The first US troops arrive at the airport in Swidwin, Poland on April 23 after Washington said it was sending a force of 600 to the Baltic states as the crisis over Ukraine deepens. The Baltic states are seeking a permanent NATO presence. (JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
HELSINKI — With nervous Baltic governments urging the US and NATO to establish a permanent “force presence” in the region, against the backdrop of Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine, Lithuania has responded to a NATO call for increased defense spending by promising to double its military budget to more than $800 million by 2020.
The beefed-up budget will bolster the Lithuanian armed forces’ procurement capacity to strengthen core areas of defense, including air policing, radar surveillance, armored units and modernized artillery systems.
The regional threat posed by Russia in Ukraine has also caused Lithuania’s fellow NATO-aligned Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia to enhance their defense spending ambitions. All three states are linking the size of their spending to a commitment by NATO to establish a stronger and permanent US-led “force presence” on the Baltic Sea.
The heightened threat being felt by Lithuania and its NATO partner Baltic states has raised support for the US to revisit the shelved European Anti-Missile Shield System (EAMSS), said Arturas Paulauskas, chairman of the Lithuanian National Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Defense.
“Russia’s expansionism and its involvement in the Ukraine and Crimea underlines the need for Europe to have an anti-missile defense shield. We need to be aware and alert to the rapid modernization of Russia’s military. A response is required,” he said in an interview. “What if Russia deploys Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad? These will have a capacity to reach cities and installations across the entire Baltic area, including all of Lithuania and parts of Poland and Latvia.”
The committee chairman has urged Baltic governments to “press” the US to relaunch the EAMSS project.
Baltic governments are talking to NATO about implementing new, practical defense-boosting measures in the Baltic region, said Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s defense minister.
“We are looking for stronger collective defense solutions and a more robust NATO presence in the Baltic area. This has become a more urgent requirement, given what is taking place close to our borders in the Ukraine,” Olekas said in an interview.
The uncertainty over Russia’s intentions in Ukraine, and the raised regional instability, is helping to drive Lithuania’s decision to prioritize certain procurement projects, such as the acquisition of additional radar capacity, Olekas said.
“We must not only rely on the support of the alliance, but also take greater ownership of our responsibility to ensure national security,” he said. “The renewed cross-party agreement to increase defense spending creates the necessary conditions to enable us to meet our defense-strengthening targets.”
The initiative by “capital-starved” Baltic governments to increase defense spending reflects their depth of unease and a real sense of threat to their national security, said Jon Wolters, a Brussels-based political analyst.
“For Lithuania to say it will double its military spending within five years may not be hugely significant from a NATO standpoint, but it reveals a sense of urgency that hasn’t existed since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990,” Wolters said.
NATO wants Lithuania and Latvia to raise defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, and both have agreed to do what Estonia did several years ago, Wolters said.
“Like Ukraine, all three Baltic states have large ethnic Russian populations. This has raised their insecurity,” he said.
Baltic governments also have communicated their support for a permanent US/NATO presence in the region.
In bilateral talks with a US Defense Department delegation headed by Jim Townsend, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, Lithuanian officials proposed that the US deploy troops to Lithuania as part of a heightened NATO commitment to the region.
“The deployment of one contingent of US troops has been agreed, and we hope that this will be the start of a closer long-term cooperation,” said Vaidotas Urbelis, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry’s policy director. “It would be good to have US forces ... even become part of a permanent allied troop presence in this area.”
The deployment, announced by the US on April 22, will comprise 600 troops who will conduct joint exercises with local forces in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. The planned maneuvers, which will draw on US forces based in Germany and Italy, will run over four weeks to the end of May.
The US deployment to the Baltics represents a “normal reaction” to Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, Lt. Gen. Arvydas Pocius, the chief of Lithuania’s defense forces, said in an interview.
“The deployment fits well with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which follows the alliance’s fundamental principle toward members of all for one and one for all,” Pocius said. “NATO’s Baltic air policing capacity has been strengthened, and we anticipate a stronger allied naval force in the Baltic Sea.”
Lithuania’s plans to double its defense spending will immediately affect acquisitions, including purchase of an additional NATO-compatible long-range radar.
Lithuania’s Kaunas-based Air Surveillance and Control Command (ASCC) is advancing with plans to purchase two other long-range radars. The ASCC works closely with the partly NATO-funded Baltic States Air Surveillance System.
The first of these radars, to be bought from a NATO-member state, will be based near Lithuania’s border with Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. The second long-range radar will be in Lithuania’s southern Prienai District. All three will replace Russian-supplied radars dating to the 1970s and 1980s.
The long-range radar acquisition program, due to be completed at a cost of $80 million by 2019, forms part of a broader plan to build a unified national air surveillance and control system linked with NATO’s Integrated Air Defense System. ■