Lithuania fears giant Russian exercise
Lithuania’s defence minister Raimundas Karoblis has warned that a Russian military drill in September, Zapad 2017, could be part of an aggressive troop buildup in its Baltic enclave in Kaliningrad and in allied Belarus.
Karoblis was in the US to ask for military support, to defend Nato from Donald Trump’s criticism and to ask for a permanent US troop presence in Lithuania.
Lithuania says it is building a two-metre fence along its border with Kaliningrad in response to Zapad.
Lithuania’s Interior Minister Eimutis Misiunas said that a 45km, €3.6 million fence will provide little defence against a full military strike but it might prevent provocations and incidents.
“In order to avoid such situations, we decided we need the fence,” Misiunas said, adding that the fence would define the geographical border with the former German province of East Prussia.
“Europe needs the presence and leadership of the United States as a defence system, but on the other hand we believe that the United States need allies also,” Karoblis told AFP. “We Lithuanians can’t imagine security without the support and guarantees from the US side.”
At last month’s Nato summit, Trump failed to publicly reaffirm Article 5 of the pact’s treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.
“It’s not obsolete, definitely,” Karoblis said. “That was said only once [by Trump], by the way, during the campaign. But Nato needs changes, that is clear to us also.”
Karoblis said the tycoon turned president had been right to demand Nato’s European members increase defence spending towards the agreed 2 per cent target of GDP.
Lithuania had more than doubled defence spending over two years to 1.8 per cent of GDP, he said.
“Russia has more tanks on the Ukrainian border than Britain and Germany have altogether,” the minister said.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have become increasingly nervous since Moscow deployed troops, agents and proxy forces to seize slices of Georgia and Ukraine.
“Putin would like to test Nato … and probably the best area for him to test is the Baltics,” Karoblis said, adding that around 100,000 Russian troops would be involved in the exercise, deployed in Belarus, which is closely allied to Russia.
Lithuania believes many of the Russian soldiers will stay behind after the operation, to bolster forces on Nato’s vulnerable eastern fringe.
The infamous 80km “Suwalki Gap” along the Polish-Lithuanian border separates Belarus from Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave and is seen as Nato’s key vulnerability.
Lithuanian troops. Picture credit: Wikimedia