Kester Eddy in Budapest -
Russia has dramatically stepped up its naval activity in the territorial waters of the Baltic states this year, testing the defence capabilities of its three Nato members, according to Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia's minister of defence.
“Earlier [the naval threat] was not a problem, it was, ok, a few times per year. But now it's every week we have [incursions] in Baltic Sea territorial waters, with warships, intelligence [gathering vessels] and submarine activity in Baltic waters,” he tells bne in an interview.
While air incursions have eased a little in recent months, they still force Baltic air defence forces to be in a state of constant readiness. “We had a period when Russian planes were [testing our air defence as] a daily situation. Now, maybe it's once or twice a week. Today [August 28] for example, we had three planes, one intelligence and two combat planes [coming in],” he says.
Such worryingly “aggressive” developments are not merely the problem of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, but of Nato as a whole, Vejonis stresses.
“The Russians want to be one of the strongest and most developed armies in the world. In Ukraine they are showing how strong they are, and from our side we must somehow react, because they are testing the response and reaction not only of the Baltic countries, but of Nato,” he says.
These concerns, told to bne in an interview at the end of August, are all part of a common message prepared by Poland and the Baltic states for delivery to the Nato summit to be held in Cardiff, Wales on September 4-5.
Poland and its smaller neighbours have pushed for the permanent deployment of Nato troops to the region, but this has been resisted by several Nato members. The summit is instead expected to announce the creation of a new “high readiness brigade” of 4,000 troops that can be sent to the region within hours.
In response to the increased threat presented by Russia since the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the US did send 600 troops to the Baltic region in April – the force being split equally between Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The host countries, all of which have land borders with Russia, have expressed their gratitude for the US support, but given the latest Russian incursion into Ukraine and the strength of Moscow's revived military, they seek more.
“Latvia is in the front line. In my official position, and personally, I strongly condemn this invasion by Russia. It shows Putin still has geopolitical interest in post-Soviet territories, not only in Ukraine, but in Moldova, Georgia, central Asia and also in the Baltic countries. [In response,] Latvia's attitude, like all three Baltic countries and Poland, we are asking to increase Nato's presence in the region,” he says.
In the first place, the initial deployment of US troops is about to be changed to an armoured division, although the exact numbers are still under discussion. “It is necessary to increase the different exercises in the region, not only by number, but also by the presence of different Nato partners,” says Vejonis.
Pressed for how many tanks Latvia would like to see deployed, he says: “We are not asking by number; it doesn't matter if it's 10 or 14 or 20. We are asking for a presence. It's very important that they [other Nato countries] are present with a smaller amount or larger amount of troops, it doesn't matter.”
Riga has agreed with its neighbours on a minimum requirement, the defence minister says, but he does not want to reveal details. “I can't tell you this… but yes, because all four countries have a common view on this. When we speak about a presence, it can be in different ways. We are not only speaking about infantry, it's about policing air space and a naval presence in the Baltic Sea,” he says.
The stance of the Baltic states is weakened, however, by their failure - apart from Estonia - to meet the common Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Estonia’s standout performance is seen by some observers as one reason behind US President Barack Obama's visit to Tallinn prior to the Nato summit – itself a very public message of support to the region.
Neither Latvia nor Lithuania reach the 1% mark, although Vejonis emphasises that Riga has laid out a roadmap to reach the target by 2020. He says that Latvia cannot move any faster to increase its defence spending because of its agreement with the International Monetary Fund to rein in the government’s budget deficit. “At the moment it's impossible to raise the budget for defence by 2.5 times; we haven't got the money. But for next year it will be more than 1% of GDP, and it's rising each year to 2020,” he underlines.
He argues that unlike some other Nato countries, where defence spending sometimes largely goes on administration rather than modern fighting equipment, Latvia is investing its resources in ways that will really real enhance its forces' capabilities. Riga has already earmarked €150m in additional spending over the next six years for improvements to its air defence capabilities, a further €70m by 2018 for new light tanks, and an additional €70m to strengthen its part-time National Guard.
“For Latvia,” he says, any question about spending on new efficient equipment for the military “is not a problem.”
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