Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia announced on Thursday that they would petition NATO to permanently station troops throughout the Baltic region as Russia has done little to allay concerns that it may pose a threat to its three small neighbors.
"Russia sees NATO as its main nemesis and this has put the Baltic countries on the front line, so to say," said Roland Murof, speaking for the Estonian defense ministry. "Hence, NATO's deterrence needs to involve real military presence."
A spokesman for the Lithuanian army commander added that the countries were asking for a battalion, around 700 to 800 soldiers, of rotating troops in every Baltic state, adding that they intended to send an official request in writing by means of a joint letter to General Philip Breedlove, the alliance's top commander in Europe.
Baltic states long wary of Russian intentions
The three countries, all NATO members, have often said in the past that they feel threatened by Russia's aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine. They said they will send their letter next week, which Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said "will of course be assessed carefully," though he was careful to stress that we have already increased our military presence in the eastern part of our alliance."
NATO had already planned to create six regional command-and-control centers in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, but the alliance has sought to balance the concerns of its eastern members with an agreement it struck with Russia in 1997, pledging not to permanently station "substantial combat forces" in those countries.
Stoltenberg has, however, said that measures are being put into place to create a new "spearhead force" of 5,000 soldiers that could be ready for deployment in 48 hours. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Turkey have already volunteered to lead this force in upcoming years.
He promised that the spearhead force will "make it easier to reinforce the defenses of the Baltic States."
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Their past experience has given rise to new fears that Moscow could try to destabilize their region to test the level of NATO's commitment to collective defense.
es/kms (AFP, dpa)