On a visit to Lithuania on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis participated in a joint press conference with his Baltic counterparts following a meeting with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė.
Meeting with the multinational NATO battlion-sized battle group stationed in Lithuania as part of the alliance's enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), the U.S. Secretary of State confirmed that NATO is present in the region to ensure that nobody would get the wrong idea and that everyone understood that the alliance is unified and the reciprocal protection principle still applies.
Mattis stressed that all of the military force positioned in the Baltics is for defense purposes. "There is nothing offensive here," he noted.
Asked if he shared the concern of his Baltic counterparts — Margus Tsahkna (Estonia), Raimonds Bergmanis (Latvia) and Raimundas Karoblis (Lithuania) — that Russia may position and leave on Belarusian territory larger units with more modern equipment in the framework of the large-scale Zapad 2017 military training exercise, Mattis declined to answer in detail. He did, however, express hope that if Russia claims that the exercise in question is a routine military exercise then it will remain routine in nature as well.
Mattis noted that NATO also conducts frequent exercises in the region and there was no cause for concern, as NATO's objective is to be visible and unified.
The U.S. defense secretary was likewise asked at the press conference whether the Baltic states' air defense should be contributed to more and whether the Baltics have requested that the U.S. position Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. While they once again did not answer in detail, Mattis and his colleagues stressed that that which is needed at the time will be positioned in the region.
America has taken note of Baltic commitment to defense spending
Mattis praised the Baltic states for taking the matter of defense spending seriously, highlighting the fact that Estonia is already meeting the recommended NATO target of spending two percent of the GDP on national defense and noting that Latvia and Lithuania are moving surely in the same direction; according to him, the American public has gladly taken note of this.
The visiting U.S. defense secretary was asked at the press conference about the recently made decision to supply weapons to Syrian Kurds, a move sharply criticized by Turkey. Mattis stressed that Washington considers Turkey an important ally and that Ankara's potential concerns will surely be addressed by a solution suitable to both allies.
Prior to the press conference, Mattis, Tsahkna, Bergmanis and Karoblis discussed defense cooperation and the security situation in the Baltic region.
Editor: Aili Vahtla