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Published: Saturday, 12/18/2010

Military wares shouldn't be sold to Russia

Earlier this fall, two Russian SU-24 attack aircraft flew into NATO-controlled airspace near the Baltic state of Latvia. NATO scrambled interceptors in response.

WikiLeaks' exposure earlier this month of NATO classified cables gives hope that similar incidents won't occur. The cables revealed the existence of a detailed NATO military response plan against Russia in case it invades the Baltic states.

The two Russian jets were safely escorted out by two U.S. pilots, though not before the Russian pilots -- who had not responded to NATO's air-controllers' queries -- caused a war-of-nerves incident reminiscent of the Cold War-era movie Top Gun. Latvian authorities called the Russians' air shenanigans an unfriendly act.

The incident occurred as Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish, and U.S. troops were beginning a NATO military exercise near Riga, the Latvian capital city. Some may have assumed the Baltic states' recent ascendancy to full NATO membership would have guaranteed against such incidents. But not so.

I learned firsthand during a visit to Latvia earlier this year that Latvians still have anxieties about Russia.

That's not surprising considering how Russian troops killed several protesters in Riga just before the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. My Latvian friends also told me old stories about their grandparents' friends and neighbors killed in the Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic states in 1940-1941, and of the humiliation suffered in another Soviet occupation that began in 1945 and ended when the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991.

My friends also recalled Russia's 2008 blitzkrieg in Georgia, another former Soviet province and NATO aspirant, and NATO's apparent forgetfulness of the whole matter. Others brought up the Munich agreement of 1938 that permitted Nazi Germany to annex the part of Czechoslovakia that was mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans.

One can understand their fears, given the Kremlin's increasingly bellicose posture and the fact that about half of Latvia's population is Russian-speaking.

There are even provinces in Latvia where ethnic Russians constitute the majority.

Following the WikiLeaks exposure, the Kremlin feigned innocence and "bewilderment," pointing to the recent NATO-Russian summit in Lisbon, where diplomats adopted a statement saying in part that the security of Russia and NATO countries, including the United States, is intertwined.

That may well be. But apart from places where military cooperation with Russia sometimes can't be avoided, such as Afghanistan, the Russian-NATO "partnership" is like a dancing couple in a crowded room. The two are trying not to step on each others' toes.

The Kremlin has no doubt now that the Baltic states represent NATO toes. This situation makes for added security not only for the roughly 7 million people in the Baltic states, but for the rest of us too.

And that's good.

After all, it is not political correctness and lip service, but clearly defined and strictly guarded borders that guarantee our security. Survival through the Cold War attests to that.

It is imperative, therefore, that as long as Russia remains an autocratic kleptocracy nostalgic for its imperial past, NATO member states refrain from selling Russia high-end computer technology and advanced military systems.

It is up to the United States to make sure that its allies play along -- including France, which sells Russia advanced amphibious assault ships. A senior Russian admiral reportedly announced that Russian forces would have overrun Georgia "within 40 minutes" rather than in 26 hours had those ships been available to them earlier.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com, or 419-724-6089.



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