Troops of the United States will remain in the Baltic states and Poland for at least another year to deter Russia, commander of the US Army Europe (USAREUR) Lieutenant General Ben Hodges stated in Vilnius on Sunday.
Joint military exercise with the US troops in Klaipėda region
© M.Milinio nuotr.

During a visit for the Lithuanian Army Day, the commander emphasized the importance of NATO's unity today amid Moscow's efforts to intimidate its neighbours.

BNS: How long are the US rotational troops going to stay in Lithuania and other Baltic states?

Hodges: First, let me say, the reason I am here in Vilnius right now of course is out of respect for my friend General [Almantas] Leika, commander of the Lithuanian Land Forces, today is Lithuania's Armed Forces Day. So I would really like to start by giving my congratulations to all men and women in the Armed Forces of Lithuania, [I'm] glad to be a part of that.

US army rotational forces are gonna to be here for as long as necessary to assure all of our Allies and to deter Russian aggression. So as long as Lithuania wants to continue to train with us, US rotational forces will continue to come up.

When do you expect NATO readiness action plan to be fully implemented?

The readiness action plan is, of course, being implemented now. The Alliance, coming out of the Wales summit, was more unified that I have ever seen. I have been a NATO soldier for 34 years and I have never seen for the nations were so serious about this. To have 28 nations so strongly unified about what needed to be done in response to Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea is very important.

The readiness action plan has two components: assurance and then adaptation.

The assurance is already happening: the air policing, the increased number of exercises, multinational exercises. The adaptation part obviously takes a little bit longer. But for, for example, the very high readiness task force, the VJTF, lot of work's been done right now at allied land command in Izmir and at the allied command operations SHAPE in Belgium to develop that concept. Nations are already stepping forward to say they want to be part of it. I anticipate in 2015 you gonna see interim versions of that very high readiness task force, the VJTF, as it moves towards IOC.

We have recently seen incidents where Russia abducted an Estonian officer, arrested a Lithuanian ship, the number of air-policing scrambles has increased significantly in the Baltic states. Is Russia trying to intimidate the Baltics?

What we are seeing, of course, is Russia's behaviour, which is counter to all the accepted international norms - the illegal annexation of Crimea, their involvement illegally inside Ukraine, trying to intimidate her neighbours. Certainly, Russia does not want to see people moving away from Russia into EU or to the Alliance. I think their behaviour with regards to the Estonian policeman, the Lithuanian ship [are] clearly violations of the law. What Russia does is - and you know this better than me because you live here - it is obvious that they use the law and twist the legal instruments' interpretations in order to create pressure and also to create ambiguity about what they are doing so that there are constantly disputes about where the boundary is or where the territorial waters are.

The recent Russian law about Lithuanian young men from 1990 that did not report to Red Army recruiting stations because Lithuania was no longer part of the Soviet Union - so to come up with the new law like that obviously is an attempt to put pressure on Lithuania. Which is why, again, US army forces are here to assure our Allies that we are gonna be here and to provide that support.

Do you see Russia preparing a new land assault in Eastern Ukraine?

They certainly have the capability. I can't make a judgment based on what I know about intention but they have demonstrated the ability and they have positioned the capability to do that. And in a way, they have supported the illegal referendum in Eastern Ukraine that nobody else recognizes, clearly they have no intention of backing away from Crimea, which is Ukrainian sovereign territory by the agreement that Russia signed years ago - so the capabilities are there, the numbers of task groups […] are there but I can't make an assessment of their intention yet.

What are the security implications to the Baltic region of the current Russian actions in Ukraine?

The Russians have demonstrated capability on their exercises, the exercises that you watched even more closely than we do, Zapad exercise, [...] the increased number of air-space violations - this is all about demonstrating capability and trying to intimidate. Part of the reason that the Allies are sticking together is to make sure that, number one, none of this are influenced to do something, to create a situation where Russia might see an opportunity. The discipline, unity of the nations is really very important at this point so that small incident doesn't lead to something that didn't have to happen.

There are gonna be US army forces here in Lithuania as well as Estonia and Latvia and Poland for as long as it is required to deter Russian aggression and to assure our Allies. We have planned rotations out through next year. Units are designated that will continue to do this.

How would you assess the Lithuanian readiness to host the US troops?

The Lithuanian government recently voted to increase the percentage of GDP spending up to 2 percent by the end of the decade. Obviously, I am very pleased to see that Lithuania is doing its part. That shows courage and leadership from the civilian leadership here.

Secondly, Lithuanian military leadership is as good as any in the Alliance. I've known general Leika now for a long time, I've seen the great Iron Wolf brigade numerous times on exercises. There was a recent exercise where Lithuanian brigade commander and staff had control over forces from 11 other nations. That's amazing. Already Lithuanian Land Forces are demonstrating a capability that is perhaps well above and beyond what people might have expected from a small force and one that is new to the Alliance. So I am very excited and optimistic about Lithuanian capabilities.

As far as being host for continued training exercises, US Army Europe is working with the Lithuanian Land Forces to continue to modernize your own training centre and the ability to conduct training exercises. I like the approach that general Leika has to working with the other Baltic nations, Denmark and Poland to take a regional approach.

Lithuania, I believe, is considering increasing its participation in Multinational Corps North East in Sczcecin, Poland, which is I think very important. The United States is gonna increase its participation by 500 percent in that same headquarters. That's an important regional approach. I think Lithuania is right in the middle of very important developments.

Thank you, sir.

Thank you, and again congratulations on Lithuanian Armed Forces Day. I am very happy to be here on a day like this.

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