Reported US plans to store heavy weaponry in eastern Europe would be the most aggressive Western act since the Cold War, a Russian defense ministry official said Monday.
Warehouses dotted across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and several other eastern European countries, are expected to be stocked up with heavy army equipment, according to a report in the New York Times over the weekend.
No final decision has yet been taken by the US, but one government official told Reuters that the Pentagon is planning to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 troops. A company's worth of equipment, enough for 150 soldiers, would be kept in each of the three Baltic nations, while enough equipment for a company or possibly a battalion, or about 750 soldiers, would also be located in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and possibly Hungary.
Russia was quick to react to the news. "If heavy US military equipment, including tanks, artillery batteries and other equipment really does turn up in countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics, that will be the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War," Russian defense ministry official General Yuri Yakubov was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying. "Russia will have no option but to build up its forces and resources on the Western strategic front."
"Our hands are completely free to organize retaliatory steps to strengthen our Western frontiers," Yakubov added, specifically mentioning the possibility of beefing up Russian forces in Belarus, and hurrying the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad.
Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak tweeted on Sunday that he and US Defense Secretary Ash Carter had been holding talks and negotiations about placing US heavy army equipment in Poland last month.
"Decisions are near," he wrote.
A former Moscow satellite, Poland believes that its security is threatened by Russia's hostile actions in neighboring Ukraine and is seeking permanent US and NATO presence on its territory and in the region as a deterrent.
Siemoniak also told the PAP news agency that if this equipment was placed in Poland, it will remain "for years and for decades."
"It is not a temporary reaction to crisis," he said.
NATO is holding military sea, land and air exercises in Poland, the Baltic states and Romania this month, in response to calls from these members for greater security reassurance.
Among the thousands of NATO troops is the "Spearhead Force," a new rapid reaction force agreed on at a NATO summit last year, and designed to deploy within 48 hours after an order is received. Last Tuesday the alliance launched the final part of NOBLE JUMP, a 10-day military exercise mostly in Poland that is meant to test the new force.
In May, VICE News followed the Lithuanian army during Operation Lightning Strike — a four-day wargames exercise. The drill marked the first nation-wide test of Lithuania's new 2,500-strong "Rapid Reaction Force," set up in the wake of the Ukraine crisis to deal with hybrid warfare threats, such as armed protests, and airfield and weapons stockpile seizures.
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In the bordering Baltic states, rhetoric has grown steadily more anxious as the estimation of the menace Russia poses escalates. "The threats to the Baltic region have increased. This has been discussed many times and I view positively (the fact) that talks lead to concrete decisions which, I think, will become a reality," Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius told Reuters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd