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Archive for the ‘Land of the Baltic States’ Category

Party catering to Russian minority comes 1st in Latvian vote

October 07, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — An opposition party catering to the Latvia’s large ethnic Russian minority is poised to win the Baltic nation’s parliamentary election but it’s expected to face difficulties in forming a coalition government.

Voters in Latvia, which is a member of the European Union and NATO, chose Saturday from more than 1,400 candidates and 16 parties to fill the country’s 100-seat parliament. With over 95 percent of votes counted, preliminary results Sunday from Latvia’s electoral committee showed the left-wing Harmony party was leading with 20 percent support.

The populist KPV party and the anti-corruption New Conservative Party were in second and third place with 14.1 percent and 13.6 percent of the votes respectively. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis’ centrist Union of Greens and Farmers was in the sixth place with 10 percent support.


Israeli PM wants Baltics to help change view of Israel

August 24, 2018

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting Friday with three Baltic prime ministers in his quest to counterbalance European criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories and to increase pressure on Iran.

Netanyahu will hold talks with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Estonia’s Juri Ratas and Maris Kucinskis of Latvia. He started the day by meeting Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. A day earlier, he said that Israel was “often mistreated by the EU,” adding there were “many distortions.” Netanyahu, however, welcomed the decision by major international airlines to end their direct flights to Iran’s capital, Tehran, in September after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and began restoring U.S. sanctions.

Skvernelis said in an interview with the Baltic News Service that after a meeting Thursday with Netanyahu, “I believe Lithuania really has a better understanding of Israel and that understanding could be spread among other EU countries. ”

“We need to better listen, hear them out and understand their position. We definitely lack a direct dialogue,” he said. “But we have to admit that today Israel is not only waging war and defending its independence, the lives of its people, but is also fighting in a wider context, if we speak about terrorism and potential expansion of IS fighters to Europe,” Skvernelis said.

Netanyahu arrived Thursday in Vilnius is on a four-day visit, the first to Lithuania by an Israeli prime minister.

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

US ambassador to Estonia resigns over Trump comments

June 30, 2018

HELSINKI (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Estonia has resigned over frustrations with President Donald Trump’s comments about the European Union and his treatment of Washington’s European allies. In a private Facebook message posted Friday, James D. Melville wrote: “For the President to say EU was ‘set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,’ or that ‘NATO is as bad as NAFTA’ is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it’s time to go.”

Melville was referring to Trump’s recent comments at news conferences and on social media. Melville stressed that a U.S. foreign service officer’s “DNA is programmed to support policy and we’re schooled right from the start, that if there ever comes a point where one can no longer do so, particularly if one is in a position of leadership, the honorable course is to resign.”

Melville is a senior U.S. career diplomat who has served as the American ambassador in the Baltic nation and NATO member of Estonia since 2015. He has served at U.S. Embassies in Berlin, London and Moscow, among other postings.

“Having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me,” he wrote, referring to a career with the State Department that started in the mid-1980s.

The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn confirmed to The Associated Press on Saturday that Melville “announced his intent to retire from the Foreign Service effective July 29 after 33 years of public service.” It did not elaborate.

Foreign Policy magazine said Melville is one of the many senior U.S. diplomats who have resigned because of Trump’s policies.

Lockheed Martin delivers first of 3 radars to Latvian military

by Sam Howard

Washington (UPI)

Mar 11, 2018

Lockheed Martin has delivered the first of three radars to Latvia, the company said Monday, calling it “a major step forward in strengthening [the country’s] national defense.”

The TPS-77 Multi-Role Radar, purchased for an undisclosed cost in a 2015 contract, recently completed an on-site acceptance test and will increase the Latvian air force’s capacity for low-level flight surveillance and identification, Lockheed Martin said. The company said it has worked with the NATO country on its radar systems for the last 16 years.

The radar, which can be easily transported and mounted on a truck, can toggle between multiple missions at once by automatically adjusting during each 360-degree scan.

Lockheed Martin added that the TPS-77 MRR uses less power than its predecessors, increasing its lifespan and reliability while decreasing fuel costs.

“Acquisition of the TPS-77 MRR is a huge investment in the strengthening of combat capabilities of the National Armed Forces, enabling the Latvian army to address current security challenges with appropriate response tools. Surveillance, especially low-level flight surveillance and identification is a vital part of Latvian airspace surveillance capabilities,” Latvia’s Minister for Defense Raimonds Bergmanis said in a statement. “New MRR technology is compatible with other types of radars used by other countries.”

Lockheed Martin has previously delivered three older-generation TPS-77 radars that remain operational in Latvia today, the company said.

Source: Space Daily.


Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

By Anne Kauranen

Narva, Estonia (AFP)

Jan 18, 2017

A machine guns rattles as pale and exhausted teams of Estonian weekend warriors struggle to climb a final obstacle: the wall of Narva Castle facing their country’s powerful neighbor Russia.

The bullets fired on the snowy banks of the Narva river separating Estonia from Russia are blanks, but the steely determination of volunteers participating in Utria Assault, the NATO member’s biggest annual military competition, is palpable.

Ruth Maadla, a waitress who spends her weekends as a paramilitary volunteer, told AFP she would give her all to help defend the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people “if anything ever happened”.

Sporting white winter camouflage gear, a headlamp and a huge backpack, the 29-year-old who has just finished a brutal 90-kilometer (56-mile) marching race in bone-chilling subzero temperatures is in high-spirits, despite being caked in mud and nursing painful blisters on her heels.

Like other east Europeans, Estonians were deeply disturbed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

US President-elect Donald Trump then raised more concerns with his campaign threat to think twice about defending NATO’s eastern allies.

These factors coupled with Kremlin sabre rattling in the Baltic region — especially in its heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave — have triggered a paramilitary revival in eastern European states that were under Moscow’s thumb during the Soviet era.

Part of the USSR until 1991, Estonia has seen its Kaitseliit volunteer paramilitary force expand by 10 percent over the last two years.

– ‘Citizens with strong will’ –

With 16,000 members — up to 25,600 including units for women and children — the organisation is seen as a crucial extension of the EU member’s modest military force comprising 6,500 peacetime personnel, half of them conscripts.

While some paramilitary volunteers play war games to hone skills like shooting or orienteering, others prefer more peaceful duty like wielding knitting needles to make socks for war victims in eastern Ukraine.

The Kaitseliit force has even attracted some volunteers who are ethnic Russian, part of Estonia’s largest minority accounting for about a quarter of its population.

Kaitseliit commander, Brigadier General Meelis Kiili, describes the force he leads as “a very important element in deterrence” when facing Russia.

The role of “ordinary citizens with a strong will to defend” must not be underestimated, Kiili told AFP, as he congratulated a troupe of volunteers exhausted after the two sleepless nights they spent marching through snowy forests in the race.

Many are former military conscripts, but more and more ordinary Estonians and women, like Maadla or Sille Laks, are joining.

A 30-year-old cyber security expert from Tallinn, Laks told AFP that she has spent around 400 hours in Kaitseliit basic training over three months.

“It’s about doing something for my country,” said the athletic public servant as she braved the freezing cold before dawn to supervise one of the checkpoints in the competition.

While NATO’s collective defense clause is the bottom-line guarantee of Estonia’s security, analysts acknowledge that paramilitaries do have a role to play.

“In the worst case scenario, Russia could advance very swiftly to take all of Estonia, but with its own resistance, Estonia could buy more time” for help to arrive, said Kristi Raik, a senior Baltic security researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, stressing that any such attack was unlikely at the moment.

– Under NATO’s wing –

Moscow upped the ante in the Baltic region late last year by deploying nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost bordering NATO member Lithuania and Poland and sending two ships capable of launching warheads to the Baltic Sea.

The move came on the heels of NATO’s decision to deploy four multinational battalions to eastern Europe, including a 1,100-strong rotational unit that will be stationed as of April at the Tapa military base, an hour’s drive from the Estonian capital Tallinn.

Over the next few months, the United States will also deploy part of a 3,500-troop armored brigade to Estonia and Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania.

They have all eyed Trump’s pro-Moscow rhetoric with mounting unease.

Ordered by the outgoing Obama administration to reinforce NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank, the US brigade arrived in Poland last week as part of one of the largest deployment of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Moscow angrily branded a security threat.

While the advent of a Trump presidency adds an element of uncertainty to future US commitment to defend vulnerable eastern European allies, Estonia’s paramilitary chief remains confident about NATO’s resolve.

“It’s not only Trump we are talking about, NATO has 28 members,” Kiili told AFP.

Source: Space War.


McCain calls for permanent US troops in Baltics

Vilnius (AFP)

Dec 29, 2016

Republican Senator John McCain on Thursday called for US troops to be permanently stationed in the Baltic states as a deterrent against Russia amid regional concerns over President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-Moscow rhetoric.

“I think that permanency is important, that there will always be some American troops here,” McCain told reporters in Lithuania, an EU and NATO member bordering Russia’s highly militarized Kaliningrad exclave.

“Maintaining that presence is necessary to make sure that our friends here understand the United States is always with them,” he added, wrapping up a three-day tour of the Baltics with fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

Mentioning Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, McCain expressed concern over his “relationship with (Russian president) Vladimir Putin” but said he will be given an “opportunity to make his case about why he is qualified”.

McCain and Graham also called for increased sanctions against Russia over its cyber-meddling in the US election.

“I think the sanctions need to go beyond what it is today, they need to name Putin as an individual and his inner circle because nothing happens in Russia without his knowledge and approval,” Graham said.

The US deployed around 150 troops in each of the Baltic states and Poland in 2014 after tensions in the region flared over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The outgoing administration also pledged to deploy an additional armored brigade in eastern Europe from early next year on a rotational basis.

Linas Kojala, who heads the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center, said the senators’ visit was reassuring after Trump’s “worrisome” comments.

“For the Baltics, NATO and the presence of American soldiers in the region are key factors which distinguish us from war-torn Ukraine,” he told AFP…

Source: Space War.


Lithuanian civilians fearing Russian attack train for worst

December 01, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Rasa Miskinyte spent the day in a freezing forest near Lithuania’s capital learning to gather water from a pond with a condom, to filter it through sand, charcoal and cloth, and to make her own stove from a beer can. She thought some basic survival skills would be helpful if Russian troops ever entered Vilnius and her family escaped into the woods.

“Russia is a very dangerous kind of neighbor,” said Miskinyte, a 53-year-old film producer. “They are always aiming at us.” Across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, fears are intensifying that Moscow, after displaying its military might in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria, could have the Baltic states in its sights next. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned he wouldn’t hesitate to defend Russians wherever they live — words that feel like threats since significant numbers of ethnic Russians live in the Baltics.

Whether the danger is real or just bluster remains to be seen. But in Lithuania, a country that experienced a Russian occupation before, some people aren’t waiting to find out. Young Lithuanian civilians are learning counterinsurgency tactics on weekends. Others, like Miskinyte, have taken steps to protect themselves. The government, in response to pleas from a fearful public, has issued a preparation manual.

Rimvydas Matuzonis directs a project that teaches weekend guerrilla warfare courses. He explained the resolve to be ready by citing a popular saying in the forests of Dzukija, the southern region where his father grew up.

“Spring will come, the cuckoo will sing and we will pave our roads with the corpses of Russian soldiers,” Matuzonis said. To be sure, some in the Baltic states feel confident their NATO membership would protect them from a Russian invasion. Others describe a dull anxiety that flares up only sometimes. But there are some who are truly afraid and already preparing for the worst.

When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Miskinyte packed a bag with bread, salt and some essential items and planned to flee to a village where she has a house. She has urged relatives to join her there, if her fears are confirmed.

“In the village you always survive,” Miskinyte said. “There is land, there are vegetables. There is everything there.” Exacerbating the dread lately is Moscow’s move to build up troops and nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian region wedged between NATO members Lithuania and Poland.

Poland is creating a so-called Territorial Defense Force to train thousands of volunteers in cyber-warfare and other low-intensity forms of combat seen in Ukraine. Some of the new volunteers will be assigned to protect Polish territory near Kaliningrad.

But the foreboding is no doubt greater in the ex-Soviet republics, whose decision to regain independence when the Soviet empire collapsed humiliated the Kremlin. In response to calls for guidance from citizens fearing war, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry issued a manual that includes information on survival skills and recognizing Russian weaponry.

The best way to prevent war is to “demonstrate to the aggressor that we are ready to fight for our freedom, for every centimeter of our land,” Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said. “The capabilities, the readiness — this is the only way to stop Russian aggression in the region,” Olekas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lithuania re-established a conscript army last year, but so many citizens have volunteered for military duty that a draft hasn’t been necessary. Many civilians in the hugely patriotic nation of 3 million people remain eager to do their part.

Last weekend, in an area of pine woods and fields outside Vilnius, a group of young men donned military fatigues, loaded pellets into replica assault rifles and practiced counterinsurgency tactics. Using armored vehicles and other retired military equipment, they stormed a pretend enemy position amid explosions and thick smoke. Target practice with real weapons followed.

Many of the men said military exercises have been a hobby for years, a way to release stress after a week in the office. But their instructors from Defense Project, a warfare training group, make clear the drills carry a new urgency given Russia’s assertiveness.

“We have a border not only with Russia, but also with Belarus, and we should be aware that the little green men might appear from other borders or even from within,” said Zilvinas Pastarnokas, a 45-year-old retired soldier who helped found Defense Project.

Fears of stewing Russian aggression have raised questions about the loyalties of the ethnic Russians who live in Lithuania and make up about 6 percent of the population. Many settled there when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union and remained.

Lithuanian officials insist they are not under any suspicion. Yet many Lithuanians worry if war ever came, ethnic Russians would side with Moscow. “The Russians will absolutely be on Putin’s side,” said Miskinyte, the film producer who took the survival course.

For their part, Lithuania’s ethnic Russians decry what they call the “anti-Russian propaganda” of Lithuanian officials, and many hold pro-Kremlin views. “Everything in the Lithuanian press is represented from the one side — that the Russians are the bad guys, that the Russians are coming, that Putin is always bad,” complained Roman Nutsubidze, 30,

Nutsubidze, expressed frustration that the West doesn’t see Putin as a good leader who has restored national pride. He said he loves Lithuania, but thinks Putin has no reason to want to seize the Baltic states.

“I don’t see what he has done bad,” Nutsubidze said. “I don’t actually see it.”

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