UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Lithuania's foreign minister says his government wants a NATO battalion deployed permanently in the country as a "security guarantee" — not a provocation against Russia which has stepped up military action in the Baltic states.
Linas Linkevicius said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that Lithuania's relations with Russia are "not simple, not easy," but he expressed hope that the two countries can have "normal relations" in the future.
The three Baltic States — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are former Soviet republics that regained independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union over two decades ago and are now members of NATO and the European Union. They have been alarmed by Moscow's intervention in Ukraine and the increasing activity of Russian forces in the Baltic Sea.
Lithuania has been especially outspoken against Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and has been equally outspoken in support of the current Ukrainian government's decision to move toward Europe. Its request earlier this month, along with Latvia and Estonia, for a NATO battalion of 700-800 troops in each country, is also certain to anger Russia if approved.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the request would be "assessed carefully."
Linkevicius insisted the request is "not an escalation of tensions" with Russia. Rather, he said, it will implement the decision taken by NATO at its summit in Wales in September to increase the Western military alliance's footprint in Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic states.
"It's not because we are preparing for war," Linkevicius said. "No. We are just trying to guarantee our security."
If NATO decides to station a battalion in Lithuania, it would be near Russia's westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania and has important military bases.
In early December, Russia flexed its muscle by airlifting state-of-the art Iskander missiles, which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Kaliningrad for military drills. They were pulled back afterward, but the deployment clearly served as a demonstration of the Russian military's readiness to quickly raise the ante in a crisis.
Some observers contend that having a NATO battalion anywhere near Kaliningrad would be provocative, but Linkevicius countered with a laugh: "You know the existence of Lithuania is very provocative because it's very close to Kaliningrad."
There had been some confidence-building measures between the two countries, including verification visits, but Russia cut the channels of communications, the minister said.
Linkevicius said Lithuania would like to see confidence-building measures restored, stressing that both sides need to talk more, inform each other more, and explain what they're doing.
He said Lithuania is not intervening in events in any other country but is trying to assist Ukraine.
"It's a big European country with a vision to belong to Europe so we have to respect that vision and let's help them," Linkevicius said. "We are doing our best, but we are a small country. ... Everyone should do their best in order to help them because their success would be the success of us, our values, and their failure would be respectively our failure."