Baltic Worries Swirl as Belarus Protests Open Door to Russia
(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s increased presence in Belarus, where it’s helping strongman President Alexander Lukashenko retain power amid a wave of demonstrations, is putting nearby countries on alert.
One is Estonia, which like its Baltic neighbors has been edgy since Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed a war on the two former allies’ border. More integration between Belarus and Russia would lack “any popular mandate,” leading to more violence and instability, according to Estonia’s defense minister, Juri Luik.
“Any sizable movement of Russian troops to the region would increase the level of anxiety and of course NATO should take that into consideration,” Luik, 54, said Monday in an interview.
Russia denies plans to open a military base in Belarus and says any soldiers there now for exercises will return home when they’re completed. But it said this week that it sent TU-160 bombers flying along its neighbor’s western border as part of drills.
Such activities are alarming some.
“Russia is strengthening and modernizing its military capacity close to the Latvian border and Belarus is also involved in these activities,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said Tuesday in a statement. “Regular drills near our border, where aggressive scenarios against the Baltic states are played out, do not promote mutual trust and good neighborly relations.”
In Lithuania, which like Latvia shares a border with Belarus, U.S. troops are stationed for training through June 2021, though Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis says the training was pre-planned and is unrelated to what’s happening in the region.
Luik said exercises this month involving American personnel and artillery in Estonia and Lithuania “also have an important political dimension, indicating U.S. support protecting NATO’s eastern flank.” The alliance’s backing for the region, which retains large Russian-speaking minorities, was beefed up in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.
The three Baltic nations that were once unwilling members of the Soviet Union worry about a more aggressive Kremlin push coming just as the U.S. scales back its military footprint in Europe and President Donald Trump questions America’s defense commitments there. The countries have been among the most obedient in terms of adhering to NATO spending rules -- a bugbear for the U.S. leader since he took power.
Estonia has met NATO’s spending commitment of 2% of gross domestic product since 2015. In light of the region’s current security situation, Luik considers it vital to maintain planned expenditure growth in absolute terms, even as the Covid-19 pandemic may lop 5.5% off economic output in 2020.
“If we can maintain the planned expansion of defense spending that we decided in 2019 for next year and the year after, that’s already a sizable rise from 2%,” he said. “It’s a very important move, indicating the very complicated security situation around our borders, particularly the activities of Russia.”
Having seen his advances toward merging Russia and Belarus into one nation-state snubbed, Putin has used the mass protests that followed Lukashenko’s declaration of victory in elections widely deemed as fraudulent as a means of regaining the initiative. The demonstrations against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule have left him reliant on Russian support that includes security guarantees and a $1.5 billion loan.
Lukashenko says he faces threats from abroad, and has sent troops to the borders with Poland and Lithuania. Luik calls such claims “propaganda,” labeling the tactics “a total bluff.”
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