Lithuanian Lawmakers Call for Permanent U.S. Troop Presence

The country’s request has taken on renewed urgency amid Russia’s troop buildup.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks past a U.S. flag.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks past a U.S. flag.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks past a U.S. flag during the Three Swords 2021 multinational military exercise of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre near Yavoriv, Ukraine, on July 27, 2021. Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

A delegation of Lithuanian lawmakers is set to ask their counterparts in U.S. Congress for a permanent U.S. troop presence to be based in the Baltic country, as Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and in Belarus rattles allies along NATO’s eastern flank. 

The United States has rotated a small number of troops through Lithuania since 2019, but the country’s top officials have long hoped for a more permanent presence. The request has taken on renewed urgency as neighboring Belarus deepens its military cooperation with Moscow. 

“U.S. troops on a permanent basis, that’s an absolute priority,” said Laima Liucija Andrikiene, chair of Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview. “It’s simply a red line, a very clear message to the Russians.” 

A delegation of Lithuanian lawmakers is set to ask their counterparts in U.S. Congress for a permanent U.S. troop presence to be based in the Baltic country, as Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and in Belarus rattles allies along NATO’s eastern flank. 

The United States has rotated a small number of troops through Lithuania since 2019, but the country’s top officials have long hoped for a more permanent presence. The request has taken on renewed urgency as neighboring Belarus deepens its military cooperation with Moscow. 

“U.S. troops on a permanent basis, that’s an absolute priority,” said Laima Liucija Andrikiene, chair of Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in an interview. “It’s simply a red line, a very clear message to the Russians.” 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Defense Department announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, with 1,000 troops being repositioned from Germany to Romania and an additional 2,000 to be deployed from Fort Bragg to Germany and Poland. 

“Collectively, this force is trained and equipped for a variety of missions to deter aggression and to reassure and defend our allies,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday while underscoring that these were not permanent deployments. An additional 8,500 troops in the United States remain on heightened readiness for a potential deployment to Europe. 

Andrikiene and three other lawmakers—including the parliament’s deputy speaker, Jonas Jarutis, and Laurynas Kasciunas, chair of the National Security and Defence Committee—are in Washington this week for meetings with Congress, and they have a wish list. Among the requests are a permanent U.S. troop deployment to Lithuania as well as increased funding for the Baltic Security Initiative, which currently provides $150 million a year in military aid to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. 

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops close to its border with Ukraine, and the White House has warned that a renewed assault on Ukraine could take place any day. NATO members have sought to reassure nervous allies along the alliance’s eastern flank. Six F-15 fighter jets were dispatched to Estonia from their base in the United Kingdom last week, and Denmark is set to deploy four F-16s to Lithuania to take part in NATO air patrols. On Saturday, the United Kingdom announced it was considering doubling its deployment of troops to Estonia, along with jets, warships, and military specialists. 

On Monday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council that Russia had amassed 5,000 troops as well as short-range missiles, special forces, and anti-aircraft missile batteries in Belarus. Moscow is conducting joint military exercises in Belarus this month, but the deployment’s scale and timing have raised concerns that the country could be used to stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. Moscow is expected to amass around 30,000 troops in the country by early February, Thomas-Greenfield said. 

“The question is: Will those troops remain in Belarus when the exercises will be over?” Andrikiene said. 

Although military neutrality is written into the Belarusian constitution, the country’s embattled president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has become increasingly dependent on Russia to shore up his position following mass street protests in 2020 after Belarus’s presidential elections were widely regarded as falsified. Belarus is set to hold a constitutional referendum later this month, which, if passed, will pave the way for Lukashenko to remain in power until 2035 as well as remove language about the country’s neutrality and obligation to remain free of nuclear weapons.

These draft constitutional changes may indicate Belarus plans to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory,” a senior U.S. State Department official said last month, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Lukashenko’s increasingly erratic behavior has already roiled neighboring states, including Lithuania. Last year, Belarusian officials were accused of exploiting thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, encouraging them to travel to the country and, in some cases, physically forcing them over the border into Poland and Lithuania. After a brutal crackdown on dissent, thousands of Belarusians fled to neighboring Lithuania, including the country’s opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The country is now preparing for a possible influx of refugees from Ukraine, Andrikiene said. 

In January, the State Department gave the green light for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. On Monday, the Lithuanian government established an exploratory mission in Ukraine to assess the country’s needs in the face of renewed threats from Moscow.

Lithuania, which has a population of just under 3 million people, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained under Moscow’s control until it secured its independence in 1990. Its experience of Soviet occupation, which included the mass deportation of almost 300,000 people to gulags in Siberia, left a lasting imprint on the country’s population. “We know the price,” Andrikiene said. “Personal freedom and democracy are not cheap slogans.” 

While seeking to bolster its defenses against Russia, Lithuania is simultaneously locked in a standoff with China. In May, Vilnius withdrew from the 17+1 bloc, an economic and diplomatic grouping of Central and Eastern European nations with China, describing it as an attempt to divide Europe. Beijing has sought to capitalize Eastern Europe and the Balkans’ frustration with Brussels with loans and infrastructure investments—to mixed results

The group has no formal membership process, Andrikiene said, and countries can withdraw by simply indicating they do not plan on attending the next summit. 

“From my point of view, the 16+1 format is dead,” Andrikiene, noting that “two or three” countries had indicated to her that they would not attend. She declined to say which.

In November 2021, Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius, drawing the ire of the Chinese government, which regards the self-governing island as part of its territory. Last week, the European Union filed a case with the World Trade Organization, accusing Beijing of retaliating against the Baltic nation by imposing trade restrictions on Lithuanian goods. Andrikiene said Lithuania was very appreciative of the support expressed by the United States, Australia, and the EU during the spat. 

“We really received a lot of solidarity from all EU member states, and also EU institutions were very supportive,” she said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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