TALLINN (Reuters) - Estonia expects to see more NATO troops on its territory in reaction to what it fears will be Russian attempts to destabilize the former Soviet republic, the country’s defense minister said on Tuesday.
Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - with their own Russian-speaking minorities - have been increasingly worried that Russia’s annexation of Crimea - partly on ethnic grounds - could herald destabilization in their own region by Moscow.
“I would like to see more boots on the ground and planes in the sky and I think we will see more,” Sven Mikser, Estonia’s new defense minister, said in an interview with Reuters.
“With the increase of a NATO deterrent footprint increasing in the Baltic region I expect a strong rhetorical response from Moscow. They might also show some increased activity,” the minister said.
Mikser’s statement comes after calls by Poland that NATO station significant numbers of troops in eastern Europe and ignore any Russian objections.
Russia says deployment of significant NATO forces in eastern Europe, close to Russia, would violate the 1997 Founding Act, a cooperation agreement between Moscow and the alliance.
NATO has said it would send more ships, planes and troops to eastern Europe to reassure allies, but it shied away from new permanent bases in the east. The alliance has decided to use Estonia’s Amari air base for four fighter jets and has established mine sweepers in the eastern Baltic sea.
Mikser said he expected to see more joint military exercises that emphasized NATO’s Article 5 - than any attack on one alliance member, was an act of aggression on all NATO members.
“There are discussions going on about the changes to the way we approach joint military exercises,” the minister said. “To the size and frequency and first of all to the scenarios.
“I think we will have more high end, Article 5-type scenario exercises. Like collective defense scenario exercises rather than just peace-keeping or crisis-response operations.”
Mikser warned of the speed the Russian leadership could make and implement its decisions, unlike the EU’s and NATO’s need for consensus building across different countries
“We have to be on the alert. One thing that the Ukrainian crisis has taught us collectively is that the Russian leadership can take decisions very quickly,” Mikser said.
“Then we have seen Russia can move some of its assets around pretty rapidly and they can amass forces to a geographical location pretty quickly as they have done across the Ukraine’s eastern border,” he added.
Estonia is one of the few NATO countries has maintained defense spending at the alliance’s target of two percent of GDP and it still has military conscription.
Around 25 percent of Estonia’s 1.3 million people population are ethnic Russians and the population of Estonia’s third largest town, Narva on the border with the Russian Federation are more 90 percent Estonian Russians.
“We see attempts to stir up tensions. It has been going on,” Mikser said, without giving details.
“We have predominately Russian-speaking regions and we see some provocateurs operating, but I think that vast majority of Russian speaking Estonians are very happy to be living in Estonia, in the European Union.
Editing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt