Russia responds to U.S. missile plans for Poland

MOSCOW Thu Jan 21, 2010 7:24am EST

A member of Japan's Self-Defence Forces stands next to the Patriot Missile System at an exhibition during the Security and Safety Trade Expo in Tokyo October 17, 2007. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A member of Japan's Self-Defence Forces stands next to the Patriot Missile System at an exhibition during the Security and Safety Trade Expo in Tokyo October 17, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will strengthen its Baltic fleet in response to U.S. plans to deploy Patriot missiles in Poland, Russian state news agency RIA reported on Thursday, citing an unnamed senior navy official.

"The surface, underwater and aviation elements of the Baltic Fleet will be strengthened," RIA quoted the unidentified Russian navy official as saying.

The United States is dispatching the missiles to Poland after dropping an earlier plan to deploy interceptor missiles in the NATO nation as part of an anti-missile system in Europe.

"In connection with the plans to install the Patriots on Polish territory in the next 5 to 7 years, there may be significant changes in the approach to define the tasks and the military potential of the Baltic Fleet," RIA quoted the same source as saying.

A spokesman for the Russian navy declined to comment.

Warsaw said this week it would station the Patriot missile battery in the northern city of Morag, near Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

A high-ranking source in Poland's Foreign Ministry said Warsaw was not overly concerned about Russia's reported plan.

"Let's stay calm. Such strengthening, even if it becomes true, is no direct threat to Poland," the source told Reuters.

"The Russians have known about the Patriots for at least two years. So there is no reason to react to unofficial comments."

Based in Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost territory, and in Kronstadt near St Petersburg, Russia's Baltic Fleet includes surface ships, diesel-powered submarines, a military aviation wing, search and rescue vessels and land-based vessels.

The flagship is the destroyer Nastoychivy, which entered service in 1993.

Poland and the United States signed a deal in November that paves the way for the deployment of a U.S. Patriot missile battery on the U.S. ally's territory.

Poland, perturbed what it says is Russia's more assertive foreign policy, has long complained that it hosts no U.S. troops or major military installations despite sending troops to help in U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many Poles still view Russia, its communist-era overlord, as a potential security threat, especially after the August 2008 conflict in Georgia.

Moscow has expressed concern about what it calls U.S. military encroachment and threatened to respond to any change in the current military balance on its western borders with NATO nations.

President Dmitry Medvedev had previously warned Moscow would station Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Washington went ahead with its original anti-missile plan. U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to revise it pleased the Kremlin.

But the plan to install Patriot missiles has resurrected longstanding Russian suspicions about the motive for the strengthened NATO presence near its borders, said Alexei Fenenko of the Institute of International Security Studies in Moscow.

"Russia was very concerned about the anti-missile system being installed in Poland and the Czech Republic and didn't understand the need for it in these locations, if it was intended against Iran," he said.

"If it's not against Iran, then who is it against? The new missiles will be now be close to the territory of both Kaliningrad and Belarus" (a Russian military ally that borders Poland), he said.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman)

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