EU diplomats warn US of Russian military threat
Poland and Lithuania have called for US troops to stay in eastern Europe and for US arms and communications technology to counter Russian aggression.
The EU and Nato states’ ambassadors to the US issued the request at a hearing with the Senate’s armed services committee in Washington on Tuesday (7 March).
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Piotr Wilczek, the Polish envoy, said that a US-led force that was recently sent to the region by Nato “should have a long-term character”.
“A long-term American commitment … is absolutely essential”, he said.
Lithuania’s Rolandas Krisciunas said there should be “US and Nato troops in the Baltic States on a permanent basis”.
He added that the US should restore its “military presence in Europe back to a pre-2009 level”.
Krisciunas asked the Senate to assist Lithuania in procurement of US anti-tank rockets and high-calibre artillery shells.
He also requested $1 million of military intelligence technology, social media analysis software, and more powerful radio transmitters to broadcast Western media into Russia.
Russia has said that any permanent new Nato bases near its borders would violate a Nato-Russia treaty.
The country has also said that Nato troops in the Baltic region posed a threat to its security.
But Poland’s Wilczek told senators that Russia had turned its Kaliningrad exclave into “the most militarised region in Europe”.
He said anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles there restricted Nato movements on Nato’s own territory in “an area spanning from north-eastern Poland to the Baltic states”.
Wilczek went on to say that Russian ballistic missiles, which were deployed in Kaliningrad last year, were capable of hitting targets in Europe as far afield as Germany.
Lithuania echoed Poland.
Krisciunas said Russia had 25,000 troops in Kaliningrad and that two Russian warships stationed there last year were “capable of blocking the entrance to the Baltic Sea”.
He also noted that Russian forces “regularly” held “offensive” military drills on Lithuania’s borders.
The Polish ambassador said “Russian aggression against Ukraine ended the period of a post-Cold War stability”.
Russia aimed to “restore [its] superpower status” and “military power [has become] the Kremlin’s chief tool for pursuing its policy objectives,” he added.
Poland and the Baltic states said Russia was already waging non-military warfare against Europe.
The Polish envoy said the Kremlin used gas exports as a “political weapon”.
“Countries cooperating with Russia benefit from large discounts on their energy bills. Those seeking integration with the West end up paying high prices or are threatened with being cut off from supplies,” he added.
He said if Russia and Germany built the Nord Stream II gas pipeline it would “hinder the [energy] diversification efforts of the whole region”.
The Lithuanian ambassador said Russian spies were trying to “aggressively” interfere in national politics and that Moscow was funding Russian-speaking groups in the Baltic states in order to “incite ethnic tensions”.
He remarked that Russian spies and hackers tried to steal information on Lithuanian MPs in last year’s elections.
He also said Russian state media was spreading toxic propaganda, such as a fake story that German soldiers in the Nato force in Lithuania had raped a local girl.
“Information attacks against Nato military personnel deployed in the region are highly likely to be repeated in the future,” Krisciunas said.
The Latvian ambassador to the US asked the Senate to help fund EU counter-propaganda projects, such as the British-led Creative Content Support Fund.
Estonia’s US envoy, Eerik Marmei, said it would be a mistake to think Russia’s actions were limited to eastern Europe.
“We, as neighbours to Russia, are just a bit more used to witnessing such behaviour,” he said.
He noted that the Kremlin was “increasingly reliant” on anti-EU and anti-Nato populist political parties all over Europe.
“Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany are a perfect theatre for the Russian disinformation warriors,” he said.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, also spoke on Tuesday.
He told the Senate that when Russian proxy forces fought the Ukrainian army in and around the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka in January a US-trained Ukrainian battalion “was one of the most effective in repelling the Russian-controlled attacks”.
He thanked the US for its “provision of defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
But he said Russia was still pouring weapons into eastern Ukraine, including heavy flamethrowers, radar jamming systems, and drones.
The EU and US “imposed sanctions must be not only preserved but enhanced” in order to prevent Russian escalation, he added.
The Senate hearing came amid concern in Europe that the Kremlin-friendly US president, Donald Trump, might reverse previous Russia policy.
It also came amid White House pledges to cut foreign aid.
Ukraine’s Klimkin, who met US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in Washington on Tuesday, said he received assurances of continued support.
Marco Rubio, a senator from Trump’s Republican Party, said on Twitter that Ukraine was "America’s good friend".
Another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, told the EU diplomats he had just had lunch with Trump and that he could "give [them] some hope in the region that America's back”.
"I think you're going to have a good ally in President Trump, in terms of having a rotational troop presence, that the Ukraine will be helped more, not less, and we will push back,” he said.