Russia says it will respond to US military buildup in Baltics

US troops arrive in Lithuania, 15 May. [bixusas/YouTube]

A senior Russian Defence Ministry official warned today (15 June) that Moscow would boost its forces on its Western flank should the United States store heavy arms in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

A US official said over the weekend that Washington planned to store heavy military equipment in the Baltics and eastern Europe, in order to reassure allies unnerved by Russia’s role in Ukraine, and to deter aggression.

The Russian official, General Yuri Yakubov, was quoted as saying any such move would be “the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO” since the Cold War.

“Russia would be left with no other option but to boost its troops and forces on the western flank,” Yakubov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said Russia would first add new tank, artillery and air units on its western border. It would also accelerate the deployment of new Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave and shore up its troops in Belarus, he said.

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Before that, the New York Times reported, quoting American and NATO officials, that the Pentagon was planning to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries.

The proposal, if approved, would represent the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States has stationed heavy military equipment in the newer NATO member nations in Eastern Europe that had once been part of the Soviet sphere of influence.

The Pentagon’s proposal still requires approval by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and the White House.

Poland and Lithuania have confirmed they are in talks with Washington on stationing heavy arms in warehouses in the region.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.

“There were no statements from the United States to that end so I have no comment for now,” he told a conference call with journalists. “We will comment if there is a statement.”

He said Russian officials were not in touch with their U.S. counterparts at the weekend to learn more about the plans that come as ties between Moscow and the West have hit new lows over the conflict in Ukraine.

Russia has long protested against what it describes as Western attempts to encroach on its territory, including by bringing former Soviet republics and countries once in its orbit in Soviet times into the NATO military alliance.

>>Read: NATO to expand Polish base in response to Russian threat

Poland expects the United States will decide within a few weeks whether to station heavy military equipment in the NATO member state, Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said on Monday.

“The decision is for the United States. As far as I know, this is a non-distant horizon… non-distant means the nearest few weeks,” he told reporters.

The Russian daily Kommersant quotes a high-ranking source in the country’s defense ministry who said that the eventual dislocation of US military equipment in Easter Europe would be a “serious destabilising factor”.

“Such steps cannot but cause concern, because this is an attempt to deploy at our borders a de facto place d’armes for a substantial military presence”, he was quoted as saying, adding that from the point of view of Russia, this would be regarded as the first step on behalf of Russia’s partners to revise the Russia-NATO Act.

Kommersant recalls that this agreement from 1997 forbids NATO to deploy on its Eastern flank “substantial combat forces”.

Russia and NATO disagree on what “substantial combat forces” means. In Bulgaria and Romania, the US has deployed between two and six thousand estimated troops, which Russia says is “substantial combat forces”, while the US disagrees.

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Vladimir Yevseyev, Director in the Centre for Social and Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences is quoted as saying that Russia could retaliate by deploying forces at the borders of the Baltic states.

“Thus the Baltic countries won’t feel more secure, but they would find themselves hostage to the US-Russia confrontation”, Yevseyev said.

In August 2014, the United States moved to preposition tanks and transport vehicles in a Cold War-era mountain storage facility Norway’s central Trøndelag region.

Russian officials interpreted the move as a response to the Ukraine crisis.

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