Ex-Soviet countries fearing spillover from the Ukraine crisis have asked NATO for land forces and other backup, potentially moving the region one step closer to a new Cold War.
The drama has already led the Western military alliance to step up defense measures in eastern and central Europe, but the region’s leaders are seeking more.
The calls from Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — which all border Russia and have sizeable ethnic Russian populations — and Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Romania, come as the US accuses Russia of wanting to “create chaos” to have a pretext for more military intervention.
“We hope NATO’s increased presence in the Baltic region is not just temporary and limited to reinforced air patrols,” Estonian Minister of Defense Sven Mikser said on state radio this week.
Mikser, who is to meet with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels tomorrow, added that talks are ongoing “about having NATO rotating land units in our region.”
Lithuanian Minister of Defense Juozas Olekas said on Friday he was also in talks with the alliance on beefed-up security, with some decisions already made and others to be taken next week.
“The presence of NATO member forces in Lithuania may take various forms — from instructors to permanently deployed land, naval, special operation or air forces,” he said.
NATO has already enhanced air policing over the Baltic states, deployed AWACS reconnaissance planes over Poland and Romania, and overseen an increased naval presence in the Black Sea.
Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the right-wing opposition, says he believes installing US military bases in his country would be the only way to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “expansionist ambitions.”
Meanwhile, Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen yesterday seized a police station and a security building in Ukraine’s restive eastern industrial heartland amid spreading protests to press for the heavily Russified region to join Kremlin rule.
Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border after annexing its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and nearly doubled the rates it charges Kiev for gas.
Russia is now ready to demand prepayment from the cash-strapped government for future gas deliveries or halt supplies — a cutoff that would impact at least 18 EU countries and add further urgency to the standoff.
The morning police station raid and a subsequent attack of the regional security service center happened in Slavyansk — a riverside town about 60km north of Donetsk.
The Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior said the first assault was led by 20 “armed men in camouflage fatigues” whose main purpose was to seize 20 machine guns and 400 Makarov guns stored in the police headquarters “and to distribute them to protesters.”
“Our response will be very severe,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook. “There is zero tolerance for armed terrorists.”