanov told the meeting. “It is no secret that Russia is potentially threatened from that direction,” he argued (RIA, AP, October 14). However, with Afghanistan liberated from the Taliban, with U.S. and European troops present throughout the country, the presidential election just held successfully, and Russia’s local Tajik-Afghan allies controlling northern Afghanistan, it seems very hard to argue that Afghanistan threatens Tajikistan, let alone Russia. Nevertheless, Moscow has grown accustomed to having this sort of argument accepted by Western governments.

Ivanov accused “some NATO member countries” of “abetting terrorists, their accomplices, their sponsors, and puppet-masters . . . those who train and propagandize for terrorists.” Russia’s intelligence sharing with NATO countries, he warned, “will be conducted in a differentiated manner, depending on these countries’ sincerity [about combating terrorism].” Russia may deliver preemptive anti-terrorist strikes in foreign countries without warning, he declared. Closely paraphrasing President Vladimir Putin’s criminal-slang lexicon, Ivanov threatened that Russia would “wipe out that scum in their dens” (RTR-TV, RIA, Interfax, October 14).

Russia has disappointed NATO by failing to join the alliance’s Operation Active Endeavor, a naval escort and surveillance operation and interdiction exercise in the Mediterranean. The alliance had publicized this Russian promise at NATO’s summit in Istanbul in June. However, Russia objects to mutual inspection procedures for participant ships and wants NATO to finance Russia’s participation in the operation. (RIA, Itar-Tass, October 14).

Created in 2002, the NATO-Russia Council has been portrayed by allied leaders as a major avenue for cooperation with Moscow. The alliance has similarly touted the idea of intelligence sharing with Russia, common exercises such as Active Endeavor, and joint anti-terrorism efforts. Moscow’s response has been a disappointment on most counts thus far. The Russian defense minister is plainly using NATO-Russia Council meetings for political propaganda and diplomatic wedge driving; he used this forum’s meeting in Colorado Springs last year in a similar manner.