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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Stirs Nuclear Jitters in Baltics

U.S. claims that Russia has moved short-range nuclear weapons to its naval base in the Baltics have caused a stir, but the Russian military on Thursday insisted the reports are wrong, and Russian analysts said such a deployment would be senseless.

Senior officials in President Bill Clinton's administration confirmed Wednesday's report in The Washington Times that tactical nuclear weapons have been transferred to Kaliningrad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Over the last six months there has been some movement of tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad — we don't know how many, we don't know what type and we don't know why,'' one U.S. official said.

Such an action would be in conflict with Moscow's stated policy of keeping the Baltics free of nuclear weapons, though it would not appear to violate any legally binding arms control agreement, the U.S. officials said.

While Russia's motives are unclear, the placement of battlefield nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad could be a response to NATO's expansion and an attempt to compensate for the decline of Russia's conventional military might, the officials said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he could not comment on specifics, but expected the topic to be raised with Moscow.

"It's an issue that we want to take up, that we want to discuss with them," he said. "It's something that we follow carefully, and that's about as far as I go."

Under informal agreements reached in 1991-92 by President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from the former Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe and promised to place them in "central storage facilities."

The agreements, which never were turned into a treaty, did not specify the storage sites. But U.S. intelligence sources said Wednesday that Kaliningrad, the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, became a depot for tactical nuclear weapons removed by the Russian navy from its ships.

It was unclear whether the warheads that have been moved to Kaliningrad were sea-based or land-based weapons. Some U.S. defense officials speculated that they were for use on a new short-range missile known as the Toka, which was test-fired on April 18 in Kaliningrad and has a range of about 70 kilometers.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the reported weapons movement "does not conform with reality" and that Russia's tactical nuclear warheads are at their "permanent stationing sites and have not been transferred anywhere."

But the ministry's statement did not clarify whether Kaliningrad is considered a permanent stationing site.

Anatoly Lobsky, a spokesman for the commander of the Baltic Fleet, said, "The Baltic Sea is a nuclear-free zone, and Russia's Baltic Fleet scrupulously observes its international commitments." But that statement was also something less than a flat denial, because Russia may not consider Kaliningrad to be part of the nuclear-free zone.

Kaliningrad is an enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania and the navy base there provides Russia with access to the Baltic Sea.

Polish Defense Minister Bronislaw Komorowski on Thursday called for international inspectors to verify Moscow's claim that it had not deployed nuclear weapons.

"Poland needs to monitor the situation in Kaliningrad on a day-to-day basis and it is doing that," Komorowski said on Polish public television. "Verification will include pushing for international inspection, which is a usual thing."

The conservative Polish daily Zycie printed a front-page map on Thursday showing tactical nuclear weapons based in Kaliningrad would threaten northern Poland and southern Lithuania.

Officials from the Baltics gave a muted reaction, saying they were hoping to consult NATO diplomats on the issue.

"We are monitoring the situation closely. … If it is true it is very sad and we would have to make a statement,'' said Madis Mikko, spokesman for the Estonian Defense Ministry.

Some U.S. officials believe the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad would be a tactic for increasing pressure on NATO to withdraw all short-range missiles and other nuclear weapons from Europe. Russia has long argued for their removal, but NATO continues to maintain some nuclear bombs for aircraft based in Europe.

But Russian military analysts questioned the logic of such a deployment.

Yury Gladkevich, an analyst at the independent Military News Agency, said Moscow had nothing to gain politically from the deployment. Ditching nonbinding arms agreements from the early 1990s, which were intended to limit tactical nuclear weapons deployment in Europe, would only invite the ire of European countries and the United States.

He contended that the news reports were based on disinformation, an intelligence leak intended to influence policy for the incoming administration of George W. Bush or to demonstrate to America's European allies that Russia remained a threat.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst, said if the military did bring tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, for training or some other purpose, they would most likely be naval, like torpedo warheads.

"There's no need to bring air force or missile weapons to the enclave," he said, because their potential targets could just as easily be hit with missiles based on Russia's mainland.

U.S. experts gave widely varying interpretations of the Russian action. Bruce Blair, president of the nonprofit Center for Defense Information, said Russian generals had warned him two years ago that redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad would be "a likely response to NATO expansion."

William M. Arkin, a consultant on nuclear weapons to the Natural Resources Defense Council, portrayed the move as an attempt to offset Russia's deteriorating conventional military forces.

"What is it people expect, given the fact that Poland is now in NATO and the Baltic nations take part in military exercises with the United States?" he said.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia want to be the next new members. Russia has said it could not tolerate NATO so close to its border.

But some U.S. officials said speculation that the weapons movement came in response to NATO expansion was probably not accurate.

"If that were the case, they wouldn't have done it secretly, presumably they would have made a big public announcement, saying 'we're going to respond this way to NATO expansion,' " one official said. "But they didn't do it publicly, they did it secretly, so we don't know why they did this.''

Officials said NATO was briefed about the movement of the weapons over a period of months.

(AP, WP, Reuters)