FILE PHOTO: Lithuanian Minister of Defence Karoblis attends a ceremony to welcome the German battalion being deployed to Lithuania in Rukla
By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuania wants the United States to bring more defence systems such as long-range Patriot and short-range Avenger missiles to the Baltics where some fear Russia is more powerful in the air.
The country has asked Washington to install the systems more regularly for exercises, arguing NATO needs to know the region well in case of conflict, Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told Reuters.
"Yes, of course (we are asking)", he told Reuters on Thursday. "We are talking not only about the Patriots but also other capabilities, such as short-range Avengers, and other systems to create a regional architecture of air defence, because we are not able to do that ourselves."
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, once ruled from Moscow but now part of NATO and the European Union, need Western help despite growing defence budgets due to their small economies.
Poland was equally alarmed by Moscow's seizure of Crimea in 2014 and is spending more than $5 billion on buying Patriot missiles from Raytheon Co after a deal in March.
Patriot missile defence interceptors are designed to detect, track and engage unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles and short-range or tactical ballistic missiles.
But the small Baltic countries cannot afford costly military jets or advanced air defences, making them reliant on the United States and NATO to fill the gap.
From Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, any aircraft or missiles could reach most of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
DEPLOYMENT "AT ANY TIME"
Karoblis did not expect NATO to increase defences in the Baltics immediately but he expects the alliance to show greater commitment at a NATO leaders summit in July to deterring any threat in the Baltics.
One difficulty is that other NATO members face defence gaps after years of better ties with Russia following the end of the Cold War that made such defences unnecessary.
"We would like to have the permanent deployment of ground missile systems and other capabilities, but we understand that a quite significant part of these capabilities were lost by NATO after the Cold War and it's difficult to rebuild them fast", he said. "We need to ensure that (air defences) could be deployed (in the Baltics) at any time necessary."
NATO began improving the region's defences after Russia's Crimea annexation, including putting four multinational battalions of about 1,000 troops to rotate in each Baltic state and Poland.
But the alliance has shied away from deploying permanent military capabilities, partly to avoid escalating tension with Russia. The Kremlin says NATO, not Moscow, is the risk to peace in Europe.
"The security situation (in the Baltics) is not improving," said Karoblis, sitting in his ministry next to a painting depicting a Lithuanian cavalry battle with Russian Bolsheviks, almost a hundred years ago.
"One of the places where (NATO) unity could be tested is the Baltic countries. This is, at least, a theoretic possibility".
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)