Russian War Games on Baltic Border Spark Security Fears

Baltic officials said regional security had been weakened as Russia led military exercises on their doorstep involving almost 12,000 troops.

A week of land and sea maneuvers dubbed “Zapad 2013,” or “West 2013,” began today as part of biennial exercises with Belarus, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on its website. Troops in both nations tested coordination in destroying “illegal armed formations,” it said.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which regained independence in 1991 after half a century of Soviet rule, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004 amid Russian opposition. NATO has held exercises in the Baltic region since 2010, while Russia has opened new military bases and deployed more troops on its western border in recent years, according to the defense ministers of Estonia and Latvia.

While Russia calls today’s maneuvers an anti-terrorism exercise, they suggest an escalation “into a conflict with NATO member countries,” Estonian Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu said yesterday. “An exercise of this nature is certainly negatively affecting the security environment in the region.”

Russia, whose Kaliningrad exclave borders Lithuania, has boosted its presence on the Baltic region’s borders to almost 100,000 troops from 16,000 in 2009, Reinsalu told journalists.

Jet Fighters

It’s also put a landing strip for jet fighters in Belarus, near Lithuania’s border, and a helicopter base in Ostrov, near the Latvian border, the Latvijas Avize newspaper cited Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks as saying today. Recent activity is worsening the “strategic and tactical” balance, he was cited as saying.

Lithuanian Defense Minster Juozas Olekas said today that Russia should provide its neighbors with more information on drills of this kind, as NATO does about its own operations, the BNS news service reported.

“Calling this an anti-terror operation sounds a bit strange, as they’re using tanks and heavy aviation,” he said, according to BNS. “We’re closely watching what’s going on.”

A Russian exercise this year simulating an air attack on Sweden was a “wakeup call” for the whole Baltic Sea area, Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet newspaper cited Estonian President Toomas Ilves as saying Sept. 16.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that NATO had broken promises to ex-Soviet leader Mihkail Gorbachev not to expand beyond the eastern border of the former West Germany. Other former communist nations that are members of the alliance include Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“There sure was talk of it -- Gorbachev was directly promised it, although it was never documented anywhere,” he said at the annual Valdai forum. “And where is NATO now? Where is its border? We were fooled, that was it.”

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