PARIS (Reuters) - Lithuania hit out at Moscow on Tuesday for suspending a Baltic military inspection agreement, calling it another step that would add to tensions in the region stoked by Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics with substantial Russian-speaking minorities, have been on edge since March, when Russia declared its right to intervene in neighbouring Ukraine to protect Russian speakers, and seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
The Baltic states are the only parts of the former Soviet Union to have joined the European Union and NATO, giving them protection of the Western alliance's mutual defence pact.
On Monday, Moscow suspended a 2001 agreement under which Lithuania had the right to inspect Russian forces in Kaliningrad, a patch of Russian territory on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland housing Russia's Baltic fleet. The agreement also let Russia inspect Lithuania's military.
"It's another gesture in the wrong direction," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters in an interview. "It's a wrong step. I hope they re-think that because the situation is already tense and every step should be taken with political responsibility."
Separatist fervour in Ukraine is causing unease in Lithuania, although he said the Russian population, about 6.5 percent of the total, was loyal. The other Baltic states Latvia and Estonia both have somewhat larger Russian populations.
The West accuses Moscow of trying to destabilise Ukraine by fomenting separatist unrest in the Russian-speaking east, where armed men have seized territory and plan a referendum on secession on Sunday. Russia denies it is behind the uprising.
"We have a Russian community in Lithuania, but it is well integrated and the majority are Lithuanian citizens and loyal to the country and difficult to manipulate politically," said Linkevicius. "But we know that something could be done artificially because we have seen (elsewhere) that there are methods."
The Baltic states have been members of NATO since 2004, but have not had a persistent presence of foreign troops on their soil before, partly to avoid antagonising Russia.
The United States deployed 150 paratroopers to Lithuania at the end of April, part of efforts to reassure eastern European allies that NATO would protect them. Linkevicius said he was reassured by NATO's growing presence after it sent ground, air and sea assets. He had been told more could be added if needed.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia, but so far these have been limited to blacklists of individuals and small firms, which Moscow has openly mocked as pointless. Western countries say Russia could face more serious measures against whole sectors of its economy if Moscow disrupts Ukraine's plan to hold presidential elections on May 25.
Linkevicius said there was still scope to improve the existing sanctions by targeting more officials. There also needed to be better coordination between the European Union, the United States, Canada and Japan, he said.
"We shouldn't be proud about that. Sanctions is a last resort when you can't talk to your partner and your partner is not listening. They should be crafted very carefully because if you are introducing sanctions it is not to just prevent the other side, but also avoid a backlash at home," he said.
He urged the EU to consider an arms embargo against Russia.
"If you are talking of aggression from a state to another we should not trading arms with that state. Issues like that should be considered in first tranche (of sanctions)," he said.
Linkevicius said it was vital for Europe to seek ways to wean itself off its energy dependence on Russia. Lithuania, which gets 100 percent of its gas supplies from Russia, pays more for its gas than most other EU states.
"At the moment we have a single source from Gazprom that could be manipulated and used or political purposes," he said. "We are paying the highest price for gas in Europe. It's politically motivated to some extent and we don't think it's fair which is why some cases are in arbitration."
Lithuania expects to loosen its dependence on Russian gas next year when it opens a terminal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). The terminal is called "Independence."
"Building that terminal will improve the energy security situation in Lithuania and in the Baltics. We are trying to get contracts to bring LNG by ships," he said, adding that talks were taking place with countries including Qatar and Yemen.
He said he was encouraged by a recent visit to the United States, which has seen a surge of gas production and, he said, appeared to be coming round to the idea of exporting to Europe.
"This crisis has opened our eyes. We have recognised that we can be proud of our highways and railways, but the energy infrastructure in the EU is from 19th century because we have created energy islands like ours that are totally dependent on one country," he said.