Latvia calls for permanent U.S. troops to guard against Russia threat

By Sabine Siebold

ADAZI MILITARY BASE, Latvia (Reuters) – Latvia needs a permanent U.S. military presence to deter Russia and wants to boost its defenses with U.S. Patriot missiles, Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said on Monday as NATO’s chief visited allied troops in the Baltic country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to arrive in Latvia’s capital Riga late on Monday before a meeting on Tuesday with 29 NATO counterparts. The alliance is alarmed by a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

“We need additional international assistance,” Pabriks told Reuters. “We would like to have a permanent United States (military) presence in our country. And sea and air defense means basically going down to such systems as Patriot (surface-to-air missiles).”

NATO troops were rehearsing battle skills in a snowy Latvian woodland with camouflaged tanks and live rounds, with 1,500 troops seeking to stop an attack on Riga by disrupting and stalling the unidentified adversary’s advance north of the city.

“Deterrence is critical,” said Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John Benson, commander of the NATO battlegroup in Latvia.

Prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, NATO has deployed four multinational battalion-size battlegroups to defend Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since July 2017.

Moscow says it has no intention of invading the Baltics or Poland and accuses NATO of destabilizing Europe by moving troops closer to Russia’s borders. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said there was “no imminent threat” against NATO.

In May, Russia amassed 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, the highest number since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western officials say. NATO says there was another large military build-up on Ukraine’s border this month.

The Baltic states are seen as NATO’s most vulnerable flank as they are linked to the alliance’s main territory only by a land corridor of around 60 km (37 miles) between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki gap.

Military experts warn that Russia, via Belarus, might capture the gap, gaining a land corridor to its heavily fortified exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

U.S. troops are stationed in Germany but might not reach the Baltics fast enough in the event of such an attack, experts say.

“We have revisionism at this moment going on in Russia … from that perspective we cannot be late here,” Pabriks said, referring to a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union if he had a chance to alter modern Russian history.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Latvia announces four weeks of lockdown as COVID-19 cases spike

RIGA (Reuters) -Latvia announced a COVID-19 lockdown from Oct. 21 until Nov. 15 to try to slow a spike in infections in one of the least vaccinated European Union countries.

“Our health system is in danger … The only way out of this crisis is to get vaccinated,” Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said after an emergency government meeting, blaming low vaccination rates for the spike in hospitalizations.

Only 54% of Latvian adults have been fully vaccinated, well below EU average of 74%, EU figures show.

“I have to apologize to the already vaccinated,” Karins said, announcing that shops, restaurants, schools and entertainment will be closed, with only essential services available and a curfew in place from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Only essential manufacturing, construction and critical jobs will be allowed to continue in person.

One of the two largest Riga hospitals began installing makeshift beds for COVID-19 patients in its atrium to cope with the influx, the national broadcaster reported.

No travel restrictions were announced “since infection rates elsewhere are much lower, and we don’t see immediate risks,” Karins said.

New cases in Latvia increased by 49% in the week to Sunday, its health authority said, according to the BNS wire.

The Latvian government cancelled most planned hospital operations last week amid an increased need for beds and staff as COVID-19 cases climb.

The country had reported the second-worst infection numbers in the EU, after neighbor Lithuania, in the fortnight to Oct. 10, with 864 new cases per 10,000 people.

Latvian President Egils Levits tested positive last week, prompting Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, who had had breakfast with Levits a day earlier, to self-isolate.

(Reporting by Janis Laizans, writing by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by Chris Reese and Giles Elgood)

Denmark, Norway temporarily suspend AstraZeneca COVID shots after blood clot reports

By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Health authorities in Denmark and Norway said on Thursday they had temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine shots after reports of the formation of blood clots in some who have been vaccinated.

The move comes after Austria stopped using a batch of AstraZeneca shots while investigating a death from coagulation disorders and an illness from a pulmonary embolism.

Danish health authorities said the country’s decision to suspend the shots for two weeks came after a 60-year old woman in Denmark, who was given an AstraZeneca shot from the same batch that was used in Austria, formed a blood clot and died.

Danish authorities said they had responded “to reports of possible serious side effects, both from Denmark and other European countries.”

“It is currently not possible to conclude whether there is a link. We are acting early, it needs to be thoroughly investigated,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said on Twitter.

The vaccine would be suspended for 14 days in Denmark.

“This is a cautionary decision,” Geir Bukholm, director of infection prevention and control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI), told a news conference.

FHI did not say how long the suspension would last.

“We … await information to see if there is a link between the vaccination and this case with a blood clot,” Bukholm said.

Also on Thursday, Italy said it would suspend use of an AstraZeneca batch that was different to the one used in Austria.

Some health experts said there was little evidence to suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be administered and that the cases of blood clots corresponded with the rate of such cases in the general population.

“This is a super-cautious approach based on some isolated reports in Europe,” Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Reuters.

“The problem with spontaneous reports of suspected adverse reactions to a vaccine are the enormous difficulty of distinguishing a causal effect from a coincidence,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 disease was very strongly associated with blood clotting.

AstraZeneca on Thursday told Reuters in a written statement the safety of its vaccine had been extensively studied in human trials and peer-reviewed data had confirmed the vaccine was generally well tolerated.

The drugmaker said earlier this week its shots were subject to strict and rigorous quality controls and that there had been “no confirmed serious adverse events associated with the vaccine.” It said it was in contact with Austrian authorities and would fully support their investigation.

The European Union’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said on Wednesday there was no evidence so far linking AstraZeneca to the two cases in Austria.

It said the number of thromboembolic events – marked by the formation of blood clots – in people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine is no higher than that seen in the general population, with 22 cases of such events being reported among the 3 million people who have received it as of March 9.

EMA was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.

Four other countries – Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Latvia – have stopped inoculations from the batch while investigations continue, the EMA said.

The batch of 1 million doses went to 17 EU countries.

Swedish authorities said they did not find sufficient evidence to stop vaccination with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Sweden has found two cases of “thromboembolic events” in connection with AstraZeneca’s vaccine and about ten for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“We see no reason to revise our recommendation,” Veronica Arthurson, head of drug safety at the Swedish Medical Products Agency, told a news conference. “There is nothing to indicate that the vaccine causes this type of blood clots.”

Spain on Thursday said it had not registered any cases of blood clots related to AstraZeneca’s vaccine so far and would continue administering the shots.

(Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm, Victoria Klesty in Oslo and Kate Kelland in London. Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie and Bernadette Baum)

Why Ukrainian forces gave up Crimea without a fight – and NATO is alert

Vice Admiral Sergei Yeliseyev, First Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian fleet, attends joint maritime exercises with Russian Navy forces in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Ukraine, June 22, 2013.

By Pavel Polityuk and Anton Zverev

KIEV/SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) – The career of Sergei Yeliseyev helps to explain why Ukraine’s armed forces gave up Crimea almost without a fight – and why NATO now says it is alert to Russian attempts to undermine military loyalty in its eastern European members.

His rise to become number two in the Ukrainian navy long before Russia seized Crimea illustrates the divided loyalties that some personnel in countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union might still face.

Yeliseyev’s roots were in Russia but he ended up serving Ukraine, a different ex-Soviet republic, only to defect when put to the test. NATO military planners now believe Moscow regards people with similarly ambiguous personal links as potentially valuable, should a new confrontation break out with the West.

In 2014, Yeliseyev was first deputy commander of the Ukrainian fleet, then largely based in Crimea, when Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms took control of Kiev’s ships and military bases on the peninsula.

Instead of resisting, Yeliseyev quit and subsequently got a new job: deputy chief of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

Yeliseyev, now aged 55, did not respond to Reuters questions sent to him via the Russian defense ministry.

In Kiev, however, there is no doubt where his loyalties lay. “When he took an oath to Ukraine, these were empty words for him. He has always been pro-Russian,” said Ihor Voronchenko, now commander of the Ukrainian navy, who once served with Yeliseyev.

In fact, the Russian soldiers were pushing at an open door in late February 2014 – Yeliseyev was just one of many to defect and almost all Ukrainian forces in Crimea failed to resist.

Russia annexed Crimea the following month, prompting a major row with the West which deepened over Moscow’s role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine that lasts to this day.

At the time, Moscow and its allies in Crimea exploited weaknesses within Kiev’s military to undermine its ability to put up a fight, according to interviews conducted by Reuters with about a dozen people on both sides of the conflict.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to questions on their accounts of the events in 2014 submitted by Reuters.

One NATO commander told Reuters that, in a re-run of the tactics it deployed in Crimea, Russian intelligence was trying to recruit ethnic Russians serving in the militaries of countries on its borders.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the commander said the alliance was particularly sensitive to the risk in countries with high concentrations of ethnic Russians, notably the Baltic states.

NATO had to guard against this, said the commander, though the risk should not be overstated because having Russian roots did not necessarily mean that a person’s loyalty is to Moscow.

Officials in the Baltic states, former Soviet republics which unlike Ukraine are NATO members, play down the danger.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likewise said he trusted the armies of the Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Still, he told Reuters: “We always have to be vigilant. We always have to develop our intelligence tools and to be able to see any attempts to try to undermine the loyalty of our forces.”

 

DROPPING THE GUARD

Years before the Crimean annexation, a Ukrainian appointment panel appeared to drop its guard when it interviewed Yeliseyev for the deputy naval commander’s post.

Yeliseyev was born near Moscow, graduated from a Soviet naval school in the Russian city of Kaliningrad in 1983 and served with the Russian Pacific fleet.

So the panel asked Yeliseyev what he would do if Russia and Ukraine went to war. He replied that he would file for early retirement, according to Myroslav Mamchak, a former Ukrainian naval captain who served with Yeliseyev. Despite this response, Yeliseyev got the job in 2006.

Mamchak did not disclose to Reuters how he knew what was said in the interview room but subsequent events bear out his account.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine dived as Kiev moved closer to NATO and eight years after his appointment, with the countries on the brink of conflict over Crimea, Yeliseyev stayed true to his word by quitting.

Russia’s actions were not the only factor in the Crimean events. Ukraine’s military had suffered years of neglect, there was a power vacuum in Kiev after the government was overthrown, and many Crimean residents felt more affinity with Moscow.

Still, Ukrainian service personnel with Russian ties switched sides when the annexation began and some officers pretended to put up resistance only to avoid court-martial. Moscow also intercepted orders from Kiev so they never reached the Crimean garrison.

“There was nothing spontaneous. Everything was organized and each fiddler played his role,” said Mykhailo Koval, who at the time was deputy head of the Ukrainian border guard and is now deputy head of the Security Council in Kiev.

 

INVITATION TO DEFECT

Voronchenko, who was another deputy commander of the navy at the time of the annexation, said he had received invitations to defect to Moscow’s side soon after the Russian operation began.

These, he told Reuters, came from Sergei Aksyonov, who was then head of Crimea’s self-proclaimed pro-Russian government, as well as from the commander of Russia’s southern military district and a deputy Russian defense minister.

Asked what they offered in exchange, Voronchenko said: “Posts, an apartment … Aksyonov offered to make me defense minister of Crimea.” Neither Aksyonov nor the Russian defense ministry responded to Reuters questions about the contacts.

Voronchenko, in common with many other senior Ukrainian officers, had been in the Soviet military alongside people now serving in the Russian armed forces. He had spent years in Crimea, where Russia leased bases from Ukraine for its Black Sea fleet after the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union.

“Those generals who came to persuade me … said that we belong to the same circle, we came from the Soviet army,” he said. “But I told them I am different … I am not yours.”

Naval chief Denis Berezovsky did defect, along with several of his commanders, and was later made deputy chief of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Many in the ranks followed suit. At one Ukrainian signals unit, service personnel were watching Russian television when President Vladimir Putin appeared on the screen.

“To my surprise, they all stood up,” said Svyatoslav Veltynsky, an engineer at the unit. “They had been waiting for this.” The majority of the unit defected to the Russian side.

 

JUST A SHOW

Even those willing to resist found themselves in a hopeless position. One member of the Ukrainian border guards told Reuters how his commander had despatched their unit’s ships to stop them falling into Russian hands, and ordered his men to train their rifles on anyone trying to enter their base.

However, the base’s military communications were not working, having been either jammed or cut by the Russians. Isolated from his own side, and outnumbered and outgunned by Russian troops outside, the commander struck a deal with the head of a Russian special forces unit.

Pro-Russian civilians were allowed to force the base’s gate without reprisals. The Ukrainians “supposedly could not do anything; you cannot shoot civilians”, the member of the unit said on condition of anonymity because he is still living in Crimea and feared repercussions.

Russian troops then followed the civilians in, taking over the base and offering the unit a chance to switch allegiance to Russia. About half agreed, although the base’s chief refused and was allowed to leave Crimea.

“The commander did not resist,” said the unit member. “On the other hand, he did what he could under the circumstances.”

Two other people involved in the annexation – a former Ukrainian serviceman now on a Russian base in Crimea, and a source close to the Russian military who was there at the time – also described witnessing similar faked confrontations.

“You have to understand that the seizure of Ukrainian military units in Crimea was just a show,” said the source close to the Russian military.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

NATO’s Baltic members differ significantly from Ukraine. Soviet-era commanders, for instance, largely left their armed forces after the countries joined the Western alliance in 2004.

Officials also point out that Russian speakers were among the seven members of Latvia’s forces to die during international deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, lessons have been learned from Crimea. “We learned, of course, that there was not only the issue of loyalty, but also false orders were submitted and there was a blockage of communication during the Crimea operation,” said Janis Garisons, State Secretary in the Latvian defense ministry.

Latvia has changed the law so that unit commanders are obliged to resist by default. But Garisons said the simplest step was taken long before the annexation, with the introduction in 2008 of vetting by the security services for “everybody who joins the armed forces, from private to general”.

 

(Additional reporting by Margaryta Chornokondratenko in KIEV, Andrius Sytas in VILNIUS, Gederts Gelzis in RIGA, David Mardiste in TALLINN, and Robin Emmott in BRUSSELS; editing by David Stamp)