Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia denied Russian allegations in September that they would station tactical nuclear weapons on their territories if they joined NATO.
An unnamed Russian defense ministry official told Interfax news agency September 16, “We have information that some Baltic heads have already expressed their readiness to deploy any type of NATO weapon, including tactical nuclear arms,” if those countries join the alliance. NATO members are expected to approve the accession of the three Baltic countries at a November 19-21 summit in Prague.
Officials from the Baltic states denied that their countries would deploy nuclear weapons on their territories as NATO members. Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins blasted the Russian official’s remark as “provocation” and said that “the [Latvian] government has not considered such an issue,” according to a September 16 Baltic News Service (BNS) report. He characterized the Russian comment as “an intentional wish to…create fear and panic among people” prior to the NATO meeting. Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s defense minister, told BNS the fears were “ungrounded.”
Estonia’s defense ministry spokesman, Madis Mikko, was somewhat more equivocal, saying that “in the foreseeable future there are no plans” to deploy NATO nuclear weapons, the Associated Press reported September 17. He added, however, that Estonia has not completely ruled out the option.
The possibility that nuclear weapons would be stationed in the Baltics, which serve as a buffer region between Russia and NATO member Poland, has been a source of tension between the alliance and Moscow over the last decade. In an attempt to address Russian concerns, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act specified that NATO members have “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members” and that they do not foresee the need to do so.
For their part, the three Baltic countries have kept a wary eye on Kaliningrad, the small Russian enclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland. Media reports in January 2001 alleged that Russia had moved tactical nuclear weapons into the region—a claim Russian President Vladimir Putin vehemently denied. (See ACT, January/February 2001.) In response to the recent Russian speculation about the Baltic countries housing NATO nuclear arms, Lithuania’s Linkevicius told BNS, “We might have similar fears about Russia’s nuclear weapons deployed in Kaliningrad region.”
Despite the Russian allegation, the candidacy of the Baltic states for entry into NATO appears to be on track, with the alliance prepared to extend invitations to the three countries along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in November, according to a September 26 Washington Post article. Ginte Damusis, Lithuanian ambassador to NATO, said in an interview the same day that although the formal announcement is still several weeks away, work on membership preparations is continuing. Discussions on areas of practical cooperation between the alliance and Russia are “moving forward” in the NATO-Russia Council, the body established in May 2002 to facilitate greater cooperation and dialogue, Damusis said. (See ACT, June 2002.)
The Russian defense official’s contention came as NATO and Russia struggle to construct an acceptable scenario for the Baltic states’ accession to the alliance. In addition to concerns about nuclear deployment in the Baltics, another hurdle was presented September 20 when a Russian official said in a NATO-Russia Council meeting that the Baltic countries should sign on to the adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty prior to their entry into NATO, according to a September 23 Reuters report. If the three countries participated in the CFE Treaty, it would limit the forces that NATO could potentially deploy on their territories.
However, Russia might be using the tactic to stall the NATO enlargement process, a NATO official told Reuters. The CFE Treaty was adapted in 1999, in part to allow new states to join the treaty, but all 30 states party to the original treaty must ratify the adapted version before new countries may accede to the agreement. So far, only two CFE parties have ratified the adapted treaty, with NATO countries refusing to ratify unless Russia withdraws its forces from Georgia and Moldova. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) NATO emphasized in discussions with Russia that enlargement and CFE should remain separate issues, the NATO official said.