Nato on edge over giant Russia exercise
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called for Russia to be transparent about its September military drills on the fringe of the EU.
The exercise, the largest in years, with tanks, naval vessels and air power around the Baltic and North Sea, has raised Nato fears that the official number of troops participating might be underestimated.
“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” Stoltenberg during a visit to Poland to meet US forces deployed along the eastern border.
“All countries have the right to exercises of their armed forces, but the countries should also respect the obligation to be transparent.”
Russia has said that 13,000 personnel will take part in the September 14-20, Zapad (meaning “west”) exercise, but other sources estimate there will be around 100,000 troops on Nato’s eastern edge.
There have been repeated cyber-attacks on Lithuania’s government, described by officials as a “massive information war” and 2016’s deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Russia’s Baltic fleet base in Kaliningrad.
On August 1, Nato identified 18 Russian military jets in international airspace above the Baltic Sea.
Most had been flying to and from the airbase in Kaliningrad without flight plans and with their transponders off, according to Lithuania’s defence ministry.
When Russian military trains head between Kaliningrad and the Russian border, a Lithuanian helicopter follows it to ensure that no one illegally leaves the train.
The so-called Suwalki Gap concentrates Nato minds: the 100km Polish-Lithuanian border between Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad and Moscow’s close ally, Belarus. The potential to cut the three Baltic states off from the rest of Europe is seen as Nato’s key strategic weak point.
Lithuania is building a €3.6 million, two-metre border fence opposite the barbed wire erected by Russia five years earlier.
“It’s stupid,” said Eugenijus Gentvilas, the leader of the opposition Liberal Movement in the Lithuania. “What can we avoid? Tanks? Of course not.”
Eimutis Misiūnas, Lithuania’s minister of the interior, said the fence was primarily to deal with alcohol and tobacco smuggling and prevent illegal border crossings. There is also the uncomfortable legacy of an incident in September 2014, when smoke grenades engulfed an Estonian customs post, all communications were jammed and armed Russian men allegedly dragged away a border guard, Eston Kohver. He appeared on Russian television and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage and other charges, including smuggling arms.
Tallin insisted Kohver was abducted on Estonian soil while the Russian spy agency, the FSB, said he was on a “spying operation” on Russia’s territory.
The size of the exercise is being debated. Picture credit: Wikimedia