U.S. Missiles Deployed in Lithuania In Face of Russia Fears

Patriot missile
U.S. Army soldiers man a PATRIOT launch pad during a joint military exercise with the Romanian Army that aimed to test the interoperability of U.S. and Romanian armed forces in the event of a missile attack, near Corbu village in Constanta county, Romania, November 8, 2016. Inquam Photos/Ovidiu Micsik/Reuters

The U.S. has deployed its much-coveted air defense system for the first time in Lithuania as the Baltic country and its neighbors continue to window shop for anti-aircraft missiles to deter any military incursion from Russia, Lithuania's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The Patriot system will be part of a 500-strong drill, kicking off Tuesday in Lithuania. The country's forces will be joined be troops from the United Kingdom, the United States, Latvia, and Poland. The military kit will only stay in Lithuania until July 22.

All five of the NATO allies participating will contribute to the 30 air defense systems in the Tobruq Legacy 2017 exercise. The event's purpose is to test the air component command structure of the alliance that also involves elements stationed in Romania and the Czech Republic.

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The Patriot long-range missile system is one of several considered by European states in the northeast, including Lithuania. Last week Poland announced it had agreed to purchase the system from U.S. maker Raytheon in principle, though an exact sum is yet to be given. In May, U.S. defense officials said they were considering the short-term deployment to Lithuania.

Lithuania is one of Europe's top defense spenders by GDP and alongside its fellow Baltic states has expressed high concern about the possibility of war since relations with Russia plummeted in 2014. Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine that year and subsequent backing of separatist militants in the country's east, gave other former Soviet states an unwelcome show of Russia's ability to forcibly change nearby borders. Russia's reinforcement of its western flank following the annexation has done nothing to diminish fears of conflict in the region.

"The deployment is to do with an emerging threat," Magnus Nordenman, Nordic security expert at the Atlantic Council, says. "Air defense has not been a priority for the last 15 years when NATO was busy in Afghanistan, dealing with piracy and peacekeeping. There was not much of an air threat but now that Russia is building up air forces, it is different."

The Baltic has become a particular area where nerves are tight both on the side of Russia and the side of U.S. allies. The most extensive, direct border between U.S. allies in Europe and Russia cuts through it. But besides the long term desire for increased capabilities, the deployment's timing is relevant.

"The way I view the Patriots deployment is that it also forms part of a broader U.S. response in the region to the upcoming Russian exercise nearby - Zapad," Nordenman says. Lithuania has expressed fears that the drill a simulation of an attack on NATO.

Deterring Russia from military incursion underpins western strategy in the region but this is also a "signal" to Moscow ahead of the drill that U.S. commitment is not waning. A third aspect is the aspect to test and showcase the Patriots' abilities as demand in Europe's northeast peaks.

"Across the region people are shipping for air defenses," he says. "Poles, Swedes and certainly the Baltic states are looking. I don't think the Patriot is on the cards for the Baltics in terms of purchase though. It is so large and expensive and although they are among the best in keeping up defense spending, I am not sure they can afford and manage such a big system."