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NATO needs ‘visible’ counter to Russia threat via Belarus, Lithuania warns

NATO needs a more “visible” presence in the Baltics to counter the threat Russia poses from Belarus, Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda warned on Friday. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a discussion within the transatlantic military alliance about how to best defend its eastern members, with leaders gathering in Madrid next week set to sign off on new plans.  

Speaking ahead of the summit, Nausėda told POLITICO that “very huge fundamental changes” in neighboring Belarus make Lithuania more vulnerable to a quick Russian attack — and necessitate a shift in the region’s security arrangements. 

The Lithuanian leader said he would describe today’s Belarus as an “additional province” of Moscow, adding that the “Russian army can do what they want to move the forces, to deploy the equipment.” 

In the past, Nausėda said, NATO’s strategy relied on reinforcements. Relatively small forces were stationed on the alliance’s eastern edge, with allies expected to come to the region’s aid in case of attack. 

But the new reality, according to the Lithuanian leader, “leaves us no time for reaction,” because Russian troops “might be easily deployed very near to our border” and “there will be no time for reinforcement,” he said. 

Now, Baltic officials are asking for more troops, weapons and air defense. 

Germany, which already leads a NATO battlegroup in Lithuania, has recently announced that it will boost its contribution to the country’s defenses. The plan includes troops that would be assigned to Lithuania’s security but still formally based in Germany.

This model is expected to be echoed in some other countries. NATO officials and diplomats are negotiating a compromise whereby some allies will boost their presence along the eastern flank — including by placing more weapons there and earmarking troops available to defend the region — but without committing to long-term, large-scale permanent bases. 

The “German side demonstrated a strong commitment to increase the forward presence in Lithuania,” Nausėda noted. 

“What is most important” for the Baltics, he said, is “to have very clear assurances” from allies about a “more visible forward presence here in the Baltics.” 

And while decision-makers in the region have been pushing for more troops — and a more permanent presence — in the area, the president acknowledged numerous logistical hurdles.

Permanently stationing NATO forces in Lithuania “would be our priority, but it depends also on our ability, absorption capacity,” he said, citing the need for adequate infrastructure, accommodation and training facilities.

And it’s a two-way street, according to the Lithuanian leader. 

“On the one hand, we have to do our homework,” he said. “On the other hand,” he said, “our allies have to prepare to send more troops to Lithuania because this is clear priority for us.”

“We would like to achieve the maximum in both regards: first of all, to increase our capacity to accommodate more. And of course, we are highly interested to see those troops on the permanent basis,” he said. 

“As I told yesterday to the Chancellor Olaf Scholz here in Brussels, my dream is to create even better conditions for training in Lithuania comparing with Germany, so the Germans should want to come to us in order to live and to train.” 

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