War games stoke fears in Balkans

Packet & Times (Orillia) - - WORLD NEWS - LIUDAS DAPKUS

VILNIUS, Lithua­nia — Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia are watch­ing with con­cern the lat­est round of Rus­sian mil­i­tary drills that some an­a­lysts think might be the largest of their kind since the Cold War.

Lithua­nian President Dalia Gry­bauskaite, who of­ten crit­i­cizes Rus­sian lead­ers, said the war games get­ting un­der­way in Be­larus on Thurs­day are a sign the Krem­lin is pre­par­ing for con­flict with NATO.

“We are anx­ious about this drill ... it is an open prepa­ra­tion for war with the West,” Gry­bauskaite told re­porters.

Sol­diers, tanks and weapons have ar­rived in Be­larus, ac­cord­ing to Lithua­nia’s mil­i­tary. Lead­ers and de­fence an­a­lysts in the Baltic states fear some of the equip­ment could re­main in Be­larus once the drills are done.

“Leav­ing weapons in Be­larus means the Rus­sian army could pre­pare bases for a sud­den broad at­tack ... right at the NATO bor­der,” Lithua­nian of­fi­cer Dar­ius An­tanaitis said.

Rus­sia and Be­larus say the ex­er­cises sched­uled to run un­til Sept. 20 in­volve 5,500 Rus­sian and 7,200 Be­laru­sian troops. Es­to­nian De­fence Min­is­ter Juri Liuk has said Moscow could de­ploy up to 100,000 troops.

While Liuk doesn’t be­lieve the drills rep­re­sent a “prepara­tory move” against NATO, he said “there is rea­son for con­cern, be­cause Rus­sian in­tents are of­ten un­clear.”

The 29-mem­ber al­liance, of which the Baltic states are mem­bers, has boosted its own mil­i­tary pres­ence in east­ern Europe. The U.S. last month sent ad­di­tional F-15 fighter jets to pa­trol the Baltic Sea re­gion.

“Rus­sia has al­ready used sim­i­lar ex­er­cises to launch mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions to other coun­tries like Ge­or­gia or Ukraine,” Ner­i­jus Mal­iuke­vi­cius, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst at Vilnius Uni­ver­sity’s In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and Po­lit­i­cal Science, said.

These viewed are echoed on the streets of Tallinn, the me­dieval cap­i­tal of Es­to­nia.

“I do not feel very good hav­ing these mil­i­tary ex­er­cises very close to Es­to­nia, but again we are part of NATO,” res­i­dent Piret Veigel said. “That gives me some com­fort.”

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