With the Baltic countries expected to be invited to join NATO at the alliance's Prague summit next month, major shake-ups in the region's military structures may be expected. However, on the naval front, most of the hard work has already been done.
That was the message to emerge from a meeting of naval commanders-in-chief from the Baltic Sea countries held in Riga Oct. 28-29. The military leaders said the intake of the first three new NATO members, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, has gone very smoothly, and the amount of experience gained by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Partnership for Peace program and similar ventures gives them a good start.
"It wouldn't be a big change, we have very good and close cooperation with the Baltic countries," said Rear Admiral Kurt Birger Jensen, commander-in-chief of the Danish navy, at a press conference on Oct.29.
In fact, Jensen said that one of the topics on the naval chiefs' agenda had been how to streamline cooperation. The Danish admiral presently chairs a multinational working group looking into how the very large number of naval exercises taking place in the Baltic Sea can be made to work better.
Captain Ilmars Lesinskis, commander in chief of the Latvian navy, said scarce resources must be conserved. "We must think less about quantity (in training exercises) than about quality," he said.
One of the major tasks of the Baltic Sea navies is clearing mines and other explosive ordinance left over from the two world wars and Cold War exercises. The leaders' meeting came at the end of another stage of the Open Spirit mine clearing operation, which this time included 21 ships from 12 countries around the Baltic Sea, as well as the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK.
Lesinskis hailed this action as a success, with 54 explosive items disposed of in the Gulf of Riga.
There are still thousands of mines, depth charges, torpedoes and other potentially dangerous objects in the Baltic, said Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt, commander-in-chief of the German navy.
However, Feldt said that these rarely threaten merchant ships, since they are on the sea floor or even under it buried in sand. Occasional incidents when fisherman drag them up in their nets are dealt with by established government plans.
Still, the German officer said that "nobody really knows" when was the last time that stray munitions caused an accident for shipping.
Feldt also said that the issue of stray chemical weapons in the sea had not been discussed at the meeting because the commanders have "no precise knowledge and no means to cope with this."
A notable absentee from the meeting, and from the Open Spirit operation, was Russia. Feldt said a Russian representative had come to a planning meeting for the exercises in March, but had not turned up for the actual exercises, "for a lot of reasons that I do not know about," according to the officer.
However, he expressed the hope that Russia would take part in the future.