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Putin promises countermeasures in response to NATO expansion

November 21, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia will "take countermeasures" in response to NATO expansion. Deployment of the S-400 air missile defense system and ballistic Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad is a start.

Russland Kaliningrad - Präsident Putin
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Klimentyev

In an interview due to be broadcast on Russian TV later on Monday, RIA news agency quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that Russia was "concerned by NATO's decision making."

Moscow said it sees the deployment of its missiles near in Kaliningrad as a response to Washington setting up a US missile shield in Europe, Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee told the Russian upper house of parliament on Monday.

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is a key military outpost between Poland and Lithuania. Accumulation of radars and air defense systems are part of Moscow's plan to develop an "anti-access and area denial strategy," seeking to push NATO forces away from Russia and to make it very difficult to reinforce NATO members in the Baltic region in the event of a crisis.

With president-elect Donald Trump being attacked for apparently cozying up to Russia and saying NATO was too financially reliant on the US, fears have been raised in the region.

Litauen Graffiti von Putin und Trump
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Malukas

Balts on alert

Lithuania's incoming prime minister said Tuesday that he country would meet NATO's funding target of two percent of GDP up from 1.5 percent now. Saulius Skvernelis, whose party won October's general election, said this would be a one third spending rise for the Baltic state.

"It is a matter of priorities," he said.

Vilnius warned recently that Putin may test NATO in the weeks before Trump becomes US president, while Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said he was "very afraid" for the Baltics. Once part of the Soviet Union, Lithuania is now a member of both NATO and the European Union.

It borders Russia's highly militarised Kaliningrad exclave and, concerned over a military resurgent Russia - which annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 - it reinstated limited conscription last year.

NATO encirclement?

NATO saw through its promise in late October to bolster its presence in northeastern Poland and the Baltics as of 2017.

The alliance's plan is to set up four battle groups with a total of 4,000 troops from early 2017, backed by a 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (pictured below) said the move was "a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on the country's western flank near Moscow."

"Close to our borders, Russia continues its assertive military posturing," Stoltenberg said. "This month alone, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the United States. And Russia continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine with military and financial support for the separatists. 

Nato-Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a European defence ministers meeting in Brussels on November 15Image: Reuters/F. Lenoir

These moves do not lower tensions or restore predictability to our relations."

"NATO does not seek confrontation with Russia. We don't want a new Cold War and we don't want a new arms race," he added.

Some known unknowns

Russians, meanwhile, reportedly took part in a nuclear war drill in October, which - added to Putin's decision recently to suspend a treaty on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium - indicates an apparent willingness to use nuclear disarmament as a bargaining chip in disputes with the US over Ukraine and Syria.

Russia also recently unveiled pictures of its largest ever nuclear missile -dubbed Satan 2 by NATO - which is reportedly capable of destroying an area the size of the UK.

Reports out of Russia, meanwhile, suggest the Kremlin has reinforced its Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad with two small warships armed with long-range cruise missiles. The newspaper "Izvestia" cited an unnamed military source saying the two ships - the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol - had already entered the Baltic Sea.

There is also a strong Russian armed presence in Belarus, and worry over the scale of military exercises, in which the scenarios include nuclear weapons and assaults on Poland, Sweden and the Baltics.

jbh/ksb (Reuters, AFP)