The U.S. Army will initiate on Friday the deployment of about 500 troops to Lithuania as part of a military operation, though government officials have said the strategy has nothing to do with recent political tensions in the region.
“The United States is Lithuania’s strategic transatlantic defense partner and one of the main allies ensuring the security of the entire Baltic region,” Lithuanian Minister of National Defense, Raimundas Karoblis said Thursday. “The rotation of the U.S. troops in Lithuania is a deterrence factor of particular significance contributing to NATO efforts in the Baltic region.”
Lithuania neighbors Belarus, the site of heightened political tensions as protests have erupted following the August presidential election that international critics and protesters believe was rigged.
But Lithuania claimed that the strategic move was a part of a previously planned NATO policy to move troops from Poland for military trainings.
“All the exercises taking place in the country are of a defensive nature and are not directed against any state, including Belarus,” Lithuanian official, Karolis Aleksa said in press release Wednesday, according to LRT News.
U.S. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said that the move was in direct coordination with Lithuania, due to their efforts to make the two percent GDP defense spending threshold that NATO member nations have agreed to pay – a topic President Trump has made a sticking point by removing troops from Germany for their alleged “delinquent” payment status.
“This level of cooperation, training, security and, ultimately, stability has been made possible by the commitment of Lithuania in the investment of more than 2 percent of GDP on defense spending and modernization of its armed forces,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday in Vilnius after meeting with Lithuanian ministry officials, according to the Baltic Times.
Trump announced in July that troops were being reorganized in Europe as an incentive to NATO members to meet the two percent GDP defense spending requirement, though under the current agreement nations have until 2024 to meet that goal.
Lithuania is one of nine nations currently meeting the targeted GDP defense spending requirement.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, has said that the move to pull 12,000 troops from Germany was purely a strategic change to shift 5,600 service members to different parts of the U.K., Italy, Belgium, Poland and the Black Sea Region. The remaining 4,500 American servicemen will be sent back to the U.S.
McCarthy also said that U.S. service members will deploy to Lithuania for the next “several years” to engage in “training side-by-side with our great ally.”
But the U.S. troops, who are apart of U.S. Army operation Atlantic Resolve, are reportedly arriving earlier and remaining in Lithuania longer – a change that followed the re-election of Russian ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to a report by Reuters.
Lukashenko has rejected all accusations of a rigged election. But weeks of protests have led to the disappearances of dozens of protestors and journalists covering the demonstrations — prompting international condemnation.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. and its allies were considering sanctions on Belarus.
The European Union has said that they do not recognize the Aug. 9 election results or the Belarusian government’s claims that Lukashenko won by 80 percent of the vote.