As Belarus shuts border, Lithuania invites NATO for war games with tanks & troops just 8km from shared frontier
US soldiers hoping for an exotic winter posting to one of their many tropical overseas bases must have been disappointed to land in icy Lithuania. Nevertheless, their presence will help to heat up military tensions in the region.
The Lithuanian Armed Forces announced on Sunday that members of the NATO military bloc had conducted a series of tank and rocket tests just 8 kilometers from the demarcation line with Belarus, one of Moscow’s closest allies. Embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had ordered the border closed in October, amid rising political tensions and spiraling coronavirus figures across Europe. Pictures of the war games released by Vilnius show soldiers firing shoulder-mounted rockets and advanced Leopard-2 battle tanks facing off across the border. German, Dutch and Norwegian troops were said to have taken part.
The drills come just days after Lithuania’s defense ministry announced that American forces had deployed to the country as part of a NATO rotation. The Army’s Second Battalion, it said, has been transferred to training grounds in Lithuania, along with Abrams tanks, armored fighting vehicles and other heavy equipment. The country’s Minister for National Defense, Arvydas Anusauskas told journalists that “the United States is our main transatlantic ally, whose contribution to strengthening defense and deterrence in the region is indispensable.”
However, not all Lithuanians see the US troop deployment as a shield against a real and existential threat, with Russian media picking up on comments from social media users, in which one asked, “why are they wearing desert camouflage in our forests? Judging by their equipment, they clearly don’t expect there to be actual hostilities.”
Similar firing exercises have seen tensions between NATO and Russia recently. In September, Moscow expressed alarm at “extremely dangerous” escalations as part of war games held in neighboring Estonia. The defense ministry added that “Russia has repeatedly proposed to the US and its allies to limit training activities and to divert the exercise zones from the Russia-NATO contact line.”
However, in November, US-led tests in Romania saw a barrage of missiles, which have the potential to hit the disputed Crimean Peninsula, fired into the Black Sea. The events led the deputy head of the Crimean parliament to say that “provocations against Crimea have become more frequent. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a further exacerbation of international relations and the international situation. And the topic of Crimea is a convenient reason for escalating such provocations.”
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