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Baltics want faster US decisions on the region’s air defence

Photo: twitter.com/edgarsrinkevics.

Ahead of the meeting of three Baltic presidents with U.S. President Donald Trump on April 3, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have called on the key ally to make «faster decisions» on the region’s air defence.

The request follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia is «speedily» developing a series of nuclear weapon systems, including a new supersonic cruise missile capable of overcoming NATO defence systems.

In its quite belligerent state of the nation speech delivered to federal legislators in early March, Putin said the weapons are both new and unique to Russia.

In early February, Russia announced it had deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the exclave of Kaliningrad, tucked in between Poland and Lithuania, and intends to keep them there permanently.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė called the instalment a «threat» not just to Lithuania, but also to a half of European countries.

Until recently, Russia used to bring the missile complex to the region for military drills only, however, now the situation is different – it is a permanent stationing with all the necessary infrastructure in place, Baltic defence strategists note.

Lithuania’s intelligence says that a placement of Iskander systems in Kaliningrad is potentially more dangerous for Lithuania due to its capacity to hinder NATO actions in the region. The Lithuanian intelligence agencies believe however that the missile complex is not needed for targets in Lithuania’s territory, as, theoretically, they could be taken down by the existing other Russian military capacities.

Iskander missiles in neighbourhood were deployed as Lithuania marked the first year anniversary of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in the country.

Against the backdrop, the three Baltic states feel increasingly vulnerable as only very limited elements of air defence are said to be stationed in the region.

Not surprisingly, the Baltic Foreign ministers addressed the issue in their meeting with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this Monday, March 5.

«Air defence is one of the most important aspects of the planning of the defence system of the Baltic states. It is a challenge for all of NATO, which can only be overcome by uniting the efforts of the US and European nations. To create efficient air defence, we need to make immediate decisions and plan both national and NATO investments as soon as possible,» Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius said on Tuesday, March 6, at the opening of a Washington conference on air defence of the Baltic region organized by Lithuania and the US.

After Russia annexed Ukraine’s region of Crimea in 2014, the US immediately sent several hundreds of troops to each Baltic country.

«We underlined that we are very grateful for what is happening, but we would like to see a permanent presence — either in the form of training or visits or exercises,» the Lithuanian minister said.

Linkevičius also said that he had presented a Lithuania-proposed plan for EU financial aid for Ukraine, dubbed as the «Marshall plan» to Tillerson.

The need for coordinating US and EU sanctions on Russia was also discussed during the meeting, he said.

Air defence is widely believed to be of the weak spots of the Baltic states in the military sense. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia currently only have short-range missile defence systems, which can reach targets within 3-5 km. The countries are buying Norwegian missiles that will cover distances of a few dozen km and take down targets at an altitude of 15 km.

In order to ensure protection of the airspace, the Baltic states would need a shield of long-range defence systems, such as Patriot, in the third phase. Last summer, the United States stationed the missiles in Lithuania for the first time for training. Defence officials are considering a possibility of covering Lithuania’s airspace with the Patriot systems to be purchased by Poland.

In late February, the United States military presented the Patriot long-range air defence missile system in the territory of the Logistics Command of the Estonian defence forces in Tallinn.

The primary aim of bringing the missile system to Estonia was to rehearse cooperation with the Estonian Air Force.

The unit of the Patriot system that arrived in Estonia belonged to the 10th Army Air and Missile Defence Command and is part of the air and missile defence system of US Army Europe.

The mobile surface-to-air missile system MIM 104 Patriot is among the most advanced such systems in the world. It has a range of up to 160 kilometres depending on the type of missile and a maximum flight altitude of 25 kilometres.

Latvia has also raised multiple times the issue of necessity of an anti-missile air defence system in the region.

In a meeting with Finnish Defence minister Jussi Niinistro in mid-February, Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Bergmanis underlined the necessity to strengthen Latvian-Finnish defence cooperation. Last year, Finland’s armed forces started teaching Latvian soldiers to use Stinger air-defence systems.

As reported, the Latvian and Danish defence ministries last year signed an agreement under which Latvia will purchase Stingers from the Danish armed forces. Finland is one of Latvia’s allies that are already using these air-defence missile systems and has expressed readiness to share its experience with the Latvian armed forces.

Although certain missile defence elements are installed in the Baltics now, however, they are not able to withstand the risks stemming from the Iskander system deployment in Kaliningrad.

«The Redzikowo AEGIS Ashore ballistic missile defence site in Poland should be operational this year and the US nuclear posture and plans to deal with Russia’s offensive capabilities are clear signals that deterrence is on top of the list for the priorities by the United States,» Vaidas Saldžiūnas, a renown Lithuanian defence analyst, told BNN recently.

He, however, admitted that the current Baltic defence capacities and those by the NATO do not allow to «100 per cent» defend infrastructure of the fixed Baltic sites, like the airports, ammunition depos, military bases and objects of the kind.

Asked whether the US and the NATO should have by now stationed an anti-ballistic missile system in the Baltics, Saldžiūnas reasoned that even with such a system on the ground, its ability to take down a launched Iskander missile could be «a difficult task.»

«More productive is to threaten Iskanders, so they are not launched. This is in the first place,» the expert emphasised.

It is clear, however, that in the Baltic presidents’ meeting with the US President next month and in the next NATO Summit to be held on July 11-12, 2018, in Brussels, Belgium, the issue of the Baltics’ air defence will be talked up to the core.

«The key topics (of the meeting with President Donald Trump) will be security and (…) the upcoming NATO summit,» an advisor to President Grybauskaitė said this week.


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