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NATO strengthens Baltic defense as region eyes Russia warily

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Francois Lenoir/ Reuters

(Read caption) Lithuania's Defence Minister Juozas Olekas, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and German Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen attend a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2016. NATO will send four multinational battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, it announced Monday.

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In response to requests for additional defensive measures against Russia, NATO announced Monday it would send four multinational battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where tensions have been high since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.   

The four battalions, which would include up to 1,000 troops each, are part of NATO's largest military buildup since the end of the cold war, Reuters reported.

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"This will send a clear signal that NATO stands ready to defend any ally," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the Associated Press. 

Douglas Lute, the US envoy to NATO, said the plan would be finalized at the July NATO summit in Warsaw.   

The four countries have long requested additional troops, in response to Russia's increased military presence in Crimea on the strategically important Black Sea. 

"Poland has stepped into NATO, but NATO has failed to step into our territory," Polish President Andrzej Duda said before the commitment, according to the AP. 

Some allies say the increased force still needs to be enlarged to be effective. NATO members Bulgaria and Romania are pushing for NATO to increase the number of alliance troops in the region and to expand its naval presence in the Black Sea, where Russia has a naval fleet, Reuters reported.    

Russia's envoy to NATO has said the increased military presence in countries near Russia are a threat to peace in Europe. Moscow also says a US ballistic missile shield, which the US says is meant to protect NATO countries from Iran, is to blame for the increased tensions, as Reuters reported.

The US announced in February it would be spending $3.4 billion on a European Reassurance Initiative, CNN reported. The initiative aims to prevent Russian aggression on NATO allies and features the pre-positioning of equipment in Poland, the Baltic States, and Central Europe. NATO's 40,000 troop response force will also be tripled under the plan, according to CNN.    

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Russian President Vladamir Putin said the annexation of Crimea and Russia's support of secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine protect Russians who found themselves living in a foreign country after the Soviet Union's 1991 breakup, the Los Angeles Times reported. Russia annexed Crimea after Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fled amid massive protests as he tried to prevent efforts to shift the country's alliance from Russia to NATO.  

In Latvia, 26 percent of the country is ethnic Russian and 38 percent speak Russian as their main language, according to the L.A. Times. Both Latvia and Estonia have much larger proportions of Russians and Russian speakers than Ukraine, where 17 percent of the population is ethnic Russian and 24 percent is Russian-speaking.

Latvia's state secretary for foreign affairs, Andrejs Pildegovics, told the paper that Mr. Putin needs to be taken "very seriously."

"He's one of the longest-serving leaders in the world," he said. "He could be in office until 2024, and he's very outspoken about his ultimate goals: the restoration of the Great Russian state." 

Putin has said NATO is plotting his downfall and is hostile toward Russia, a claim Mr. Lute, the US envoy to NATO, contested.   

"You don't invade with a few battalions," Lute told Reuters. "But you can deter, and you can affect a potential aggressor's calculus in terms of cost, benefit and risks."


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