Alarmed by a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, which raised concerns among all members of NATO, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said on Monday that his country needs a permanent US military presence to deter Russia.
Speaking during NATO’s chief visit to the allied troops in the Baltic country, Pabriks also noted he wants to boost Latvia sea and air defenses with US Patriot systems (surface-to-air missiles).
Considering the fact that they’re linked to NATO’s main territory only by a 60 km land corridor – known as the Suwalki gap – between Poland and Lithuania, the Baltic States are seen as the alliance’s most vulnerable flank.
According to military experts’ warning, Russia might capture the gap via Belarus, securing a land corridor to Kaliningrad, its heavily fortified exclave on the Baltic Sea.
Although there are US troops stationed in Germany, experts say they might not reach the Baltics fast enough in the event of such an attack.
His statements came as the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to arrive in Latvia’s capital Riga late on Monday before a meeting with 29 NATO counterparts on Tuesday.
Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John Benson, commander of the NATO battlegroup in Latvia, stressed that deterrence is critical, pointing to the 1,500 troops NATO troops that were rehearsing battle skills in a snowy Latvian woodland, seeking to stop an attack on Riga by disrupting and stalling the unidentified adversary’s advance north of the city with camouflaged tanks and live rounds.
Since July 2017, NATO has had four multinational battalion-size battlegroups deployed to defend Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for Eastern Ukraine’s separatists.
Moscow, however, reiterated on more than one occasion that it has no intention whatsoever of invading the Baltics or Poland, accusing at the same time NATO of destabilizing Europe by moving troops closer to Russia’s borders.