April 5, 2018

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid called for US Patriot missiles and troops to be deployed to her small Baltic state Wednesday, telling AFP it was necessary to make deterrence “believable” for Russia.

In an interview coinciding with her visit to the White House, the conservative leader said the deployment of American materiel and personnel would bolster existing NATO troop deployments — launched in response to Russia’s more bellicose posture.

“We want to be sure that both NATO’s territory and NATO soldiers are well protected,” she said.

“We need to make sure that there is the air defense and the air support for these forces, in case that is necessary. We need our deterrence to be believable.”

Kaljulaid said the proposed deployments had not come up on Tuesday in conversation with President Donald Trump — who is notoriously prickly about the use of US military assets abroad — but talks between the two governments were ongoing.

“We are past the stage in our relations that you come to Washington with an empty goody bag and then you go back with a bag filled with stuff,” she said.

“There is a permanent debate and discussion between the governments of the two countries,” she added, listing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence as key interlocutors.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has rekindled long-standing fears about aggression in the already nervous Baltic states.

With a combined population of just six million people, the three countries were occupied and annexed by Moscow during World War II.

The trio broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004.

– ‘Jittery nerves’ –

NATO has sent a battle group to Estonia — namely troops from the UK, France and Denmark — but Kaljulaid said that the deployment of American soldiers would bring another dimension.

“We’d rather see that bilaterally we could agree to have some boots on the ground on a permanent rotational basis,” she said.

“This is very useful to calm the jittery nerves. Some people might think that NATO takes a long time to act, but the US could be quicker. There is some rationale in this thinking.”

US troops are already taking part in NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” but are based in nearby Poland.

Kaljulaid’s comments came as Russia embarked on a live-fire drill in the Baltic Sea which has caused concern in Sweden and interfered with Latvian commercial aviation.

“This kind of activity indeed is quite unprecedented,” the president said.

“I think it’s part of the retaliation for the Salisbury reaction,” she added, linking the drill to the expulsion of more than 100 Russian officials from Western nations.

That action, which infuriated Moscow, was taken after the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a nerve agent in the small British city.

Kaljulaid suggested that Western countries had paid for mistakes in their dealings with Russia.

“We carry part of the responsibility for the current state of play,” she said. “That starts with 2008 in Georgia. Our reaction to the partial occupation of Georgia was weak and it was back to business as usual quite quickly.”

“That is part of the reason Crimea happened, Russia just misread what will happen, what will be reaction. We got our act together and stopped the avalanche.”

Now, Kaljulaid said, the West needs to show “strategic patience,” including sustaining economic sanctions on Russia and perhaps expanding upon them.

“There has been after Salisbury a lot of questions asked about whether something should be done to Russian money in different countries… but I think this might be something that is worthwhile.”

Putin, she said, “promised to turn his attention to the Russian economy, I hope he does.”

© 2018 AFP