Russia defends right to deploy missiles after Kaliningrad rebuke

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday it had the right to put weapons anywhere it chose on its own territory, after reports that Moscow had deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad drew criticism from its neighbors and NATO.

FILE PHOTO - Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov arrives for the meeting with officials of Rostec high-technology state corporation at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

From Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, the missiles would be able to reach large swathes of territory in NATO-members Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The president of Lithuania, which neighbors Kaliningrad, and a senior Russian lawmaker, both said the missile systems had been deployed to the region. Russia has not confirmed the deployment.

Asked about reports of the deployment on a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The deployment of one weapon or another, the deployment of military units and so forth on Russian territory, is exclusively a sovereign issue for the Russian Federation.

“Russia has never threatened anyone and is not threatening anyone. Naturally, Russia has this sovereign right (to deploy weapons on its own territory). It should hardly be cause for anyone to worry.”

The Baltic states are already within range of longer-range Russian missiles. But reports of the Kaliningrad deployment so close to NATO territory are perceived by some alliance members as a threat at a time when tensions between Russia and its Western neighbors are running high over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.

“This again makes the situation even more serious because Iskanders in Kaliningrad means dangers for half of European capitals,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on Monday.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said the deployment added fresh impetus to discussions already underway inside NATO about improving the alliance’s capabilities.

“It means that what we have been talking about - the necessity to discuss strengthening air-defense elements during the NATO summit in July; strengthening the chain of command, to talk about many questions that affect defense of our region and Latvia specifically ... - it all has been confirmed by the practical actions of Russia,” the minister said.

The Kremlin has often said it would place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad as a riposte to a U.S. missile shield being developed in eastern Europe. Washington says that shield is designed to counter possible missile attacks by Iran, but Moscow says it is directed against Russia.

A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Any deployment close to our borders of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads does not help to lower tensions. In the spirit of transparency, we look forward to hearing more from Russia on this.

“It is important to determine the exact situation. NATO is alert, we understand the capability, but we also understand that the Russians have been moving equipment in and out of Kaliningrad for a long time.”

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in BRUSSELS, Gelzis Gederts in RIGA, David Mardiste in TALLINN and Eugenijus Kryzanovskis in VILNIUS; Editing by Janet Lawrence