Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin pledges military training, supports Baltic

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that the United States will conduct more military exercises with Baltic states such as Latvia and seek to provide more training, and said the United States could get more training if needed. The United States is sending additional troops to strengthen the region against any possible threat from Russia.

Austin told a news conference with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks that plans for an ongoing troop rotation in the Baltic could use troops from U.S. brigades in Romania and other parts of Europe, but “we Troops can also be moved from the U.S. state.”

Austin is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Latvia in nearly 30 years, underscoring the growing importance of the Baltic state on Russia’s western fringe. They had witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and feared that they could be the next victims of Moscow’s aggression. The last defense secretary to travel to Latvia was William Perry in 1995, the Pentagon said.

Pabrix told reporters his priority was to gain more U.S. military supporters, adding that his troops needed “rigorous training” every day in order to defend his country. He added that Latvia also needs additional financial assistance from the United States to purchase new military equipment and to strengthen its air and coastal defenses.

During the two-day meeting in the Baltic capital just a few hours from the Russian border, Austin repeatedly reiterated the U.S. commitment to help the region defend itself. On Tuesday, he met with U.S. troops, including members of the Security Forces Assistance Brigade, which trains allied nations. He said on Wednesday that he wanted to continue using SFAB in the Baltic region.

Austin’s visit comes as Russia enters its sixth month of the war in Ukraine, where Russia continues to make slow but gradual progress but faces growing counterattacks by Ukrainian troops in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine. Ukraine has also been working to stop Kremlin troops in the eastern industrial Donbass region.

Amid a potential escalation of fighting, a powerful explosion rocked a Russian air base in Crimea on Tuesday and sent a towering cloud of smoke over the area. The Russian Defense Ministry denied that the Saki base in the Black Sea had been shelled, saying instead that the ammunition exploded there. But Ukrainian social networks have been flooded with speculation that it was hit by a long-range missile fired by Ukraine.

Austin held a series of quick meetings at Riga Castle on Wednesday with senior Latvian leaders, including President Egils Levits, who pledged the United States’ firm commitment to stand with the Baltic region against any Russian efforts. aggression. The three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – are all former Soviet republics, occupied and annexed by Joseph Stalin during World War II. They gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004, placing themselves under the military protection of the United States and its Western allies.

“We will strengthen our rotational deployment in the region and increase training with our Baltic allies to further strengthen our operational credible posture in the region,” Austin said in a meeting with Latvian Prime Minister Artus Chris Janis. Cullins said at a council meeting. Ministers on Wednesday morning.

At a news conference, Pabriks admitted to worrying about threats from neighboring Belarus, an ally of Russia. He said he did not consider Belarus an independent country, but only a part of Russia. He said Latvia is constantly concerned about threats along the border and is keeping a close eye on it.

To appease NATO allies, step up training and exercises, and shift the focus of forces to NATO’s eastern flank, the United States has sent an additional 20,000 troops to Europe — a total of about 100,000. Of those, the United States now has about 500 troops in Latvia, up from 100 in the country last December.

In March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO began exploring how best to strengthen its eastern flank, from Estonia in the north through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to Bulgaria and Romania in the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the time: “On land, our new posture should include more troops in the eastern part of the alliance, at a higher readiness, with more advanced Deployed equipment and supplies.” “In the air, increasing Allied air power and enhancing integrated air and missile defenses.”

Austin first stopped at Lierward Air Force Base, where he and Pabriks met with U.S. and Latvian troops. Standing on a hanger with a Black Hawk helicopter in the background, Pabrix told Austin and the service bluntly, “If something happens at the border — we’re ready to die.”

Austin assured Pabrix and the force that “if anything happens and … Latvia’s sovereign territory is questioned or challenged, we will be here with our partners.”

NATO only started to station troops on its eastern flank after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Until the end of last year, only about 5,000 soldiers were deployed in rotation between the Baltic states and Poland.

Now, NATO says, hundreds of thousands of troops are on high alert, the United States has 100,000 troops in Europe, and 40,000 troops under the direct command of NATO, supported by about 150 ships and a similar number of aircraft.

Austin’s visit also comes as Latvia moves to strengthen its own defenses, and the country’s president is considering a plan to revive the voluntary conscription of men and women. After a 15-year hiatus, the draft could be reintroduced next year.

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