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Baltic Ministers, Cohen Discuss Engaging Russia, NATO Membership

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

MOSCOW, June 12, 2000 – Engaging Russia and progress toward NATO membership were two items Defense Secretary William S. Cohen discussed June 10 during the Third Annual Nordic-Baltic- U.S. Defense Ministerial in Vilnius, Lithuania.

"We think it's important for Lithuania and all countries of the region to find ways to constructively work with Russia," Cohen said. "To the extent that such measures are undertaken, (they) contribute to a sense of security on the part of the Russian people and Russian leaders."

U.S. defense officials said the more the world works with Russia, the less threatened and suspicious it will become. Cohen said he would "walk the talk" when he meets June 13 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and members of the Russian parliament.

Others in attendance besides Cohen and host Defense Minister Ceslovas Stankevicius were the defense ministers of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Estonia and Latvia.

The Baltic States -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- border on Russia. In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the three countries. Nazi Germany occupied them during World War II and, upon Soviet reoccupation, the Soviets killed thousands and deported hundreds of thousands. The Baltic States declared their independence in 1991.

All three countries have Russian minorities, and it is in their best interests to maintain good relations with their powerful neighbor, U.S. officials said. The Russians have repeatedly objected to the idea of NATO membership for the Baltic States.

But, Cohen said, Russia does not have a veto over NATO decisions. "One of the reasons we established the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council was to give Russia a voice but not a veto," he said. "We want to take into account Russia's concerns and interests as we make our decisions. But that is internal to our decisions. NATO members will decide in 2002 on enlargement.

"The door to NATO remains open," he continued. "No nation should be excluded because of either geography or history."

He said aspiring nations must meet stringent criteria. Aspiring nations must modernize their militaries, ensure civilian control over the military and take steps to ensure each member "contributes to the collective security of the NATO members and is not simply a consumer of security benefits."

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Related Sites:
DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Joint press conference at Vilnius, Lithuania, June 10, 2000

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense ministers attending the Nordic-Baltic-U.S. Defense Ministerial meeting pose for a group portrait in the town square of Vilnius, Lithuania. Hot topics discussed at the June 10 gathering included constructive engagement with Russia and NATO enlargement. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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