Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and senior U.S. State Department official Thomas Pickering responded sharply after comments by Swedish generals Johan Kihl and Goran Gunnarsson suggesting that the Baltics' entry into NATO would reduce security in the Baltic Sea region.
"It seems strange to me that there are people in Sweden who are more concerned about Russia's security than the Russians themselves," Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet quoted Pickering as saying at a high-level conference on security in the Baltic region held in Stockholm.
Pickering, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow between 1993 and 1996, said that from the U.S. point of view NATO membership was by no means an aggressive step directed against any third country or any region's stability.
Pickering pointed to cooperation in a number of areas and regular meetings as evidence of closer cooperation between Russia and NATO.
At the same conference Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga spoke in favor of the Baltics' accession to NATO and dismissed the statements of the two Swedish generals.
She said the Swedish generals' statement was extraordinary and that their motives were difficult to comprehend, the Swedish newspaper reported in its Oct. 20 edition.
Vike-Freiberga said the underlying concept of NATO as an organization was to prevent conflicts after the world has seen two devastating world wars.
"For each new NATO member membership means increased stability," the Latvian president said. "This is equally true of Spain, Norway and Poland," she added.
Beside the reaction from abroad, the Swedish generals' words have also drawn criticism at home, with some politicians saying that Johan Kihl should quit as the defense forces' representative on the government's national defense committee.
"If such an opinion was held by the chief of the Home Guard, for example it could be overlooked, but as the position of a general representing the defense forces it is very remarkable," said Lennart Rohdin, representative of the People's Party on the national defense committee.
Rohdin said that if the words of the two generals represent the position of the Swedish military, Defense Minister Bjorn von Sydow should ask the commander in chief why the position of the armed forces is different from that of the country's political leadership.
"If this is Johan Kihl's personal opinion, then he shouldn't be allowed to represent our defense forces," Rohdin said.
The Baltics' NATO aspirations were also supported at the security conference by Sven-Olof Pettersson from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, who said that the Baltic Sea security structure won't be complete until the Baltic states have achieved their goals in ensuring their security.