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Sweden re-militarises Baltic island of Gotland; NATO, Russia hold 'risk reduction' talks
by Staff Writers
Stockholm (AFP) Sept 14, 2016

NATO, Russia hold 'risk reduction' talks
Brussels (AFP) Sept 15, 2016 - NATO and Russia on Thursday held high-level talks on risk reduction and transparency to avoid any misunderstandings, after a series of close shaves, the US-led alliance said in a statement.

As NATO embarks on its biggest build-up since the end of the Cold War to counter a more assertive Russia following the annexation of Crimea, there have been a string of incidents in the Baltic and Black Sea involving ships and planes.

"As part of our continuing dialogue with Russia, the NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, met with the Ambassador of the Russian Federation, Alexander Grushko," the statement said.

"They discussed ways to increase transparency and risk reduction."

NATO leaders agreed at a summit in July in Warsaw to boost their presence in the Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia -- plus Poland to reassure the former Soviet era satellites rattled by Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

The NATO statement said Vershbow had told Grushko that the alliance was ready to continue the dialogue but there was no change otherwise in policy towards Russia.

"Our practical cooperation remains suspended following Russia's aggressive actions against Ukraine," it said.

"At the same time, we decided to keep channels of political dialogue open."

The statement added that NATO head Jens Stoltenberg "looks forward to discussing these issues and next steps with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in the near future."

Sweden's Baltic Sea island of Gotland is once again home to a permanent military presence, the military said Wednesday, amid speculation over the country's ability to defend itself against a more assertive Russia.

The Swedish government decided in March 2015 to remilitarise the country's biggest island, where the last barracks were decommissioned in 2005.

The move to make the troops permanent as of Wednesday came a year earlier than expected.

"The geopolitical situation has deteriorated over time and I've decided that we need a permanent presence, so we are advancing the schedule for the combat troops," Sweden's Supreme Commander Micael Byden told Swedish Television.

The Scandinavian country has deployed 150 infantry soldiers, with reinforcements expected in July next year.

In June 2015, US think tank Cepa published a report claiming Russia had held exercises with 33,000 troops aimed at practising an invasion of Gotland, among other sites.

The Swedish government has repeatedly downplayed the risk of a possible invasion, and experts interpreted the Russian exercises as a sign of increased posturing from Moscow.

But a June 2015 Swedish defence ministry proposal to parliament referred, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, to building up the country's defence "to prepare Sweden for war".

Stockholm has recently stepped up its military capabilities and exercises with NATO, and announced a major increase to its defence budget -- after drastic cuts implemented since the end of the Cold War.

"We don't see a risk of attack. This is an indication of Swedish sovereignty," Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told Swedish Television on Wednesday.

A non-NATO country, Sweden has a long tradition of military non-alliance in peacetime but takes part in NATO partnership programmes and exercises.

It also takes part in the EU's joint defence policy, and in June it signed a "statement of intent" on military cooperation with the United States.

Juncker calls for EU defence HQ
Strasbourg, France (AFP) Sept 14, 2016 - The European Union should set up a headquarters to coordinate efforts towards creating a common military force, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday.

"We don't have a permanent structure and without that, we are not able to work efficiently and so we must have a European HQ and... work towards a common military force," Juncker told the European Parliament in his annual State of the Union address.

The speech was dominated by Britain's shock June vote to quit the European Union, depriving it of a major, nuclear-armed NATO military power but one which had also been hostile to any suggestion the bloc should have its own army.

Juncker stressed that post-Brexit, the EU's remaining 27 member states had to stick together and that included taking on increased responsibility for their defence.

"We can no longer depend on the power of individual member states and together we have to make sure we protect our interests," he told MEPs.

Twenty-two of the EU's 28 member states are also members of the US-led NATO alliance, headquartered in Brussels, but Juncker insisted the bloc's military ambitions would not undercut this key relationship.

"This should be complementary with NATO -- more European defence does not mean less transatlantic solidarity," he said.

Juncker gave no further details although it is expected that any such EU military HQ would also be based in Brussels, home to all its major institutions.

As well as an increased military role, Juncker also said the EU will have to step up its diplomatic presence, suggesting the bloc should have a single foreign minister.

Current foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini was doing a "remarkable job" in promoting peace in Syria but backed up by the member states, she should now have a seat at the negotiating table, he said.

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