Lithuania, the small, southernmost Baltic state, has reached out for international military support due a surge of Russia’s presence in the region.
While Lithuania has a minuscule amount of ethnic Russians, making a pro-Russian rebellion largely from within its own borders as has been the case in Ukraine unlikely, Russia’s influence on the Baltic region seems very plausible. Lithuania has warned the West throughout the past few years about Russia’s growing impact in the region, which has largely come from fake news seeking to destabilize Lithuania from within. False claims regarding German soldiers raping a girl were mysteriously e-mailed to the president of the Lithuanian Parliament, as well as a story that incorrectly reported a chemical assault on U.S. soldiers in nearby Estonia. Russia’s recent behavior in its apparent attempts to impact the French and U.S. elections have stirred up added attention from the West on any potential Russian propaganda, especially when it occurs in a country with such geographic proximity to Russia. That country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, recently deployed nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, the Russian territory that borders Lithuania’s southeast.
Unlike Lithuania, Belarus, which shares a large border on Lithuania’s southeast, does have a significant Russian population, raising slight concerns over the ‘autonomy’ of a country already heavily influenced by Russia.
A joint military exercise between Belarus and Russian soldiers planned for September has done nothing to quell Lithuania’s concerns over Russia’s aggressive attitude. Despite claims that the exercise will not consist of more than 13,000 troops, Russia’s military exercises in the caucasus last year were only supposed to include 12,000 troops. Instead 120,000 soldiers participated. Intel suggests the possibility of the joint training exceeding 100,000 soldiers and even including nuclear weapons training in a country with an already significant Russian military presence.
On May 9th in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius Lithuania’s President, Dalia Grybauskaite, met with U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis. Grybauskaite requested a stronger presence of the U.S. military in Lithuania, noting NATO’s inability to act decisively as opposed to U.S. forces. The U.S. has had 150 soldiers in the country since 2014, but Grybauskaite is making a case for additional support in deterring the Russians from the Baltic region. Grybauskaite made a point that “It is important to have adequate response capabilities against possible threats,” clearly demonstrating her desire for a stronger U.S. presence in her country.
(Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite)
Lithuania’s Defense Minister Karoblis even labeled the September military drills to be conducted by Russia and Belarus as a “simulation of an offensive character against NATO.” Lithuania as well as the other Baltic states received encouragement from the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, who met with his counterparts of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in a Lithuanian town a day after his meeting with President Grybauskaite. Mattis reassured the states of the commitment of the U.S. in protecting its NATO allies, despite prior comments made by President Trump. NATO is expected to conduct a large air defense exercise in Lithuania in July, and has pledged 4,000 troops to rotate along its eastern border in the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
(Jim Mattis second from left, Karoblis far left)
Russia’s intentions towards the West certainly do not look to be improving. Its military ‘practice’ with Belarus in September has only further escalated the tensions between Russia and the West that are pushing the world scarily back in the direction of a Cold War. What just months ago seemed like a soaring relationship between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, now continues to crumble, contributing to the chaos of American politics at home and abroad.