Viktor LITOVKIN, RIA Novosti military analyst

Last week an A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft and a Su-24MR naval reconnaissance plane of the Russian air force made ten flights along Russia's western border and over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea on the shores of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They took off from the Levashovo airfield outside St Petersburg and landed several hours later at the Khrabrovo airfield in the Kaliningrad Region, only to take off again after a short rest.

General of the Army Vladimir Mikhailov, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, said openly that the flights were ordered in reply to the flight of US AWACS E-3 Sentry early warning aircraft. Several days before, they had arrived from the Geilenkirchen air force base in Germany and made several demonstration flights over the three Baltic countries. NATO spokesmen claim these were training and not reconnaissance flights held to test the compatibility of the Baltnet air surveillance network, on which Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are working with the assistance of Brussels, with the integrated NATO air defence system. But only very naive people can believe these assurances.

"We all know that nobody makes training flights over foreign territory," says Gen. Mikhailov. "And, so as not to offend anyone, I ordered the flights of the A-50 and Su-24MR planes. It was not a demonstration; I just don't like to owe anyone anything. Besides, the crews needed training."

The commander made this statement at a briefing of the Russian Defence Ministry for the air force attaches accredited in Moscow. All military diplomats, who are usually graduates of the intelligence departments of military academies or specialised courses, know that the commander could not order the planes to the Baltic Sea area. For combat aircraft to cross borders, they should have an order from the chief of the General Staff, who would hardly make the decision without the approval of the defence minister and, possibly, the president.

In other words, Mikhailov's demarche was not a show of his freedom of action or a desire not to owe anyone anything. It was certainly a well-planned action of the supreme military command of Russia, who will no longer forgive their Western colleagues for their arrogant neglect for Russia's national security interests.

The AWACS flight was apparently a challenge. Its AN/APY-2 Overland Downlook Radar (ODR) can scan air, land and water areas at a range of up to 550 kilometres. During the 6-11 hours of flight, the Pentagon, acting with the assistance of the three Baltic republics, could (and Russian generals think surely did) minutely inspect the south of Karelia and the Leningrad, Pskov, Novgorod and Kaliningrad regions of Russia.

Some would say, why cannot they look if the territory inspected by the AWACS is covered by the CFE treaty? The USA could seek permission to inspect the Leningrad Military District, which incorporates the Pskov and Novgorod regions and the special Kaliningrad region. And 48 hours later its experts would have walked around in the Russian military units, counting tanks, artillery guns, infantry fighting vehicles and aircraft. Why did not it use this right?

The answer is: because inspections within the CFE framework entail the principle of reciprocity. If a NATO country comes to check on our garrisons, we can request a return inspection of garrisons of any of the member states or its bases in a foreign territory covered by the CFE treaty. But the trouble is that the Baltic countries (they will join NATO within months) from whose territory the reconnaissance flight of the US AWACS was made have not joined the CFE treaty so far, though they have pledged commitment to all international treaties signed by the bloc. Russian inspectors cannot check Baltic garrisons, which is creating additional tension in Moscow's relations with Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, as well as with NATO and the USA.

Moscow has noted that its Western partners in the NATO-Russia Council speak at international forums willingly and at length about the growing ties between the parties, but in fact they keep trying to show which party can do everything it wants and which is denied this right. The Kremlin, though it pretends that nothing untoward has happened, regards this as an increasingly irritating factor.

On the other hand, untoward things keep happening. Gen. Mikhailov said that in 2004 the Russian air defence system tracked 250 NATO reconnaissance flights along its borders, which is too many. It appears that the Russian military were given the go-ahead for their reply action.

When last year a US AWACS E-3 overflew Georgia, Russia ordered a wing of Su-27 fighters armed with missiles to fly over the Russo-Georgian border in the Greater Caucasus Range and back. The "debt repayment" was repeated last week over the Baltic Sea.

Everyone knows what such seemingly innocent air teasing matches can lead to. What if somebody loses his nerve?

In my opinion, serious politicians should think if we need such military "irritants" in Moscow's relations with EU countries and in the NATO-Russia Council. Maybe an agreement should be reached on precluding such "training flights" of US and other countries' AWACS planes, let alone combat aircraft, along Russian borders?

There is an alternative, though. Gen. Mikhailov promised at the aforementioned briefing to send Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers with cruise missiles "for training flights over the Atlantic. "We can do this easily," he said. "We only need to set the course, fuel the aircraft and let them fly."

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