bne IntelliNews -
Russia has threatened a nuclear strike over Nato's buildup in the Baltic states, as well as to deter any threat to its control of Crimea, according to unsubstatiated reports in the UK press.
Moscow has threatened all-out war with the West, including the use of its nuclear arsenal, should Nato continue to strengthen its presence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, The Times reported on April 2. The newspaper claimed to have accessed notes taken by US personnel at a secret meeting with Russian intelligence and military officials that took place in Germany in February.
Russian generals are also said to have warned that any attempt to return Crimea to Ukraine, or to arm Kyiv's forces in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country, would provoke a "spectrum of responses from nuclear to non-military". The military officers said they were speaking directly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that any of these moves by Nato would be met "forcefully, including through the use of nuclear force".
The Kremlin has been swift to refute the report. “This is a classic example of the continuing hysteria and the demonization of our country," Putin's spokesman told reporters, according to RT.
Putin has increasingly invoked Russia's nuclear arsenal during the standoff with the West over Ukraine, which kicked off in late 2013 as the EU pressed Ukraine to sign up to a free trade and political agreement and Moscow sought to head the deal off. Putin said in a documentary aired March 15 that he had been ready to put nuclear forces on alert as Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.
Some analysts see the trend as a deliberate ploy to keep the West off balance by suggesting there exists an unpredictable and dangerous leadership in the Kremlin.
"There’s a rationale in being perceived as unpredictable," a recently-departed Moscow ambassador, who also knew Putin in St Petersburg, tells Newsweek. "The Russian strategy is to scare the West by portraying Putin as unpredictable. If you’ve got a madman in power, a country’s nuclear weapons take on a completely new dimension."
However, the Baltic states, on edge for months and warning of Russian aggression, will likely insist that the danger is very real. Buzzed continually by Russian military jets, there have been various claims of imminent invasion, or that low level warfare is ongoing while Lithuania reintroduced conscription last month.
Latvia and Lithuania have increased their defence budgets for this year. The three countries have recently spent a relatively large €300mn on purchasing of new military equipment.
The leaked notes from the meeting also claim that Russia sees the Baltic states as having "the same conditions that existed in Ukraine and caused Russia to take military action". That's a reference to the ethnic Russian populations in Latvia, Estonia and - to a lesser extent - Lithuania.
The Russians reportedly told their US counterparts that they are keen to engage in "destabilising actions [in the Baltics] that would be even harder to trace back to Russia than those of eastern Ukraine".
The Baltics have welcomed the increased presence of Nato forces, claiming that the Kremlin is waging a "hybrid war" against their countries, which includes cyber attacks and agitation of the local ethinc Russian population.
"The first stage of confrontation is taking place," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told the BBC on March 7. "I mean information war, propaganda and cyber attacks. So we are already under attack. Will it be extended to conventional confrontation? Nobody knows."
James Sherr of UK think-tank Chatham House told bne IntelliNews that hybrid war is "a form of warfare that is designed to cripple a state before that state even realises the conflict has begun. It's a model of warfare designed to slip under Nato's threshold of perception and reaction."
"The political aim is to destroy confidence between the Baltic states and the Nato alliance... and European Union that they are part of," he continued.
The notes suggest Moscow would avoid "injections of troops and heavy weapons in favour of other tools," reports The Independent. "Russia would hope slowly to entice those Russian populations towards Russia without giving Nato a pretext to deploy troops," the document adds.
For its part, Nato has said it plans to continue to step up its presence in the Baltics. In February, defence ministers of Nato member states agreed to establish a rapid reaction unit known as Spearhead Force and six command and control centres in the Baltics and other CEE states during a meeting in Brussels.
The decisions are officially part of the alliance’s wider response to recent "security challenges" in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg was more direct in noting the major culprit for the military alliance's view of the current "very critical time for security in Europe."
“In Ukraine, violence is getting worse and the crisis is deepening. Russia continues to disregard international rules and to support the separatists with advanced weapons, training and forces," he claimed.
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