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Baltic states seek more NATO help ahead of Russian exercise

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) - The Baltic states will press the United States and NATO to take additional security measures in the region ahead of a large Russian military exercise planned for September, Lithuania's president said on Thursday.

NATO has already started to deploy four battle groups of about 1,000 soldiers each to the Baltic states and Poland, part of efforts agreed under previous U.S. president Barack Obama to deter Russia from interfering in the region.

The three small Baltic republics and Poland have felt especially vulnerable since Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and its support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. New U.S. President Donald Trump's calls for improved ties with Moscow have added to their anxiety.

"We see that risks are increasing, and we are worried about the upcoming 'Zapad 2017' exercise, which will deploy a very large and aggressive force (on our borders) that will very demonstrably be preparing for a war with the West," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters after talks with her counterparts from Latvia and Estonia in Riga.

"This means that we will be talking with NATO about creating additional standing defense plans, about stationing additional military means and about creating a faster decision- making process", she said.

Russia announced last September its plans to stage the Zapad 2017 exercise near its western borders but has not said how many troops will take part.

On Thursday Moscow reiterated its stance that the deployment of new NATO troops and military hardware in the Baltic states, Poland and Germany posed a threat to its security and said it did not know how and when the buildup would end.

"PROVOCATIONS"

Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told Reuters NATO must be ready to defuse any "provocations" during the Zapad exercise.

"The presence of such a large amount of troops next to our borders, of course, creates some risks. We will take counter-measures, including with our allies, to avoid any provocations," said Karoblis.

"It is clear that Russia wants to re-establish its domination, to change the defense system in Europe. It is already a threat for central Europe, particularly for the Baltics," he added.

Moscow denies having any expansionist or aggressive agenda.

The three Baltic states will lobby U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis in Munich next week to keep U.S. contingents that were deployed to the Baltics after Russia's annexation of Crimea in the region to complement the incoming NATO battle groups, a senior security official told Reuters.

Karoblis also said NATO's European members should set aside their concerns about Trump's commitment to the alliance and focus instead on boosting their defense spending and military capabilities, something Washington has long called for.

The minister said NATO should be ready to

"If we speak about modification of some priorities of NATO, for example, increasing attention to terrorism, I think in the present situation this is fair enough," he said. "But the classical role of NATO should remain, including, of course, (responding) to the aspects and threats related to the East."

(Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Gareth Jones)