VILNIUS May 10 U.S. Defense Secretary Jim
Mattis on Tuesday criticised what he called a destabilizing
Russian military build-up near Baltic states and officials
suggested the United States could deploy Patriot missiles in the
region for U.S. exercises in the summer.
U.S. allies are jittery ahead of war games by Russia and
Belarus in September that could involve up to 100,000 troops and
include nuclear weapons training -- the biggest such exercise
The drills could see Russian troops on the border with
Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Russia has also deployed Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad,
its enclave on the Baltic Sea. It said the deployment was part
of routine drills, but U.S. officials worry that it may
represent a permanent upgrade to Kaliningrad's missile
Asked during a trip to Lithuania about the Russian missile
deployment, Mattis told a news conference: "Any kind of buildup
like that is simply destabilizing."
The United States is ruling out any direct response to the
Russian drills or the potential missile deployment.
But at the same time, U.S. officials, speaking on condition
of anonymity, raised the possibility that a Patriot missile
battery could be deployed briefly to the Baltic region during
upcoming U.S.-led summer exercises that focus on air defence.
One of the officials said Patriots had not been previously
deployed to the Baltics, although they had been in Poland. The
officials stressed the Patriots, if deployed, would be withdrawn
when the drills were concluded. That would likely happen before
the Russian drills began, they said.
Mattis declined to comment directly on the possible Patriot
deployment when asked by reporters after talks in Vilnius.
"The specific systems that we bring are those that we
determine necessary," Mattis said, saying that NATO capabilities
in the region were purely defensive.
It was Mattis first trip to the Baltic states, who fear a
repeat of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean
Asked about any Patriot deployment, Lithuania's President
Dalia Grybauskaite, standing next to Mattis, said: "We need all
necessary means for defence and for deterrence, and that's what
we'll decide together."
The scale of this year's Russian Zapad exercises, which date
from Soviet times when they were first used to test new weapon
systems, is one of NATO's most pressing concerns. Diplomats say
the war games are no simple military drill.
Estonian Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna told Reuters last
month NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may
leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the Zapad 2017 exercises
are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway
traffic to Belarus.
Moscow denies any plans to threaten NATO and says it is the
U.S.-led alliance that is risking stability in eastern Europe.
The Kremlin has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad
(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by