Monday, 04 July 2016 01:34


Richard Milne, The Financial Times, 02.07.2016    




Lithuania has welcomed Nato plans to dispatch troops close to the Russian border as the beginning of a new policy of deterrence against Moscow.


Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s president, said the alliance’s plans to send four battalions with a total of 3,000-4,000 troops to the three Baltic states and Poland, was an important deterrent to Russia, which her government views as an increasing and unpredictable threat.


“If we [border states] will not be heard then Russia will do whatever they want,” Ms Grybauskaite told the Financial Times. “That is why it’s also one of the tools of our defence to be outspoken, to be clear, and to be heard.”


Nato is due to formally announce the battalions at a summit in Warsaw on Friday and Saturday.


While three battalions will be headed by the US, Canada and the UK, Ms Grybauskaite singled out the role of Germany, which will lead the battalion based in Lithuania.


“This is, for us, very symbolic: it means that Germany starts to understand its responsibility for European security,” she said. “Sooner or later I think we cannot rely only on Nato and only on American participation in Europe.”


While neighbouring Estonia and Latvia are concerned about Moscow’s influence over ethnic Russian citizens, Vilnius is more afraid about a direct military threat.


Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, is largely supplied via rail and road through Lithuania while the Suwalki Gap, a slither of land in between Lithuania and Poland with Kaliningrad and Belarus at either end, has become a big concern of military planners.


“We are seeing mounting militarisation of Kaliningrad…[and] mounting, aggressive and unpredictable behaviour in the Baltic Sea,” said Ms Grybauskaite.


Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland— which all have land borders with Russia — have pressed for a stronger Nato presence in the east, particularly after 2014 Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which Russia justified because of the region’s ethnic Russian population.


Nato had previously stepped up its air policing operations in the region as well as increasing exercises and setting up a rapid-reaction force.


The alliance is now finessing its previous reluctance to “permanently” station troops in the border states with Russia by declaring that the battalions will be stationed in the three Baltic countries and Poland on a “persistent” basis.


However officials recognise that in purely military terms the battalions — which will not exceed 1,000 troops per country — will make only a limited contribution.


“We believe this is about the credibility of the alliance,” said Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister. “No one should doubt that Nato is taking security very seriously.”


But he conceded that one battalion per country was purely “symbolic”. “It would be naive to say a battalion can defend the country,” he said.


Lithuania’s president and foreign minister have gained reputations for being outspoken in the EU, especially on Russia. In 2014, Ms Grybauskaite called Russia “a terrorist state” over its involvement in Ukraine and she said she had no regrets for telling the truth.


“We have to be prepared. It’s an asymmetric threat,” said Mr Linkevicius.


Russia has responded to Nato’s plan by signalling it will reinforce its troops close to the border with the Baltics as well as a series of incidents in the airspace and waters of the Baltic Sea. In April, a Russian jet came within metres of a US destroyer conducting exercises in the Baltic Sea.


Mr Linkevicius gave short shrift to critics who argued that the stationing of the battalions would provoke Russia. “I would say vice versa: when dealing with an opponent like that you should be very clear. Because if you are not it will be taken as a sign of weakness and that is a provocation,” he said.

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