US, NATO missile center Europe, AAMDS.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ROBERT GHEMENT

Russia on Thursday criticized NATO's expansion in Eastern Europe, after Estonia called for a permanent presence of the military alliance in the Baltic states.

"[NATO] becomes active in places where there is no threat to it or its members. But where there is actually a threat, it doesn't become active," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.

Earlier in the day, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas called for a permanent presence of NATO troops in the Baltic states.

"We need continuous presence of a battalion in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each," he told German newspaper Die Welt.

"There can't be any gaps. Deterrence has to be the new normality," he said.

In NATO's 1997 Founding Act, the military alliance agreed with Russia not to station a substantial number of troops in its Eastern member states on a permanent basis.

At an upcoming summit in Warsaw on July 8-9, the Western military alliance is expected to decide on the deployment of battalions to Poland and the Baltic states - a move that would likely further antagonize Russia, which has previously said that the alliance's eastward expansion threatens its national security.

Sending troops to the region on a rotating basis is the right idea, Roivas told Die Welt, "but they have to be present at all times."

Roivas' letter to the German paper coincided with the arrival of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Lithuania as part of a two-day visit to the Baltic states. His agenda included preparations for the July NATO summit and sanctions against Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Steinmeier said ending sanctions on Russia would only happen if there is progress in the peace process between Kiev and Moscow.

"Most important for us all has to be that we move ahead with a solution to the conflict. Whether that is the case, will be determined in the next weeks," he said in Lithuania.

Some of the sanctions imposed against Russia are up for renewal at the end of July.

EU President Donald Tusk said he expects the sanctions to be renewed.

"I'm certain that we'll make a decision in the next two or three weeks without any big discussion," he said at the start of the G7 summit in Japan.

Russia wasn't invited to the summit after it was suspended from the group for annexing Crimea in 2014.

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