Russian envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Aleksandr Grushko said Russia is planning to increase its military presence in the Crimean peninsula in response to the Western military bloc’s “stepping up” of activity in eastern Europe.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the bloc was planning to increase its air and sea patrols in the region amid an ongoing perceived threat from Russia following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year.
NATO’s plans include basing command units in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as doubling the size of its rapid response force in the continent.
In response, Grushko reminded NATO that Russia reserves the right to move heavy weapons into Crimea.
"Naturally, we will increase our forces in Crimea because NATO countries have stepped up their activities…in the immediate vicinity of our borders," Grushko said, adding that there is no ban prohibiting Russia to deploy weapons in the peninsula.
Stoltenberg’s announcement came the same day Lithuanian chief of defence spokesman Capt. Mindaugas Neimontas confirmed his country along with neighbours Estonia and Latvia had sent a joint letter to NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe calling NATO to establish a permanent military presence in the region.
Countries in the Baltics region have particularly been alert as Russia continues to support separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russian-backed separatists have been fighting for the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic since Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev in February 2014.
Both Russia and NATO have increased their military exercises in the Baltic region since the Ukraine crisis put the two military giants at odds with one another.
In March, the US sent 750 military tanks, helicopters, and other heavy equipment, along with nearly 3,000 soldiers to the region to participate in a three-month training exercise in a show of strength against Russia.
The sending of heavy military equipment by the US to Latvia was condemned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said the move was not helping restore trust between Russia and NATO.
NATO is bound by a 1997 agreement with Russia which prevents it from stationing permanent troops in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia.
Grushko also said he hopes “common sense will ultimately prevail” regarding NATO’s “senseless expansion” in reference to the bloc granting membership to Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
The Russian envoy to the bloc additionally warned against the presence of US nuclear weapons in eastern Europe and non-nuclear NATO states such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
“It is strictly forbidden under the NPT (Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). The first article of the treaty prohibits nuclear countries to convey any nuclear arms or other nuclear explosive devices to anyone directly or indirectly," he said.
“The US must pull out these nuclear bombs to its territory. It would be a serious contribution to strategic stability and security in Europe."