VILNIUS - Western media claim they have reliable information that Russia is considering arming its Baltic fleet with nuclear warheads for the first time since the Cold War.
The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the move if true, saying they have no rational basis. Russia is justifying the recent actions as a response to the U.S. missile defense system that is supposed to defend against missile strikes from rogue states like Iran.
The Sunday Times in England wrote that under the Russian plans, nuclear warheads could be supplied to submarines, cruisers and fighter-bombers of the Baltic fleet based in Kaliningrad.
Russia has informed Poland that hosting U.S. missile defense elements in its territory could lead to a threat of nuclear attack.
A senior military source in Moscow said the fleet had suffered from underfunding since the collapse of communism. "That will change now," said the unnamed source. "In view of America's determination to set up a missile defense shield in Europe, the military is reviewing all its plans to give Washington an adequate response."
The proposal to bring back nuclear warheads was condemned by Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, who said he knew of the threat.
The Lithuanian foreign ministry is demanding action against Russia. "It is entirely unacceptable that Russia is threatening to arm the Baltic Sea fleet with nuclear weapons and aim them at Poland and the Czech Republic, as a response to the willingness of these countries to join the U.S. missile defense system," it said in a press release.
"This could be viewed as Russia's harsh pressure against sovereign neighboring states, which it would still prefer to consider its zone of influence. The repeated statement reflects the Moscow policy of the past years, the culmination of which is now observed in Georgia. Therefore, Lithuania sees such statements as serious and believes they should not go unanswered," the press release added.
Experts in the United States believe that punishing Russia will be hard. Asked whether such steps would have an impact on Moscow, Toby Gati, a former special assistant for Russia to President Clinton, said she doubted it. "You can't punish people when punishment means denying them something they wanted but weren't getting," she told the Washington Times.
"The Russians are at the point where they don't believe we will give them any benefits," Gati said. "In that context, threatening to withhold something doesn't give you any additional leverage," she added.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Russia's plan to arm its Baltic fleet with nuclear warheads was not a surprise for Sweden, according to the Swedish news agency TT.
Bildt said Sweden has information that there are already tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad area. They are located at and in the vicinity of units belonging to the Russia fleet, he said.
"This is no surprise even if there are not press releases being sent out about it on a daily basis," Bildt said, adding that Sweden is worried in the more general sense that nuclear weapons still play a major role in overall Russian foreign policy.
The warnings of Russia's nuclear fleet came 24 hours after Russia told Poland that it could face a nuclear strike for agreeing to let the United States operate components of its missile defense shield on Polish soil.
Lithuania was another target country of the United States for hosting the missile defense shield.
Russia has already indicated that it may aim nuclear missiles at Western Europe from bases in Kaliningrad and Belarus. It is also said to be considering reviving its military presence in Cuba.