U.S. says Russia should not fear Baltic integration with West

International Herald Tribune
Thom Shanker and Clifford J. Levy
November 12, 2008

TALLINN, Estonia: Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in this former Soviet republic Wednesday delivering a firm message that Russia should not fear – and must not impede – decisions by countries in the region to seek deeper integration with the West.

Reverberations of the August war between Russia and Georgia, another former Soviet republic, were still heard as Gates spent the day meeting with defense ministers of the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and with NATO counterparts.

While the official focus of talks among NATO defense ministers is whether, and how, to push alliance membership for Ukraine, the broader question of how NATO should deal with a resurgent Russia was central to the talks.

“Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country’s desire to more fully integrate with the West,” Gates declared as he stood with Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia. “Doing so is not a threat to Russia’s security.”

From Moscow, the Interfax news agency quoted an anonymous Russian official as saying that new American proposals on missile defense – presented last week – were once again not acceptable. The Kremlin would not publicly comment Wednesday on the U.S. proposals, which Pentagon officials have said are designed to prove that the system is no threat to Russia’s vast nuclear deterrent. The proposals also invited Russia to join the United States and NATO in a Continent-wide system of missile defenses.

The United States has signed agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to place missile-defense sites on their territory, a system described as designed to protect Europe from a possible strike by Iran. The American system being placed on European soil has brought outrage, and direct threats, from Russian officials.

The Interfax report that the Kremlin had rejected Washington’s proposals prompted American officials to press again for cooperation between the United States and Russia.

“I hope this unnamed Kremlin official does not express his government’s true wishes, because we still very much wish to partner with Russia to combat the growing ballistic missile threat emanating from Iran, as evidenced by Tehran conducting another missile test this week,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “Though the Iranians failed yet again, they are clearly determined to develop a weapon capable of reaching Europe and, for that matter, Russia, so it continues to be in our mutual interest to work together on this issue.”

Recent comments from Russian officials indicate that the leadership in Moscow may be playing for time. While President-elect Barack Obama has said he will announce no national security initiatives until after he is sworn in, he has in the past been less supportive of overall missile defense spending than the Bush administration.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said over the weekend that Kremlin leaders had “taken notice of the positions on these issues that United States President-elect Barack Obama has released on his Web site. They instill hope that we shall be able to more constructively examine this theme in the upcoming period.”

While President George W. Bush will turn over the White House to Obama on Jan. 20, speculation continued to swirl around Gates on Wednesday that he could be asked to stay on as defense secretary in the new administration, perhaps for an interim period.

“I have nothing new to say on that subject,” Gates responded when asked about the rumors.

During an evening news conference here, Gates said his discussions had included Russia’s war with Georgia as well as the massive cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 – which officials here say came from Russia.

Gates announced that the United States would become a sponsor of an Estonian institute working on computer defenses and Internet security, and he cautioned Russia not to see any threat in this “further cooperation on cyber issues.”

With Gates’s arrival here Wednesday, he and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, have now visited all three Baltic capitals in less than a month.

Mullen was in Latvia and Lithuania in late October, following a secretly arranged meeting in Helsinki with General Nikolai Makarov, chief of the Russian General Staff.

At the time, Mullen said the United States and NATO were updating plans for defending Baltic allies from potential Russian attack and were considering increasing the number of military exercises with the Baltic states.

Clifford J. Levy reported from Moscow.