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Russia warns NATO against military presence in Eastern Europe

Russia views the prospect of a permanent NATO military presence in Eastern Europe as a major threat, according to a senior Kremlin official. The Western alliance has announced plans to beef up its defense strategy.

Two days ahead of NATO's summit in Wales, Moscow has warned the Western military alliance against establishing a permanent presence near Russia's borders, saying that it would view such a move as a threat.

"The fact that the military infrastructure of NATO member states is getting closer to our borders, including via enlargement, will preserve its place as one of the external threats for the Russian Federation," Mikhail Popov, deputy director of Russia's national security council, told the RIA Novosti news agency in an interview on Tuesday.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced plans on Monday to create a rapid reaction force of up to 5,000 troops and to pre-position military equipment and supplies in Eastern Europe.

In 1997, NATO and Russia signed an agreement in which the Western alliance agreed to not permanently station a substantial number of combat troops in Eastern Europe.

Concern in Baltic countries

The plan for a beefed up NATO presence is an attempt to allay growing insecurity among the Baltic states in particular, which have looked wearily at Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the right to intervene on behalf of Russian speakers if Moscow believes their rights are under threat. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - all former Soviet republics that are now NATO members - have significant Russian minorities.

Before heading to the NATO summit, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Estonia on Wednesday, where he is expected to emphasize Washington's commitment to the security of the Baltic states.

NATO summit in Wales

The alliance's 28 member states are set to hold their summit in Newport, Wales on Thursday and Friday. They are expected to adopt a more robust defense strategy as a direct response to Moscow's intervention in eastern Ukraine. The alliance has released satellite photos which purport to show Russian troops conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory:

Meanwhile, peace talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government concluded on Monday without any concrete progress. Talks are scheduled to continue on Friday.

Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have demanded a special status guaranteeing broad autonomy within Ukraine. On Sunday, Russian President Putin called for the Minsk talks to focus on the "statehood" of Ukraine's eastern regions. The Kremlin subsequently denied advocating independence for the separatist areas.

Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, President Petro Poroshenko is set to attend the summit in Wales. Kyiv's Western-backed government has publicly expressed its intention to join the alliance.

slk/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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