US to boost air & troop presence in Lithuania during Russia-Belarus drills

US to boost air & troop presence in Lithuania during Russia-Belarus drills
The US will boost its military presence, possibly doubling the number of warplanes in Lithuania in September during Russia’s Zapad-2017 drills with Belarus, Lithuania's president has announced.

The scheduled military exercises will run from September 14-20 and has sparked alarm among NATO leaders and the Baltic states.

“During the Zapad drills, more US servicemen, military equipment and vessels will be deployed here, air police will be doubled. This shows special attention to our region,” Sputnik quoted Dalia Grybauskaite as saying in a video address.

The number of American warplanes in Lithuania may be increased from four to at least seven, Grybauskaite added, saying the reinforcements will arrive at the Siauliai Air Base between late August and early September to help carry out their standard Baltic Air Policing mission.

“We expect seven airplanes, almost double in the near future," Grybauskaite said from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, where she was attending a meeting with the leaders of Latvia and Estonia, as well as US Vice President Mike Pence.

At a press conference, Pence reiterated his government’s commitment to the NATO alliance and maintaining a military presence in eastern Europe.

“A strong and united NATO is more necessary today than at any point since the collapse of communism a quarter-century ago and no threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east,” he said.

Zapad-2017 is expected to involve 3,000 Russian troops, 280 pieces of military equipment and up to 25 Russian aircraft. The maneuvers will take place in an area stretching from the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s far northwest to Belarus. Minsk will send around 7,200 servicemen to take part in the drills.

Earlier in July, a top US commander claimed the biennial Russia-Belarus military drills may be a “Trojan horse.”

“People are worried, this is a Trojan horse. They say, 'We’re just doing an exercise,' and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the US Army Europe, told Reuters.

While noting the dangers of NATO’s provocations along its eastern borders, Russian officials and diplomats have repeatedly tried to reassure their Western and Baltic counterparts that the exercises pose no threat to the neighbors of Russia or Belarus.

“This exercise is scheduled and follows an agreement between our governments. After it’s finished, all troops will return at once to their permanent deployment sites,” Aleksandr Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, said in June. There's been much “unhealthy speculation” surrounding the drills, he added.

While NATO and its partners are concerned about the exercises, Moscow has pointed to the bloc's own increased military activity on Russia's borders. Moscow estimates that around 40,000 NATO troops have and will take part in various military drills in Europe between June and November.

“From June to November, NATO will hold over 15 drills in Eastern Europe and approximately the same number in the Black Sea region,” Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko noted earlier. “If the total number of their participants is counted, it will be over 40,000 people.”

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Russia has repeatedly warned that NATO’s military build-up close to its borders, which has intensified since the Ukraine crisis, risks undermining regional security.