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NATO Council Warplane Diplomacy and Distrust Ahead Of Russia

It was meant to be about easing tensions, two years after Russia ruptured relations with NATO by annexing Crimea.

But the atmosphere in the run up to an April 20 meeting of the
Russia-NATO ambassadors’ council, the first to be held since that
rupture, has been poisonous.

Eastern European leaders have lined up to urge firmness against
the Russian threat. Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski,
called Moscow a more potent risk than Islamic State*. From the opposite
side, Russian officials have ranted at the perceived arrogance
and “zealous Russophobia” of NATO leaders.
The most vivid display of tension occurred over the Baltic Sea, where
simulated attack runs on April 11 brought a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack
aircraft to within 10 meters of a U.S. destroyer, the Donald Cook, that
was sailing in international waters. Soon afterward, a Russian fighter
intercepted and performed a daring barrel-roll over a U.S.
reconnaissance plane in the region.

There’s “a total lack of trust” between Russia and NATO, Kremlin
spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday. Both sides accuse
the other of military buildups on their borders and aggressive
propaganda.
The NATO-Russia Council, a format invented in 2002, is meant
to address that, along with Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are
still fighting a low-key war, and Afghanistan. “What we want is
constructive, civilized conversation,” Robert Psczcel, the acting head
of NATO’s information office and veteran of the alliance’s
representative office in Moscow, told The Moscow Times.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, on Tuesday called
Russia’s aerial acrobatics “unprofessional and unsafe,” and said they
“underline the importance of open military lines of communication,
predictability and risk reduction,” according to the Wall Street
Journal.

While real diplomatic warmth may be off the agenda, NATO says it
wants to focus the council meeting on “risk reduction” — so that
the next Russian warplane doesn’t accidentally clip a wing, kill a pilot
and pitch a nuclear-armed Russia and the most powerful militarily
alliance in history into crisis.
But agreement is unlikely, says Vladimir Frolov, a Russian analyst.
“Moscow views its provocative and unpredictable actions and its
willingness to risk much more serious incidents than the West as
a ‘force equalizer’ — a non-linear response to the West’s military
superiority,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Baltic region is tenser than at any time since
the Cold War. In the two years of the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s Baltic
exclave of Kaliningrad has been fortified and increasingly economically
isolated. Anxiety is rising in Baltic nations, fanned by politicians
and the press. NATO has reinforced units there.
Latvia is building a wall on its border with Russia. Lithuania last
year reintroduced conscription. A Latvian state commission announced
this week that the Soviet “occupation” (which it said was as “criminal”
as the Nazi one) cost the country 185 billion euros ($210 billion).

The antagonism is prompting some to call for dialogue. Not only has
the NATO-Russia Council been resurrected, but Russia is no longer
ignored at the world’s major forums.
In a sign of engagement, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
on Tuesday hinted he had reached a deal with Russian President Vladimir
Putin to release Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko, subjected in Russia
to a trial that was widely condemned.

However, “there is little prospect of any tangible progress” from the NATO-Russia meeting, says Frolov.
The real goal for Russia seems to be a public relations victory.
On the one hand, NATO officials are firm that Russia will not be brought
in from the cold. On another, says Frolov, the meeting — which Moscow
says is only happening because NATO asked for it — allows Russia
to demonstrate that the Western countries which have tried to isolate it
are “seeing the error of their ways” and have come knocking at the
Kremlin’s door for reengagement.

*Islamic State is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

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