By Filipp Lebedev and Andrius Sytas
MOSCOW/VILNIUS (Reuters) -Russian police have put Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Lithuania's culture minister, and members of the previous Latvian parliament on a wanted list for destroying Soviet-era monuments, according to the Russian interior ministry's database.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kallas was wanted for the "desecration of historical memory".
Russian state agency TASS said the Baltic officials were accused of "destroying monuments to Soviet soldiers", acts that are punishable by a five-year prison term under the Russian criminal code.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have demolished most of their Soviet-era monuments, including those commemorating Soviet solders killed in World War Two.
The three countries were once ruled from Moscow but are now members of both the European Union and NATO, and since the Russian invasion in Ukraine have emerged as staunch supporters of Ukraine and vocal critics of Russia.
The Baltic governments regard the monuments as propaganda tools constructed by their former imperial overlords.
"The Kremlin now hopes this move will help to silence me and others – but it won't," Kallas said in a post on social media platform X. "I will continue my strong support to Ukraine. I will continue to stand for increasing Europe's defence."
NATO member Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told Kallas on X: "(Russian President Vladimir Putin) won't bully us. The Spanish people and Europe stand behind you".
The Baltic politicians risk being placed under arrest if they cross the Russian border, but otherwise declaring them as "wanted" is unlikely to have any practical consequence.
'ONLY THE BEGINNING'
The head of the Russian Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, had ordered a criminal investigation in response to the monuments being torn down.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Tuesday: "This is only the beginning."
"Crimes against the memory of the world's liberators from Nazism and fascism must be prosecuted," she said.
As well as Kallas, Estonian State Secretary Taimar Peterkop, Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys and about 60 of the 100 members of the previous Latvian parliament, which ended its term in November 2022, were put on the list, according to the Russian ministry database.
Kairys told Reuters the arrest order "means I acted actively and in a principled way".
Latvian Prime Minister Evika Silina told reporters in Riga that the Russian move was illegal and politically motivated, news portal Delfi reported. "We are declaring that Latvia will not give in to such attempts at intimidation", she was quoted as saying by Delfi.
Several dozen other Baltic politicians were also added to the Russian wanted list, including mayors, municipal deputies, and the former Latvian interior minister, Marija Golubeva.
The Baltic states were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and then occupied by Nazi Germany before returning to Moscow's rule as part of the Soviet Communist bloc until they regained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kallas said in 2022 that Estonian authorities would dismantle 200 to 400 of the monuments. A Soviet tank monument in the majority Russian-speaking town of Narva was removed in August.
In Latvia, an 84-metre (275-ft) structure built to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War Two was crushed with a bulldozer. More Soviet monuments were removed all over the country.
Tens of thousands of Russian speakers in Latvia used to gather every May 9 around the Riga monument, but their gatherings were banned after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Lithuania removed dozens of memorials to Soviet troops in 2022, including a large group of sculptures in a Vilnius cemetery.
(Reporting by Dmitry Antonov in Moscow, Filipp Lebedev in Tbilisi and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Additional reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Gareth Jones and Rosalba O'Brien)