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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Plays the Good Cop

Last week NATO expanded to include seven new members: Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. During the lengthy ratification process, Russian government officials and the press held their peace, and it seemed that this time around expansion would not cause much of a flap. The concern expressed in Moscow last week was therefore somewhat unexpected.

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The armed forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are small and lightly armed. They have no up-to-date warplanes and no plans to buy any. To provide their new allies with at least a token air defense, Belgium, Norway and Denmark have offered to deploy a number of U.S.-built F-16 fighters to patrol the skies above the Baltic states.

The decision to send aircraft from smaller NATO countries was apparently intended to appease Russian fears about expansion. But when four Belgian F-16s touched down at a former Soviet military base near Siauliai in Lithuania, Russian officials responded with outrage.

General Yury Baluyevsky, the first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, promised that Russia would make an "adequate response" to NATO expansion. The Foreign Ministry announced that Russia was considering the possibility of taking action against "NATO air bases in the Baltics." Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov warned that Russia would reformulate its "nuclear doctrine," apparently hinting that Moscow might rescind a 1991 agreement with Washington and target NATO bases in the Baltics with land-based ballistic missiles.

Finally, the State Duma last week passed a nonbinding resolution denouncing NATO expansion and calling on President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits the deployment of troops and weapons on the continent.

The heightened rhetoric might suggest that Russia and NATO are entering a new period of confrontation. In fact, all of the huffing and puffing was simply a backdrop against which Putin will now play the role of the "liberal," friend of the West and champion of our common values and interests.

This is all very much in the Russian tradition of the good and modest tsar surrounded by cruel and conspiring cohorts. True to form, Putin took advantage of German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der's one-day visit to Moscow to play the "good cop" and assure the West that Russia does not fear NATO's expansion to the East.

All of this was predictable. The top brass, Putin's trusted ally Ivanov and the Kremlin-controlled Duma all made a fuss about a few aging F-16s in order to provide Putin with the opportunity to shine as a statesman. The same pattern was followed in the 1990s when NATO inducted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; after a flurry of harsh denunciations, Russia bowed before the inevitable. On that occasion it was Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who played the good cop.

The Russian military and political elite accept that they can do nothing to halt NATO expansion and the Western domination of Europe, but this doesn't mean they have to like it. Russia's relationship with NATO has been in flux ever since it signed the Founding Act in Paris in 1997, but an undercurrent of suspicion has always been present.

A handful of fighter jets deployed in the Baltics presents no threat to Russian national security. Then again, there is no pressing military need to station the fighters there. The deployment smacks of provocation, and in this sense Moscow's reaction was to be expected.

The Russian military and the defense industry would hate to lose NATO as an enemy. Everyone knows very well that the alliance will not attack, but the potential of such an attack is enough to allow a lot of people to embezzle a lot of money earmarked for defense spending.

In 2003 the federal government spent 118 billion rubles ($3.84 billion) on military procurement. Despite this considerable outlay, however, almost no new weapons were actually purchased, and the audits of defense-related industries have yielded few clues as to where the money went. For the most part it seems to have disappeared down rat holes -- projects for countering the NATO threat by developing strategic nuclear weapons and the like that Russia simply doesn't need.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer arrives in Moscow this week. Once again the two sides will exchange pleasantries and nothing will change. Russia and NATO will remain not friends, but not exactly enemies.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.