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Europe

Germany assures Estonia of NATO backing

Russia's annexation of Crimea has worried former Soviet satellite states. In a show of solidarity, Germany's defense minister has travelled to Baltic nations to pledge support.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen kicked off a two-day visit to the Baltic states on Tuesday.

In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, she pledged her government's continued support as the region faces possible military aggression from Russia.

"Your concerns are also our concerns," von der Leyen told reporters and her Estonian counterpart, Sven Mikser.

All three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - belong to NATO. However, given Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision last year to annex Crimea shortly after the dissolution of the Ukrainian government under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, their governments now fear a sudden takeover of their land.

The EU has repeatedly levied sanctions on Russia in a bid to force it to halt all cooperation with eastern Ukrainian separatists. However, despite a ceasefire agreement, a lasting peace in eastern Ukraine remains tenuous amid reports of continued fighting.

Tallinn wants more support

Revelations of NATO defense shortfalls amid growing tensions in eastern Ukraine have further stoked fears that the Western military alliance wouldn't be able to protect these countries from Moscow.

Estonion Defense Minister Mikser urged NATO to improve its resources and the country's prime minister, Taavi Roivas (pictured above with von der Leyen), called for a great troop presence.

"Estonia is of the opinion that there could be a continuous presence of European allies in [both] Estonia and the Baltic region under Germany's leadership," Roivas said, additionally thanking Berlin for contributing its air force to the Baltics surveillance mission.

Germany, alongside fellow NATO allies the UK and the US, have been patrolling Baltic airspace over fears of Russian aggression.

More German troops by 2016

Von der Leyen attempted to dismiss the concern and reassure the government in Tallinn that it shouldn't "underestimate NATO's response capabilities."

By 2016, a total of 5,000 German soldiers would participate in NATO exercises in eastern Europe, she added.

The German defense chief was scheduled to travel to Latvia later on Tuesday and then to Lithuania on Wednesday where she would hold similar meetings.

The military alliance announced plans in February to set up six regional command and control control centers in eastern European nations, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, so its rapid response force could be mobilized quickly.

kms/jr (Reuters, dpa)

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