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German troops bulk up NATO-led force in Lithuania
by Staff Writers
Rukla, Lithuania (AFP) Feb 7, 2017

Moldova president warns NATO over closer ties
Brussels (AFP) Feb 7, 2017 - Moldova's pro-Russian President Igor Dodon on Tuesday warned NATO that the closer ties it seeks with his strategically placed country could undermine its neutrality and threaten its security.

Dodon, who went to Moscow on his first foreign visit after the election late last year, has repeatedly said he wants to restore political and economic relations with Moldova's Soviet-era master, reversing the closer NATO and European Union links championed by his predecessors.

Speaking after talks with NATO deputy head Rose Gottermoeller, he insisted that a planned alliance liaison office in the capital Chisinau would be of no benefit to the majority of Moldovans.

"For me, the opening of such an office is not helpful for the security of the people; it is a provocation set up by the previous government," he told reporters standing alongside Gottermoeller at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Gottermoeller stressed that the liaison office was similar to those set up in other countries, such as Russia or Ukraine, and was staffed only by civilian, not military personnel.

"It will increase transparency about what NATO does with Moldova," she said, describing the talks with Dodon as "intensive positive discussions."

The US-led alliance fully understood Moldova's desire for neutrality and respected all nations' right to decide their own security arrangements, she said.

"Moldova does not want to join NATO," she noted, but added that neutrality did not mean isolation and the two parties had worked together in the past and she hoped would do so in the future.

Tiny Moldova is wedged between Ukraine and Romania and has an East-West cultural and linguistic split, similar to Ukraine's.

A brief civil war in the 1990s ended with the Russian-speaking Transdniestr region breaking away and declaring independence, backed by Moscow, which now stations troops there.

Asked about the continued presence of Russian soldiers, Dodon said that issue would be resolved at the same time as the conflict in Transdniestr.

Several hundred German soldiers arrived in Lithuania on Tuesday as part of the multinational NATO battalion being deployed in the country, part of the alliance's effort to beef up its eastern flank.

The battalion is one of four NATO is providing on a rotational basis to Lithuania and three other countries in light of a newly aggressive Russia.

The German troops will head up a force including Belgian, Dutch and French soldiers, among other nations, that will reach full strength of some 1,200 members this spring.

The unprecedented allied presence in Lithuania "significantly strengthens NATO's deterrence posture" during "an ongoing military buildup around our borders and aggressive actions in our region", Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite said at the Rukla military base, northwest of Vilnius.

Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, also at the base to welcome the troops, said "It sends a clear and important message to all: NATO stands strong and united".

Three similar NATO units, led by the US, Canada and Britain, will be deployed this year in Poland Latvia and Estonia.

The countries requested the troops after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The Kremlin has denied any territorial ambitions and claims that NATO is trying to encircle Russia.

But Moscow's deployment last year of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its heavily militarised Kaliningrad exclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland, and frequent Russian military drills in the region have rattled nearby NATO states.

Lithuania has said it will build a fence on the border with Kaliningrad to counter smuggling and hybrid warfare threats, in particular the entry of unmarked Russian military personnel into NATO territory.

Grybauskaite on Tuesday called Kaliningrad's "aggressive militarisation" and Moscow's military drills "key threats".

Kestutis Girnius, who teaches at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius, told AFP that by "placing their own soldiers in the line of fire, NATO countries have given tangible proof of their commitment to Lithuania's security".

In recent years, Lithuania has purchased about half a billion euros' worth of German-made armoured vehicles, artillery and military trucks.

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