Reports from Lithuania indicate that the US has amp’d up air patrol over Baltic states as Russia gears up for major military drills.
According to Lithuania’s defence ministry seven US F-15 fighter jets landed at the country`s northern Siauliai military air base. This is the same base from where NATO member Poland ran patrols using four jets over the last four-month rotation. The contingent arrived two weeks ahead of massive military exercise “Zapad 2017” (“West”) in neighbouring Russia and Belarus.
While Lithuanian intelligence has suggested that military drill “will simulate an armed conflict with NATO”, Russia has maintained they are doing this as a “purely defensive” drill and that it is not directed against any specific enemy. According to Russian Defence Minister Alexander Fomin, the drills will involve 12,700 troops, but critics, Lithuania included, claim there could be as many as 100,000.
Belarus has indicated that the military drill scenario involves an assumed threat from neighbours to the west and said that the number of troops participating will be “13,800 servicemen.”
NATO has been guarding Baltic skies since 2004, when Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia joined the defence alliance but lacked the air power to monitor their own airspace.
Last week, NATO jets were scrambled four times to intercept Russian planes approaching Baltic countries` airspace, including an Il-22 bomber and seven Su-27 fighter jets, according to Lithuania`s defence ministry.
NATO has also deployed about 1,000 soldiers in each of the Baltic states and Poland in response to growing concern over Russian intentions after Moscow`s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.