With Lithuania pact, US signals increased military role near Russia
By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 4, 2019
The United States will continue to deploy troops to Lithuania and help the country develop anti-tank and missile systems, according to a comprehensive defense agreement the two countries signed this week to boost cooperation in a region set on edge by Russia’s military resurgence.
The five-year “roadmap,” signed by defense officials from both countries at the Pentagon on Tuesday, says the U.S. will send forces “to strengthen deterrence and to catalyze the efforts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to develop their national defense further.”
Military bilateral agreements between the U.S. and its allies are fairly routine. But the deal with Lithuania, which resembles a similar one made with Poland in September, could be an indication that the U.S. wants to step up surveillance on Russia’s military exclave in neighboring Kaliningrad.
The deal “suggests that it might include more U.S. investment in scrutinizing Russian activity and weapon deployments in Kaliningrad,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert with the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.
Lithuania expects to see more joint exercises and a larger investment by the United States in the country’s military infrastructure, Minister of National Defense Raimundas Karoblis said in a statement. The defense agreement signals “the U.S. disposition” to further its cooperation in the Baltic Sea region, he said.
Situated between Russian Kaliningrad and Russian ally Belarus, Lithuania is the first Baltic state to sign the roadmap, with Estonia and Latvia expected to follow suit, Pentagon officials said.
The three former Soviet bloc nations — NATO members since 2004 — have long relied on the U.S. and NATO for their security. But the alliance has stepped up its activity in the region since Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Two years ago, NATO leaders for the first time agreed to deploy military forces to the Baltics and eastern Poland and increase air and sea patrols.
U.S. forces since then have been on steady rotation in Lithuania, including special operations troops.
In the latest show of force, U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses deployed to England from the U.S. flew to Lithuania and Poland last month to conduct training missions.
The roadmap, to be implemented over the next five years, is focused on expanded training missions, deterrence operations in the Baltic Sea, improving early-warning capabilities in the Baltic region, and building up cybersecurity systems to defend against attacks, according to the Defense Department.
Officials at U.S. European Command said the roadmap was a step forward.
“We are proud to deepen the ties between our two nations and improve our strategic partnership with a NATO ally,” EUCOM spokeswoman Meghan Henderson said in a statement. “Together, we plan to continue to explore, bilaterally and within NATO, new ideas and opportunities, including air defense, to enhance deterrence across the region.”
As part of the agreement, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry will provide all necessary support for the deployment of U.S. forces.
“U.S. foreign military programs should complement Lithuanian national funds to build anti-tank, air defense and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance capabilities,” the Pentagon statement said. “The programs also will help Lithuania gain maritime domain awareness and look to replace Soviet/Russian-made equipment and platforms.”
Lithuania has committed more than $200 million in national funds to purchase U.S. military equipment.
The country is currently negotiating the procurement of 200 armored personnel carriers from U.S. manufacturer Oshkosh, Lithuanian defense officials said. It’s also looking to purchase anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank systems, communications systems and ammunition.
The U.S., in turn, has spent nearly $80 million on defense cooperation in Lithuania since 2014, defense officials said, investing in military training areas and the schooling of Lithuanian soldiers in the United States.