LONDON (AP) — Britain's defense minister has said Russia poses a "real and present danger" to European security and could try to destabilize the Baltic states, former Soviet republics that are now part of NATO.
Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said tensions between Moscow and NATO were "warming up," and NATO must be prepared for Russian President Vladimir Putin to threaten Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Fallon said he was "worried about (Putin's) pressure on the Baltics, the way he is testing NATO," and called the Russian leader "as great a threat to Europe as Islamic State."
Russia rejected Fallon's remarks, made to reporters Wednesday during a trip to Sierra Leone.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Thursday that NATO was conjuring "a mythical Russian threat which has never existed."
"It is the North Atlantic bloc that poses threats that we have to take into account in our military planning and which are quite realistic," Lukashevich was quoted as saying by news agency Interfax.
And Baltic politicians said there was no need for alarm.
Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis said Russia's political leaders were unpredictable, but "we don't currently see such threats in Latvia and the probability of these threats is very low."
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told reporters there was no need for "excessive pessimism and panic-mongering."
"NATO is strong, NATO is united," Roivas said.
Russia has stepped up its probing of NATO defenses as relations deteriorated over the conflict in Ukraine, creating scenes reminiscent of the Cold War.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said Thursday that RAF Typhoon jets escorted two Russian bombers after they approached the coast of southwest England on Wednesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the Russian planes did not enter U.K. airspace.
Cameron said the Russians "are trying to make some sort of a point, and I don't think we should dignify it with too much of a response."
Rayyan Sabet-Parry in Riga, Latvia and Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.