March 2, 2017 / 1:43 PM / 6 months ago

Germany says to keep soldiers in Baltics as long as needed

RUKLA, Lithuania/AMARI, Estonia, March 2 (Reuters) - German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Thursday criticised Russia's military build-up on its borders with the Baltic states as irrational and said Germany would keep troops in the region for as long as needed.

Gabriel visited about 400 German soldiers stationed in Rukla, Lithuania, as part of a German-led battle group of 1,000 troops that will be joined this year by a U.S.-led forces in Poland, British-led soldiers in Estonia and Canadian-led troops in Latvia.

NATO is expanding its presence in the region to levels unprecedented since the Cold War, prompted by Russia's annexation of Crimea and accusations - denied by Moscow - that it is supporting a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The NATO presence will swell further for a series of exercises this summer, but is dwarfed by the Russian military build-up, U.S. officials say.

"The military potential that the Russian Federation has built up here at the border is completely irrational in my view because there is zero threat emanating from these countries," Gabriel told reporters.

Gabriel gave no further details, but said the German troops would remain at the Lithuanian base "as long as needed".

Russia has said it has noticed German soldiers deploying along its borders for the first time since World War Two and said it views the deployment of NATO troops and military hardware to the Baltic states as a threat.

Moscow has described its own military deployments as being either defensive and a direct response to NATO, or as part of a sweeping programme to modernise its armed forces.

"SOLID PROTECTION"

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who visited the Lithuanian base last month after the German troops arrived, told reporters at an air base in Amari, Estonia, that Germany was committed to ensuring the safety of the region.

German air force units have been stationed in Estonia to provide air defence since 2005 but their presence was increased in 2014 for air policing operations.

"Estonia, and our friends from Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, can rely on us," von der Leyen said. "We Germans know what it means to be at the eastern border and to have the solid protection of the alliance."

Von der Leyen and Gabriel both addressed concerns about increasing Russian disinformation campaigns after a fake report surfaced about a Lithuanian being raped by German troops that NATO said was traced to Russia.

"No one expects a real military confrontation to happen here, but what there is, and what has been reported in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, are attempts at massive disinformation and influence campaigns," Gabriel said.

Von der Leyen said Germany and Europe were seeing clear signs of "efforts to destabilise" similar to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election reported by U.S. intelligence services.

"That is why it is so important that we investigate these cases, put them on the table and make them public so we can recognise the patterns," she said.

Russia has categorically denied it ran an influence campaign designed to sway the U.S. presidential election and has dismissed as absurd allegations it intends to meddle in European elections this year.

Such allegations are motivated by a desire to whip up anti-Russian sentiment and are being used by Western politicians to distract voters from pressing domestic problems, says Moscow.

Reporting by Sabine Siebold in Rukla and David Mardiste in Amari; Writing by Andrea Shalal; editin by Janet Lawrence and Richard Lough

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