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Tuesday 21.11.2017 | Name days: Andis, Zeltīte

Putin grins to the world’s seven billionth baby, Lithuania wary of border incidents

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RULinas Jegelevičius for BNN

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit this Wednesday to Kaliningrad, the westernmost point of Russia, but the reports about his trip in the Russian enclave and over the border in Lithuania were strikingly different. The Russian media highlighted the Russian leader’s visit to a perinatal centre where Putin congratulated a new mother whose newborn son is thought to be the 7th billionth inhabitant of planet Earth. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian media wondered what Putin’s true intentions were in Kaliningrad.

Putin grins to baby and his mother

To the Russian commander-in-chief’s question how she succeeded in that, Elena Nikolajeva, the happy mother, snickered that not she, but her baby ought to be credited. On the occasion, Kaliningrad’s governor Anton Andreevich Alikhanov has promised 100, 000 roubles (1,430 euros) a washing machine for the family. Previously, Putin visited war veterans and discussed issues they deal with.

Importantly to Kaliningrad, the President has ordered to slash by 10 per cent the VAT for local air fares, which he did reacting to a complaint about too expensive air tickets.

The Kremlin media had informed before the trip that Putin’s main goal was to see how the reconstruction of the local Chrabrov airport was being carried out.

None of this has been mentioned in the Lithuanian media, however.

Lithuanian minister wary of incidents

Ahead of the trip to Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave, Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis expressed hope that there would be no incidents during the visit at the border.

«As in all cases, we hope that there minimal or no tensions,» Karoblis told the Žinių Radijas radio station on Wednesday morning.

«Russians most often do not follow their flight plans and there is also the issue of (onboard) transponders, but we hope that Russia has learned a lesson from earlier incidents and we expect — all the more so because the dates are known — that certain incidents will be avoided and that there will be more safety on both sides,» he added.

Reportedly, a NATO F-16 fighter jet from the Siauliai airbase in Lithuania in June had intercepted a plane carrying Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as it flew over the Baltic Sea en route to Kaliningrad, but was escorted away by a Russian Su-27 fighter jet.

Moscow said after the incident that the NATO fighter had «unprofessionally» approached Shoigu’s plane and risked being downed.

Already with Putin in the Russian enclave, Lithuanian commentators were in a guessing game what is the key message of the Putin Kaliningrad visit and pondered whether the topic of Lithuania will be, in one way or another, brought up during the trip.

Relation is undeniable

«Kaliningrad has always been of heightened attention by Russia and its president. Especially that some military drills are still going on in the region. Putin has the proclivity to pay visits to larger war games, like the ongoing exercise in Kaliningrad,» Arvydas Anušauskas, a Conservative Lithuanian MP, told BNN.

In his words, it’s hard to tell whether the drills have anything to do with the to-be Russia-orchestrated exercise Zapad in Belarus next month, but insisted that the relation, also implicit from the first sight, is undeniable.

«Putin portrays himself as a strong commander-in-chief and it would be weird if he did not think of the coming event in Belarus,» the parliamentarian noted.

The lawmaker suggested the topic of Lithuania may pop up, but refrained from reasoning in what context.

Asked about Zapad, Anušauskas contemplated it should not be out of ordinary, but cautioned that only their organisers could tell what scenarios had been envisioned.

«Today, we see some concrete numbers of the exercise participants, but the factual numbers and capacities (of the troops and the military) can be way bigger,» he underscored.

Zapad 2017 is a joint strategic exercise of the national defence forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, will tale during September 14-20, 2017. According to official data, 13,000 personnel will take part in the exercise at most. The military exercise aims to check Russia’s and Belarus’s capabilities of providing security of the Union State, its preparedness for repulsing acts of aggression and to advance command and control organizations’ actions compatibility and units’ training standards.

Lithuania has to be vigilant

Lauras Bielinis, the former advisor to ex-president Valdas Adamkus and, now, associate professor of political sciences at Vytautas Magnus University, told BNN he did not «doubt» that the ongoing exercise in Kaliningrad and the would-be war games in Belarus next month are related.

«By the visit to Kaliningrad Putin anew emphasizes Russia‘s key priority: its defence, the army’s readiness. By the visit he demonstrates to the Russian public and the world that Russia is ready to act if its interests are harmed,» Bielinis said. «Whatever other issues will be raised during the visit, they will be secondary. However, I doubt whether the Russian media will shed light on the defence-related meetings if it is not approved by the Kremlin».

The analyst pondered that the topic of Lithuania may surface during the trip if it is planned beforehand.

«Most likely, it can come from a Russian journalist, not the authorities, I reckon,» Bielinis said.

Asked about Zapad, he opined it should not be an «extraordinary exercise», but the Baltics have to be «wary.»

«Russia seeks to send one more time a message on its readiness to respond militarily if it believes it is necessary – Lithuania has to be stay watchful and vigilant,» the lecturer underlined.

Meanwhile, Vytautas Bruveris, a columnist in the daily Lietuvos Rytas, also is convinced that the military drills in Kaliningrad and the exercise in Belarus belong to the same chain.

«The Russian generals in Moscow definitely see the military bases in the Russian enclave and Belarus belonging to the same Russia-led front. As Kaliningrad is the most militarily enforced Russian land, Putin’s message is clear: do not mess up with Russia anywhere,» the analyst suggested.

He, however, believes Lithuania should not be worrying excessively about the drills.

«I don’t see any threat now neither to Lithuania nor the Baltics – as far as we are the NATO members and the alliance remains strong, we will be okay,» he opined.

Asked whether the name of Lithuania could be brought up in the meeting, Bruveris doubted: «Unless it is planned in advance, I don’t think it is likely to happen».

He, however, recalled the mentioning of the name of Lithuania by Putin from a couple years ago.

Putin: Lithuania’s depopulation ill-effects Russia

In late September, 2015, during a interview with United States’ TV channel, CBS, Putin claimed only 1,4 million people live in Lithuania. The figure was approximately half of the country’s actual population of 2.9 million.

«I have looked though the recent statistics, and today the population of this country is 1.4 million people,» said Putin. «Where are the people? More than half of the citizens have left the country.  «Can you imagine a situation when more than half of the Americans left the territory of the United States? It would be a catastrophe! What does it mean? It means that the broken ties, first of all, in the economy, adversely affect all of us, including Russia…So, I am deeply convinced that we should abandon the phobias of the past, look forward into the future and, while acting on the basis of international law, establish good-neighbourly and equal relations,» Putin said then.

The wrong figures on the size of Lithuania’s population were given to Putin by the-then Kaliningrad Region Governor, Nikolay Tsukanov, during a media-covered conversation earlier the year.

Lithuania invited to watch Zapad

Lithuania has already received an invitation from Moscow to observe Zapad.

«Lithuania, along with other nations in the region, has received invitations from Belarus and Russia to observe the Zapad 2017 exercise,» Asta Galdikaitė, the Lithuanian Defence Ministry’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday, August 16.

It is planned that the Lithuanian Armed Forces’ arms control inspectors will participate in the Zapad observation program on Belarus’ territory during September 16 and 20 and that Lithuania’s defence attaché to Russia will go to the Luga training area in the Leningrad region on September 19 to watch an episode of the exercise.

Lithuania’s military intelligence says that the Zapad scenario will very likely simulate an armed conflict with NATO and warns about possible incidents and provocations in the border area during the war games.

«The greatest risks apparently come from potential errors on the part of the opponents and, possibly, local provocations – this is primarily why we have to be vigilant,» Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis said this week.

«There may also be an intensification of information attacks aimed at discrediting our allied troops, discrediting the Lithuanian Armed Forces, showing the might of Russia and Belarus, and cyber-attacks are also possible,» he said.

According to the minister, currently there is no information to suggest that that exercise might be a prelude to an actual conflict.

Some observers warn that Russian may leave a part of its military personnel and equipment in Belarus once the Zapad drills are over.

Karoblis said that Lithuanians, along with other observers, would try to check if this might be true.

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