By Sabine Siebold and Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Britain said on Thursday it could send more troops to Estonia and lead a brigade there, echoing German plans in Lithuania ahead of a NATO summit to agree future deployments on the alliance’s eastern flank in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace told reporters in Brussels that Britain would be transforming its two battlegroups in Estonia into a bigger combat unit with major reinforcements on stand-by at home.
“I think you’ll see us make (the battlegroups) into a forward brigade with a more permanent, one-star headquarters, which just means that it is much easier to enable a full brigade to generate very quickly,” he said.
The establishment of brigades – units with some 3,000 to 5,000 troops each – would significantly bolster NATO’s presence in the Baltics – three ex-Soviet republics that are seen as more vulnerable to Russian attack after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Until Russia’s invasion, which the Kremlin describes as a “special military operation” to remove alleged threats to Russian security, NATO had only battalions with some 1,000 troops each in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The Baltics, though, want the alliance to boost its pre-Ukraine invasion presence as much as tenfold.
Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks called for larger forces and said any sign of weakness – be it in Ukraine or on NATO territory itself – would embolden Moscow.
“Ukraine must win, it’s very simple, and Russia must lose, there is no other way out of this,” he told reporters.
“If it’s different, then we will simply again invite…some kind of Russian activities in the next years and we don’t want this because the Baltic nations have been paying for lunch for the others and we are not ready anymore for that.”
Estonia and Lithuania share Latvia’s position.
Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, NATO dispatched additional troops, ships and jets to the alliance’s eastern front, in particular to the Baltics, and placed some 40,000 troops under direct NATO command.
At the June 28-30 summit in Madrid, NATO leaders will discuss a more structured approach to adapt the alliance in the long-term to what it sees as a drastically worsened security situation in Europe caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
But allies remain divided about troop numbers and where exactly reinforcements, including extra weapons, should be based.
Some experts warn it does not make sense to deploy major combat units close to Russia’s borders, exposing them to the risk of being thrashed in the first wave of an attack, but to rather deploy them further to the rear.
Germany has proposed expanding the multinational NATO battalion in Lithuania under German command to the size of a brigade but, just like Britain, aims to leave much of its own reinforcements as standby troops at home.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he was confident allies would pledge enough troops before the summit to fill the fresh units in the east.
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Robin Emmmott, Idrees Ali, Marine Strauss, Clement Rossignol and Charlotte Van Campenhout; Editing by Mark Heinrich)