IF LAST week’s ceremony in Washington to welcome seven new members to Nato had been a marriage service there would have been a loud objection from the back of the church.
In no uncertain terms Russia has made plain its view that the new partners should "not lawfully be joined together", and last week defence minister Sergei Ivanov even warned that he might order a build-up of the country’s nuclear defences.
Moscow’s icy blast came as "instruments of accession" to Nato were signed by the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in Washington.
It is Nato’s biggest enlargement ever. But the alliance is in no mood to compromise. Hardly was the ink dry on the accession documents than it dispatched four F-16 fighters to Lithuania to provide air policing over the three Baltic states, which have been without any warplanes since they broke from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The deployments added to Russia’s growing sense of unease about the eastward expansion of its former Cold War enemy.
While President Vladimir Putin has appeared relaxed, the most strident note has been struck by the lower house of the Duma, which passed a resolution calling for Russia to reconsider its defence strategy if Nato continued to ignore Moscow’s interests.
"Common responses to modern global challenges don’t require a build-up of weapons on the territories of Russia’s neighbours," said the resolution, which was passed by 305 to 41 votes, declared.
The head of the Duma’s defence affairs committee, Col Gen Viktor Zavarzin, added that the Russian military could counter the alliance’s expansion by putting more emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons.
"We have always opposed and will oppose such Nato actions, regarding them as a strategic blunder," he said.
He said Russia might "adjust" its plans to cut the number of troops in the area opposite the Baltic states by 40%, and "outlays for national defence should be boosted".
Russia’s objections are twofold. It opposes Nato plans to move troops close to its boundaries, and it objects to Nato taking over the air defences of the Baltic states.
In 1999, when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became the first former members of the communist Warsaw Pact to join Nato, the alliance sought to sugar the pill by promising Russia that it did not intend to keep foreign troops or nuclear weapons on their territory.
However, already there are firm indications that Washington intends to transfer many of the 71,000 troops based in Germany to bases in eastern Europe. American military planning groups have been examining sites in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria as potential Nato bases.
Romania has given Nato a list of sites where it could host US troops, and says it has signed an agreement with the US company Northrop Grumman which the Pentagon often uses to build and run military bases.
A team of military experts from US European Command (USEUCOM) has also visited Bulgaria to inspect the airports of Bezmer and Graf Ignatievo and the testing grounds of Koren and Novo Selo, as possible future US military bases.
Bulgarian vice-foreign minister Ivanov said US bases would be "an important element for the security of the Black Sea region and for Bulgaria in particular" and "would encourage the modernisation" of the Bulgarian army.
The US says its move is part of a strategic shift from large garrisons to small bases that can respond quickly to crises, especially the threat of terrorism.
It says Russian officials had already agreed to Nato bases being set up in Bulgaria and Romania to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Russia suspects that Washington is eyeing the territory of some of the new Nato members as possible launch pads for projecting US power into the Middle East.
Nato blames Russia for failing to fulfil its pledge to withdraw its troops from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
Russia is particularly sensitive that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics, could not only provide a base for Nato troops on the Russian border, but also host Nato air bases.
Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week that collective air defence had been part of Nato’s role since its foundation, and that Russia had been informed about the decision to patrol the airspace of the Baltic states. "It’s Nato airspace and Nato airspace has always been patrolled and covered," he said.
But Russia fears these patrols could be used to spy on its territory. "We dislike the deployment of Nato warplanes in the Baltic countries," Zavarzin said.
Moscow’s growing anger at Nato’s eastwards expansion is further enflamed by a spat with Lithuania. On the day after Lithuania joined Nato, Moscow expelled three Lithuanian diplomats, accusing them of spying. The expulsions were a tit-for-tat move after Lithuania expelled three Russian diplomats.
"It’s been no secret Russia has great interests in Lithuania," said Rasa Jukneviciene, a Lithuanian parliamentarian. "Soviet tanks left long ago, but their agents are still here."
De Hoop Scheffer, who is about to visit Moscow, insists that there is no need for tensions.
"I think that Russia has very well understood that Nato has no ulterior motives by air-policing its airspace," he said.
The US ambassador to Nato, Nick Burns, also played down suggestions of a crisis with Russia, and said no decisions on future bases had been made. "We’ve had a year-and-a-half to discuss this with the Russian Federation. I sense no major problem. There is certainly no sense of crisis over this," Burns said.
This seemed confirmed when Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov joined talks at Nato headquarters in Brussels on Friday after another ceremony at which the flags of the new members were raised.
But Nato enlargement may still not be at an end. Three Balkan countries, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, are preparing for membership, and were present last week as observers.
"When these new countries come in, 40% of our membership will be former communist countries, and they are going to strengthen us militarily," Burns said.