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23rd Sep 2019

Nato and Russia seek to defuse Baltic tensions

  • USS Donald Cook - incident in April was one of several near clashes (Photo: Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa)

Nato and Russia plan to hold further talks on how to avoid an accidental clash in the Baltic region, but there was “no meeting of minds” in Brussels on Wednesday (13 July) on the basic issues that underpin their confrontation.

Wednesday’s talks were the fourth time that Nato states’ ambassadors and Russia’s envoy to the Western alliance met in the Nato Russia Council since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.

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  • Stoltenberg: "There was not a meeting of minds" (Photo: Nato)

The talks came after a Nato summit in Warsaw agreed to send 4,000 British, Canadian, French, German, Italian and US soldiers to the Baltic states and Poland to guard against Russian aggression.

It also came after a series of tense encounters between Russian jets and warships and Nato assets in the region.

On one such occasion, in April, unarmed Russian jets simulated an attack on a US vessel, the USS Donald Cook, in what the US military at the time said would have justified a shoot-down.

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s Nato ambassador, said after Wednesday’s talks that “we are ready to fly with transponders ... along certain flight trajectories” and to hold “detailed consultations at the military level” on the issue.

He added that “the aircraft of many countries do fly in the region with their transponders off”.

Transponders are electronic devices that identify aeroplanes and their flight paths to civilian or military radar stations in order to avoid collisions.

Nato head Jens Stoltenberg “welcomed” Russia’s offer to “pursue risk reduction measures” on Baltic air safety.

He noted that “different Nato allies have different practices, partly related also to exercises, and some different operational reasons, for not always turning the transponders on”.

He said the date and format of a follow-up meeting with Russia remained to be decided.

He added that “military-to-military lines of communication” remained “open”.

Wider issues>

Aside from transponders, Stoltenberg said “the basic thing is of course safe behaviour, is to fly in a safe and professional way, and we have seen some examples of unsafe activity in the air by Russian planes”.

He also called for greater Russian transparency on military drills.

He said that Nato briefed Russia on its drills and invited Russian observers even when the small scale of its exercises put them “below the threshold” of international obligations under the so-called Vienna Document.

One reason for the Nato deployment to the Baltic states and Poland were mass-scale, unannounced Russian simulations of attacks on the Nordic countries, the Baltic states and Poland.

“Military exercises can be used as a disguise for aggressive actions. For instance, the annexation of Crimea took place in connection with a snap exercise of Russia”, Stoltenberg said.

He continued to disagree with Grushko on the reasons for the confrontational climate, however.

“Allies and Russia have profound and persistent disagreements on the crisis. There was not a meeting of minds today,” Stoltenberg said.

Grushko repeated the Kremlin’s long-standing claim that it is not involved in the Ukraine conflict.

He said the new Nato troop deployments are based on a “mythical threat from Russia” and that they turn Nato’s eastern allies into “a bridgehead for exerting military and political pressure on Russia”.

"It takes us back to the Cold War,” he said.

Stoltenberg said it was “obvious” that Nato’s actions came as “a direct response to the actions of Russia in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea”.

“Russia's actions in Ukraine ... triggered the [new] presence,” he said.

Wider diplomacy

The Nato-Russia meeting came amid broader diplomatic initiatives on the security situation in Europe.

Also on Wednesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to the French and German leaders by phone.

He complained about Ukraine’s alleged shelling of “settlements” in Donbass, a Russia-occupied region in east Ukraine.

He said all three leaders wanted “constructive dialogue and [to] take concrete steps to strengthen confidence between Russia and Nato”.

He also congratulated the new British PM, Theresa May, and called for “constructive dialogue” with the UK.

The UK has had a hawkish foreign policy on Russia, but its new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has in the past blamed the EU for provoking Russia by trying to build closer ties with Ukraine.

In Washington, the US State Department noted that secretary of state John Kerry will shortly visit Moscow for talks on Syria.

Tensions between Russia and the US are on the rise amid Russia’s harassment of US diplomats in Moscow, tit-for-tat expulsions, and visa bans.

Mark Toner, a US spokesman, said on Wednesday that the US would only lift sanctions on Russia when it withdrew its troops from Ukraine and gave back control of the border to Kiev.

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