RIGA - Baltic-Russian relations took a precipitous dive over the past week both in the air and on the ground, as spy planes flew along the border and leading officials took to editorializing in the newspapers.
Several high-profile events in the span of a few days underscored the latent tension between the neighbors and, in the opinion of some local analysts, Russia's unwillingness to accept that the Baltic nations will become members of NATO and the EU over the next two months and forever leave Moscow's zone of influence.
The first volley was fired on Feb. 20, when three Russian diplomats working in Lithuania were deported for activities unrelated to their diplomatic status, according to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. (See story on Page 1.)
Then, on Feb. 24 - 25 NATO officials conducted a brief presentation of its spy plane, the E-3 AWACS, in Latvia and Lithuania, a move that irritated Russia despite the advance warning it received from Brussels.
Russia responded by carrying out several flights of its A-50 and Su-24 planes over the Baltic Sea.
Russian air force commander Vladimir Mikhailov informed foreign military attaches on Feb. 27 that Russia's reconnaissance planes had made the flights above neutral waters of the Baltic Sea in a response to NATO's E-3 AWACS plane near Russia's borders, the Baltic News Service reported.
Also on Feb. 27 Latvia's Foreign Ministry refused to issue a visa to MP Dmitry Rogozin, a vitriolic critic of the Baltics who had wanted to visit the country for a Russian-language school demonstration scheduled to take place on March 6.
The Foreign Ministry said that Rogozin's earlier public statements "did not indicate a willingness to develop a constructive dialogue between politicians" and that the purpose of Rogozin's visit "shows no inclination to engage in a constructive dialogue" said Foreign Ministry state secretary Maris Riekstins.
Later in the day Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov announced that the "lack of suitable atmosphere" was preventing the Latvian-Russian border treaty from being signed, a document that is formally required from Latvia in order to join NATO and the EU.
Finally, on March 1 a top Kremlin official told The Financial Times that Russia would not tolerate any NATO bases in the Baltics.
"NATO should consider the national concerns of Russian policy," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin's foreign envoy, said. "We understand a NATO footprint in Bulgaria or Romania as bases for aviation in the fight against terrorism. It is difficult to see the need for anti-terrorism actions in the Baltic states."
According to the U.K. daily, Yastrzhembsky's views reflected a hardening of Russian foreign policy on a wide range of issues, particularly compliance with the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, a cornerstone of European security.
On March 2, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in an interview with the daily Diena, said NATO was ready to address Russia's concerns about alliance enlargement but that it wouldn't give up its interests.
"Of course, we have our differences, and you know what they are. Russia has failed to withdraw troops from Georgia and the trans-Dniester region in Moldova. They are also concerned over the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, in particular in relation to the Baltic states," said de Hoop Scheffer.
"I think that we should try in a constructive manner to bridge these differences and I hope that [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin will accept the invitation to the Istanbul summit late June," he said.
"It is a fact that seven countries will join NATO very soon, and the relationship must not change because it is a political decision made freely by existing member states," he said. "We must look for a solution, but I won't give up NATO interests. The alliance will not back up on its long-time position."