The United States has dispatched warplanes to patrol the skies over the Baltic region in an attempt to reinforce its allies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against what Washington regards as an alleged “Russian threat,” as Moscow is gearing up for major military drills.
Lithuania’s Defense Ministry announced in a statement that seven US Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter jets had already landed in the country’s northern Siauliai military airbase, adding that the newly arrived fleet would begin to conduct the mission of air police over the Baltic States from September 1.
The so-called mission has been carried out by the Air Force of Poland, also a NATO member, via four of its F-16 Fighting Falcon warplanes over the last four-month rotation.
The reinforcement contingent has arrived two weeks ahead of the “Zapad 2017”, a massive planned strategic military exercise scheduled to be jointly carried out by Russia and Belarus from 14 to 20 September in Belarus as well as in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast and other northwestern areas.
The Lithuanian intelligence has cautioned that the Zapad drills “will simulate an armed conflict with NATO” but Kremlin on Tuesday said the war games would be “purely defensive” and not focused on any specific enemy.
Alexander Fomin, the Russian deputy defense minister, said the drills would involve 12,700 troops, but critics, including Lithuania, which is a neighbor to Belarus, claim that as many as 100,000 soldiers could participate in the war games.
NATO, led in practice by Washington, has been patrolling the Baltic skies since 2004, when the three Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined the military alliance but lacked the aviation power to monitor their own airspace.
Furthermore, the trio possesses only short-range anti-aircraft missiles, leaving their airspace largely unprotected in the event of hostilities.
The United States has also deployed contingents of troops in the Baltic region since Russia’s reunification with Crimea following a referendum in March 2014.
The US deployments have been supplemented by four NATO battle groups of more than 1,000 soldiers in each of the three Baltic States and Poland.
Moscow has repeatedly criticized NATO’s military buildup in Eastern Europe, saying it undermines regional security.
The United States and its NATO allies recently completed positioning about 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic States, as well as Poland, as a deterrent to what they call Russian aggression.
In response, Russia has beefed up its southwestern military capacity, deploying nuclear-capable missiles to its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania.