The US has deployed the Patriot missile system to Lithuania to be used in NATO military drills, the first time the advanced missiles have been sent to the Baltics near Russia’s border.
The long-range anti-aircraft missile battery was brought to the Siauliai military airbase on Monday, ahead of the Tobruk Legacy exercise, and will be withdrawn when the exercise endson July 22, a Lithuanian defense ministry spokeswoman told Reuters.
“The deployment of Patriots is important because it demonstrates that such moves are no longer a taboo in the region,” Lithuania’s Defense Minister Raimondas Karoblis said.
“It proves that the missiles can be brought to wherever they are needed, which is very important,” he told Reuters.
The three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have expressed concern about their air defense weakness in the face of Russian air superiority.
Poland, a member of the NATO military alliance, announced last week that Washington had agreed to sell it eight Patriot missile systems, a deal worth up to $7.6 billion.
The Patriot is a surface-to-air missile system manufactured by the US defense contractor Raytheon.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia possess only short-range anti-aircraft missiles, leaving the skies largely unprotected in the event of hostilities and have expressed concern about their air defense weakness following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The United States has deployed contingents of troops 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.
Around 3,500 US troops arrived in Poland in January, one of the largest deployments of US forces in Europe since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Western countries have moved to step up their military presence in Eastern Europe to deter what they call the Russian “aggression.”
Moscow is wary of NATO’s military build-up near its borders. In response, Russia has beefed up its southwestern military capacity, deploying nuclear-capable missiles to its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania.