VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin assured the three Baltic countries on Saturday that they would not face Russia’s security threats alone, but he refrained from pledging a permanent deployment of U.S. troops in the former Soviet republics. .
Austin was in Lithuania as a massive build-up of Russian troops and other actions led Western officials to say Moscow could invade Ukraine at any time, although Russia denied planning an invasion.
“They are unfolding and now ready to strike,” Austin said on Saturday of Russian troops’ readiness to attack Ukraine.
Lithuanian officials have expressed concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purported ambitions could extend across the region.
“The battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If Putin doesn’t stop there, he will go further,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told a joint press conference with Austin . “They choose the path based on strength. We need to send a very clear and unambiguous message that there would be a very clear and quick response.”
In an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte noted that some European political leaders had said years ago that NATO was “irrelevant”.
“Putin must be surprised now by the unity of the West, which is much stronger than ever,” Simonyte told the AP. “We now see how relevant NATO is and how important it is that we have absolute unity of NATO and the European Union. And the most important message for Mr Putin is that he there will be no decisions about countries behind the backs of countries. That’s what he wants to achieve.”
She chastised Western nations for not taking signals coming out of Moscow seriously enough in recent years. Moscow annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014 and began supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, including the Donbas region, the same year.
“If the threat from Russia had been taken seriously by the West, there would have been no Crimea or Donbass. Much in the future will depend on the strength of the Western reaction if Russia invades Ukraine “, said Simonyte. “A bad peace is better than a good war. Diplomacy should have a chance, but there will be no more trust (in Russia) and I don’t see how it can be restored.”
The three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – joined NATO on the same day in March 2004, and the alliance operates on the principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Lithuania, a nation of 2.8 million people, borders Russian ally Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
“I want everyone in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to know – and I want President Putin and the Kremlin to know – that the United States of America stands with our allies,” Austin said during the the press conference in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. .
Austin also met with Simonyte, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, and defense ministers from Latvia and Estonia during his two-day visit to Lithuania.
Nauseda asked Washington for the permanent deployment of a rotating battalion in the Baltic countries, stressing that the situation in Eastern Europe continues to deteriorate.
“Russia’s military buildup on NATO’s eastern border changes the overall security situation. Therefore, the decision to bolster security in the region with additional troops from the United States and to accelerate collaboration on procurement military is essential,” said Nauseda.
Austin has not commented on the request. The United States has deployed regular battle group rotations of approximately 500 soldiers and armored vehicles since 2019.
Germany and the Netherlands said this month they would increase troop numbers by several hundred troops in the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania. The Dutch force has been part of the German-led NATO battlegroup deployed in Lithuania since 2017.
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