Russia has upped the ante in the ongoing spat with the U.S. over plans to base an American missile system in Europe.
In a move that will have direct ramifications for the Baltic region, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov threatened to deploy warheads in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania.
Citing concerns that U.S. Missiles would pose a direct threat to Russia despite assurances from Washington that they would be purely defensive, Ivanov gave a clear indication that his country would be prepared to embark on a new arms race: "If our proposals are not accepted an asymmetrical and effective response has been found," he said July 4.
As First Deputy Prime Minister, Ivanov has overall responsibility for Russia's defense. A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, it is unthinkable that his comments did not have the direct approval of the Kremlin. Indeed Ivanov is thought to be among the front runners in the race to succeed Putin, if and when he eventually relinquishes direct power.
It may also be no coincidence that the Russian threat to boost its military presence in the Baltic came on the same day that Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus signed a bill confirming construction of a new pan-Baltic nuclear power plant on his country's territory. Lithuania has been joined by Latvia, Estonia and Poland in the project but rejected Russian demands that it should be allowed to tender for the job of building the plant.
Combined with the sabre-rattling of the Kaliningrad threat, Ivanov offered a possible solution, inviting the U.S. to partner Russia in using facilities in southern Russia and Azerbaijan.
"After this, you will forget about the term 'Cold War'. It will simply disappear," he proffered.
U.S. President George W. Bush has described similar proposals in the past as "innovative" but has yet to put the brakes on plans for bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Justinas Karosas was among the first to comment on the threat to station missiles just over the border.
"There is no other option but to comment on such things in the negative. We favor demilitarization of the Kaliningrad enclave," Karosas told reporters on Wednesday.
"This is a militaristic gesture on Russia's part," he continued, "It is not to be tolerated as Russia does not act in line with the established principles of peaceful coexistence."
In a July 5 radio interview, Lithuanian prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas declared his intention to make an official protest to Russia over the matter.
Moves such as Ivanov's are only the latest in a long line of provocations to cause jitters throughout the Baltic region. Russian troops have been carrying out extensive war games around the town of Pskov which reportedly included rehearsals of a Baltic invasion and populist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently endorsed the forcible re-occupation of the Baltic states.