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Russia flexing military muscle

Russia plans to station state-of-the art missiles in its western-most Baltic exclave and deploy nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea as part of massive war games to showcase its resurgent military power amid tensions with the West.

The Russian military exercises this week range from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean and involve tens of thousands of troops, the Defence Ministry said.

Iskander missiles will be sent to the Kaliningrad region that borders Nato members Poland and Lithuania as part of the manoeuvres, said a Defence Ministry official.

The official also said Russia will deploy long-range, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine a year ago.

The Defence Ministry said the Baltic Fleet, the Southern Military District and the Airborne Forces have been brought to the highest state of combat readiness and have started moving to shooting ranges as part of the drills.

The wide-ranging exercise started when President Vladimir Putin ordered the Northern Fleet and other military forces on combat alert as part of the exercise in the Arctic. Other units in the Pacific region, southern Siberia and south-western Russia also launched drills.

The deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad reflects Moscow's readiness to raise the ante in response to Nato moves to deploy forces closer to Russia's borders.

The missiles, which are capable of hitting enemy targets up to 300 miles away with high precision, can be equipped with a nuclear or a conventional warhead. From Kaliningrad, they could reach several Nato member states.

Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz interpreted the move as an attempt by Russia to pressure EU nations as they consider possible new sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

"Russia is making this gesture before the European Council meeting," she said. "It is trying to influence European Council decisions concerning extending or adding new sanctions."

Edgars Rinkevics, foreign minister of Latvia, which holds the EU presidency, said he did not expect "a discussion of new sanctions or any decisions" when EU leaders meet on Thursday in Brussels.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said beefing up forces in the Baltic exclave was a top priority for the Russian military.

Iskander missiles had already been sent briefly to Kaliningrad during December's military manoeuvres, but were pulled back afterwards.

US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, Nato's supreme commander in Europe, has termed Russia's "threats to deploy nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad" part of what he called the Kremlin's "pattern of continuing behaviour to coerce its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe".

The Kremlin has voiced concern about US plans to beef up its military presence near Russia's borders. Later this month, US troops are holding joint exercises with forces from EU nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Four Polish Nato MiG-29s flew training missions in Lithuania yesterday under the command and control of an alliance AWACS surveillance aircraft in a small corridor between Belarus and the Kaliningrad region. The mission - described as routine by Nato - prompted the Russian military in Kaliningrad to scramble half a dozen fighter jets to monitor the exercise.

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