Baltics on 'war footing' as NATO looks to deter Russian aggression

NATO is restructuring its forces in Eastern Europe in order to deter Russia from attacking the Baltics and Poland.

The move will be seen as provocative in Moscow, as Putin's paranoia about NATO will only grow.


Leaders in the Baltic countries and Poland fear the force NATO plans to deploy on their territory is too small and symbolic to deter an attack by Russia, whose 2014 annexation of Crimea is fresh in the memories of the former Soviet-bloc states.

They will this week press other ministers of the western military alliance to help them build an air defense system against Russian aircraft and missiles. But that would be a highly sensitive step, likely to be condemned by Moscow as yet more evidence of a NATO strategy threatening its borders.

Asked about the likelihood of Russian aggression in the Baltics, Lithuania's Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told Reuters: "We cannot exclude it ... They might exercise on the borders and then switch to invasion in hours."

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia see themselves on the front line in any potential conflict with Moscow and say they are putting their armies on a war footing, meaning they can be mobilized almost immediately.

NATO defense ministers are set to agree this week on a new multinational force of 4,000 troops for the Baltics and Poland.

The United States, Germany and Britain are set to lead battalions of about 1,000 troops each. Canada may lead a fourth.

While the Baltic nations welcome the deployments, they say the build-up must go further - pointing to Russia's efforts to develop an "anti-access" capability in the Kaliningrad exclave bordering Lithuania and Poland, using missiles and submarines to stop NATO moving reinforcements into the Baltics.

The Baltics want NATO fighters to protect their skies and are seeking medium-range missile interceptors from Norway's Kongsberg Gruppen (KOG.OL) and U.S. defense contractor Raytheon (RTN.N).

"We need to stop possible air aggression," said Olekas. "We are discussing creating a regional medium-range air defense system together with the Latvians, the Estonians and the Poles."

Olekas expects to raise the matter with NATO colleagues at the ministers' meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels.

The head of the Estonian defense force Lieutenant General Riho Terras said: "The first and foremost is the defense of our airspace. Air defense is the challenge that needs to solved together with the NATO alliance."

"We are not talking about defense of Lithuania, we are talking about the credibility of the whole alliance," said Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius.

Is there a chance that a NATO buildup in its eastern flank could lead to the very thing it is preparing against?  In 2009, Russian threats over missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic caused President Obama to turn tail and run.  He withdrew the offer to defend the two countries, substituting a far less effective missile defense shield based in Romania.  The missile defense is supposed to be targeting Iran's ballistic missile capabilty, but Putin isn't buying that.  He may, as he has done in Ukraine, order military exercises along with border with Baltic states.  In Crimea, it led to an invasion and conquest of Ukrainian territory.

Putin's modernization of Russian defense forces is still several years from completion.  A war with NATO now would be foolhardy, given the massive discrepancy between the two militaries in technology and professionalism.  Russia's conscript army has not done particularly well in Ukraine, but its air force in Syria has been making a difference for President Assad, albeit without rebel or ISIS air power to oppose it.

Putin's long game is the elimination of NATO.  But in the short term, threats and intimidation appear to be all he is capable of.

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