* Balts rattled by Russia's actions in Ukraine
* Russia plans large military exercise near their borders
* Lithuania says important to prevent "provocations"
By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS, Feb 9 The Baltic states will press the
United States and NATO to take additional security measures in
the region ahead of a large Russian military exercise planned
for September, Lithuania's president said on Thursday.
NATO has already started to deploy four battle groups of
about 1,000 soldiers each to the Baltic states and Poland, part
of efforts agreed under previous U.S. president Barack Obama to
deter Russia from interfering in the region.
The three small Baltic republics and Poland have felt
especially vulnerable since Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's
Crimea region in 2014 and its support for pro-Russian rebels in
eastern Ukraine. New U.S. President Donald Trump's calls for
improved ties with Moscow have added to their anxiety.
"We see that risks are increasing, and we are worried about
the upcoming 'Zapad 2017' exercise, which will deploy a very
large and aggressive force (on our borders) that will very
demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West," Lithuanian
President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters after talks with
her counterparts from Latvia and Estonia in Riga.
"This means that we will be talking with NATO about creating
additional standing defence plans, about stationing additional
military means and about creating a faster decision- making
process", she said.
Russia announced last September its plans to stage the
Zapad 2017 exercise near its western borders but has not said
how many troops will take part.
On Thursday Moscow reiterated its stance that the deployment
of new NATO troops and military hardware in the Baltic states,
Poland and Germany posed a threat to its security and said it
did not know how and when the buildup would end.
Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told Reuters
NATO must be ready to defuse any "provocations" during the Zapad
"The presence of such a large amount of troops next to our
borders, of course, creates some risks. We will take
counter-measures, including with our allies, to avoid any
provocations," said Karoblis.
"It is clear that Russia wants to re-establish its
domination, to change the defence system in Europe. It is
already a threat for central Europe, particularly for the
Baltics," he added.
Moscow denies having any expansionist or aggressive agenda.
The three Baltic states will lobby U.S. Secretary of State
James Mattis in Munich next week to keep U.S. contingents that
were deployed to the Baltics after Russia's annexation of Crimea
in the region to complement the incoming NATO battle groups, a
senior security official told Reuters.
Karoblis also said NATO's European members should set aside
their concerns about Trump's commitment to the alliance and
focus instead on boosting their defence spending and military
capabilities, something Washington has long called for.
The minister said NATO should be ready to
"If we speak about modification of some priorities of NATO,
for example, increasing attention to terrorism, I think in the
present situation this is fair enough," he said. "But the
classical role of NATO should remain, including, of course,
(responding) to the aspects and threats related to the East."
(Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Gareth Jones)