Russia’s increased presence in Belarus, where it’s helping strongman President Alexander Lukashenko retain power amid a wave of demonstrations, is putting nearby countries on alert.
One is Estonia, which like its Baltic neighbours has been edgy since Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed a war on the two former allies’ border. More integration between Belarus and Russia would lack “any popular mandate,” leading to more violence and instability, according to Estonia’s defense minister, Juri Luik.
“Any sizable movement of Russian troops to the region would increase the level of anxiety and of course NATO should take that into consideration,” Luik, 54, said in an interview.
Russia denies plans to open a military base in Belarus and says any soldiers there now for exercises will return home when they’re completed. But it said this week that it sent TU-160 bombers flying along its neighbor’s western border as part of drills.
Such activities are alarming some.
“Russia is strengthening and modernising its military capacity close to the Latvian border and Belarus is also involved in these activities,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in a statement. “Regular drills near our border, where aggressive scenarios against the Baltic states are played out, do not promote mutual trust and good neighbourly relations.”
In Lithuania, which like Latvia shares a border with Belarus, US troops are stationed for training through June 2021, though Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis says the training was pre-planned and is unrelated to what’s happening in the region.
Luik said exercises this month involving American personnel and artillery in Estonia and Lithuania “also have an important political dimension, indicating US support protecting Nato’s eastern flank.” The alliance’s backing for the region, which retains large Russian-speaking minorities, was beefed up in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.
The three Baltic nations that were once unwilling members of the Soviet Union worry about a more aggressive Kremlin push coming just as the US scales back its military footprint in Europe and President Donald Trump questions America’s defense commitments there.
The countries have been among the most obedient in terms of adhering to Nato spending rules — a bugbear for the US leader since he took power.
Estonia has met Nato’s spending commitment of 2% of gross domestic product since 2015.