Estonian PM says Russian attack unlikely despite 'worrying' signs

Reuters News
|
Posted: Dec 02, 2015 1:40 PM

By Alistair Scrutton and David Mardiste

TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia's prime minister said on Wednesday he does not believe Russia will attack the Baltic state, despite "worrying" developments such as Russian air incursions and military exercises near its borders this year.

Playing down the direct security threat posed by Russia in an interview with Reuters, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas also distanced himself from a call by Latvia and Lithuania for a permanent NATO troop presence in the Baltics.

The three Baltic states have been worried about Russia's intentions since Crimea was seized from Ukraine last year by Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms who became known as "little green men" when Moscow at first denied their identity.

"The scenario of green men is not more likely here than it is in Great Britain," Roivas said in the Estonian capital Tallinn. "Estonia is a NATO country and I consider it unlikely that Russia is thinking it will attack NATO."

Roivas who, now 36, became the European Union's youngest head of government when he took over as prime minister last year, added: "NATO countries should not be worried about direct intervention."

The Baltic states all have borders with Russia -- Lithuania borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad -- and have Russian-speaking minorities.

Memories of Soviet rule, which ended just over two decades ago, also remain fresh among politicians and voters in the three countries.

DIPLOMATIC RESOLVE ON UKRAINE "STILL THERE"

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were particularly concerned by President Vladimir Putin's declaration last year that Russia has the right to intervene with military force if necessary to protect Russian speakers abroad, and a number of Russian military flights near Baltic airspace added to jitters.

Russian and NATO troops staged rival exercises on different sides of Estonia's border in February. In a further sign of concern in the Baltics, 3,000 Lithuanian troops held a military exercise in May to simulate an attack on a new gas terminal, a scenario modeled on the threat of "green men".

"Lots of (Russian) exercises, flying around without transponders, things like that, and it is not only in our neighborhood but this is also in western Europe ... I believe that those developments are still worrying," Roivas said.

Since 2014, the United States has kept about 150 troops in each Baltic state, in overlapping rotations. Britain, Germany and Portugal have deployed similar detachments.

But Roivas made clear he did not consider the calls by Lithuania and Latvia for a permanent presence of NATO troops in the region to be the most pressing issue.

"I don't think that the most important choice is whether it is rotational or permanent," Roivas said. "I believe that the real deterrence effect is what counts. And today we are seeing that we are moving in the right direction."

"MOST IMMEDIATE THREATS"

"We should equally care that Ukraine is partly annexed. We should equally care that there is dictatorship in Syria and a very serious terrorist movement ... These are the most immediate threats," he said.

Lithuania said this week that Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania and is home to Russia's Baltic military fleet, remained a tense area.

With some signs of a thaw between Moscow and Western capitals after the Islamic State attacks on Paris which killed 130 people, some Baltic officials have said they are wary that the European resolve to stick with economic sanctions and military pressure over Ukraine may be waning.

They are wary that a ceasefire agreed in February for east Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces, will not hold and worry that the conflict will become secondary for some European powers more eager to unify against Islamic State after the Paris attacks.

But Roivas said the diplomatic resolve was still there.

"The fact we are not always talking as loud as we should does not mean that our opinions have changed," he said.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)