Moscow (AFP) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday slammed NATO for ratcheting up its rhetoric and its “aggressive actions” close to Russia’s border, warning it was forcing Moscow to increase its military capacity.
“NATO is stepping up its aggressive rhetoric and its aggressive actions close to our borders,” Putin told lawmakers on the 75th anniversary of the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany.
“In these conditions, we are obliged to dedicate special attention to resolving tasks connected with heightening the defence capabilities of our country.”
Putin also accused the West of rejecting Russian overtures to help tackle the common foe of “international terrorism” — as it once ignored the Soviet Union’s warnings about Hitler — as it seeks to isolate Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
“Once again, as it was on the eve of World War II, (we) are not seeing a positive response,” Putin said.
Relations between Russia and the West have slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its alleged masterminding of a separatist uprising.
Russian aircraft have also increased tensions recently by launching a series of provocative intercepts of NATO, Swedish and other aircraft.
– Baltic fears –
Fears of Russian expansionism have sent a chill through NATO members such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and seen the US-led alliance bolster its presence in eastern Europe.
General Ben Hodges, the commander of US ground forces in Europe, warned in a news report Wednesday that NATO would currently be unable to protect the Baltics against a Russian attack.
“Russia could take over the Baltic states faster than we would be able to defend them,” Hodges was quoted as saying in a German-language article by news weekly Die Zeit.
NATO said last week that it would deploy four battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to counter a more assertive Russia, ahead of a landmark summit in Warsaw on July 8-9.
US President Barack Obama will attend the meeting in Poland as part of what will likely be his final presidential trip to Europe.
Obama has announced an increased US troop presence in eastern Europe, with continuous rotations of an additional armoured brigade beginning in early 2017.
Russia bitterly opposes NATO’s expansion into its Soviet-era satellites and last month said it would create three new divisions in its southwest region to meet what it described as a dangerous military build-up along its borders.
Thousands of NATO troops hit the ground in Poland earlier this month in a massive 10-day show of force as the alliance launched its biggest war games in eastern Europe since the Cold War.
But there has been some disagreement within the bloc, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticising NATO for having a bellicose policy towards Russia, describing it as “warmongering”.