Mike Pence's Baltics Visit Prompts Hope NATO Will Double Jet Deployment During Russia War Game

Mike Pence and Karen Pence
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence leave U.S. Air Force Two to visit Tallinn, Estonia, on July 30. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Lithuania hopes the U.S. will deploy as many as seven air force jets on its territory when European neighbors Russia and Belarus flex their military muscles nearby in the Zapad drill in September, the Baltic news site Delfi reported Monday.

Speaking after a meeting in Estonia with other Baltic leaders as well as visiting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she believed Washington would deploy "almost twice" as many jets as the current NATO commitment to her country.

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Lithuania and Estonia both currently host four foreign air-force jets on their airfields. a measure intended to protect NATO's airspace in the Baltic, in an area that directly borders Russia. Grybauskaite said she and other Baltic leaders were happy to see the U.S. supported them "not only in words but in real deeds."

Pence pledged U.S. support for NATO allies in the Baltic region, though it was not immediately clear if he had told Grybauskaite about the prospective U.S. deployment.

The three Baltics are the only former Soviet republics currently in the alliance. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea and backing of insurgents in Donbas, both territories in ex-Soviet state Ukraine, the Baltic states' worry about a similar scenario in northeastern Europe has peaked.

Currently, more people in each of the three countries fear war more than extremist attacks. Officials in Vilnius, Lithuania, are concerned about the upcoming Zapad military drill, fearing Russia may act as it has before and announce a tide of overlapping military drills to run in parallel, dramatically increasing the scale of its military activity.

Lithuania's Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis has called the drill a "simulated attack" on NATO in the Baltics, though Russia denies that the drill will be offensive in character or lack transparency.

Each of the Baltics and Poland have a multinational NATO battalion deployed on their territory to serve as treadwire in the face of Russia's own, more numerous, westernmost forces. Lithuania has requested that the U.S. deploy air defense missiles on its territory as part of these security assurance measures.