The first U.S. troops have arrived in Latvia, which shares a border directly with Russia, as NATO reinforces its eastern flank after Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine.
Early on Thursday, a small force of 40 troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, arrived in Latvia from their home base in Italy, the U.S. Embassy in Riga confirmed.
The deployment is part of a movement of 800 American troops and equipment into the Baltics – the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are all now part of the NATO alliance.
President Joe Biden has said that the movement is defensive in nature and that the U.S. has ‘no intention of fighting Russia.’
Indeed, the small size of the Baltics deployment is strategically insignificant on a military level, but appears designed to reassure the NATO allies and serve as a ‘tripwire’ that assures an immediate U.S. military response to any aggression against the Baltic states.
Nevertheless, the deployment of U.S. troops to the Baltic states, which all share borders with Russia, is sure to infuriate Putin, who has long demanded that NATO withdraw allied forces from Eastern Europe.
Early Thursday, a small force of 40 troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, arrived in Latvia from their home base in Italy, the US Embassy in Riga confirmed
The deployment is part of a movement of 800 US troops and equipment into the Baltics — the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are all now part of the NATO alliance
Biden has said that the troop movement is defensive in nature and that the US has ‘no intention of fighting Russia’
Latvia’s Ministry of Defense praised the U.S. troop deployment in a statement, saying that it demonstrates ‘U.S. commitment to defend NATO allies and strengthen Latvia’s defense capabilities.’
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania said that they ‘condemn in the strongest possible way the open large scale Russian aggression against the independent, peaceful and democratic Ukraine.’
The Baltics foreign ministers called for the harshest possible sanctions against Russia, including severing its ties to the international banking system, and for the provision of arms and financial assistance to Ukraine.
Latvia’s Foreign Minister ominously echoed the phrase that marked America’s entry into World War II
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in a tweet that February 24, 2022 was ‘a date that will live in infamy’, ominously echoing the phrase that marked America’s entry into World War II.
Latvia’s Deputy Prime Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview this week that if Latvia was not a member of NATO ‘we would be definitely now in the position of Ukraine, I can guarantee that.’
President Joe Biden announced the movement of US troops into the Baltics on Tuesday as part of a broader reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank, saying the forces will assist with border reinforcement and refugee processing, but will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, where Russia launched an all-out invasion early Thursday.
The 934th Airlift Wing of the U.S. Air Force arrives on the tarmac in Riga, Latvia on 24 February 2022
A U.S. Air force C-130H aircraft carrying U.S. service members is seen upon arrival at Riga International Airport
The United States committed to defend NATO allies and strengthen Latvia’s defense capabilities following Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. More than 300 US soldiers are planned to be transferred to Latvia
Biden has said that the movement of US troops is defensive in nature and that the US has ‘no intention of fighting Russia’
U.S. service members stand on the tarmac of Riga International Airport as they arrive in Latvia on Thrusday
US Deputy Chief of Mission Ruta Elvikis greeted the US soldiers, who are part of a force of 800 deploying to the Baltics
‘I have authorized additional movements of U.S. forces and equipment already stationed in Europe to strengthen our Baltic Allies — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,’ said Biden.
‘Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part. We have no intention of fighting Russia,’ he added.
‘We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our Allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO,’ said Biden.
The Pentagon says that the Baltics deployment is part of a broader shuffling of troops and equipment that will reinforce NATO allies close to the war in Ukraine and near Russia’s border.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved the movement of up to eight F-35 Lightning II aircraft from Germany to undisclosed operating locations on NATO’s eastern flank.
Twenty AH-64 Apache attack helicopters will also deploy from Germany to the Baltic region, and 12 Apache helicopters will move from Greece to Poland.
‘These additional personnel are being repositioned to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression against NATO member states, and train with host-nation forces,’ DOD officials said in a written statement.
Two of the first 40 soldiers of the 173rd U.S. Army Airborne Brigade are seen in Riga after stepping off a military plane
U.S. service members stand on the tarmac of Riga International Airport as they arrive in Latvia on Thursday
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved the movement of up to eight F-35 Lightning II aircraft from Germany to undisclosed operating locations on NATO’s eastern flank. Pictured: An F-35 flies over Germany on Wednesday
All forces are under the command of Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command. Officials said the moves are temporary.
The Pentagon says these moves are the latest in a series designed to reassure the frontline states.
The United States has already sent 1,000 soldiers from a Stryker squadron from Germany to Romania.
An 82nd Airborne Division infantry brigade combat team of about 3,000 will be deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Poland, joining the roughly 1,700 US troops already there.
Company-sized Stryker units will deploy to Hungary and Bulgaria. In addition, Austin ordered 8,500 service members to a heightened state of readiness should NATO activate its Rapid Reaction Force.
Overall, there are about 90,000 U.S. service members currently based in Europe.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine sent shockwaves through the Baltic countries in particular, which are former Soviet states and likely targets for Putin’s ambition to establish a buffer zone between NATO and Russia.
Lithuania’s president declared a state of emergency, and Latvia suspended the broadcast licenses of several Russian TV stations accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda.
All three Baltic countries were seized and annexed by Joseph Stalin during World War II before gaining independence again with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russia’s attack has come to Ukraine on all fronts, with bombs and missiles striking targets across the country, ground forces rolling in from Belarus, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, and paratroopers dropping on Kharkiv
Attack helicopters are pictured flying over the Kiev region of Ukraine after dozens of Russian aircraft attacked the city
Ukrainian security forces accompany a wounded man after an airstrike hit an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv
They joined NATO in 2004, putting themselves under the military protection of the U.S. and its Western allies. Ukraine is not part of NATO.
The escalating tensions preceding Thursday’s attack brought back memories of mass deportations and oppression for residents of the Baltics.
‘My grandparents were sent away to Siberia. My father was persecuted by the KGB. Now I live in a free democratic country, but it seems that nothing can be taken for granted,’ Jaunius Kazlauskas, a 50-year-old teacher in Vilnius, Lithuania´s capital, told the AP.
Along with Poland, also a NATO member, the small Baltic countries have been among the loudest advocates for powerful sanctions against Moscow and NATO reinforcements on the alliance´s eastern flank.
‘The battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If Putin is not stopped there, he will go further,’ Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned last week in a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin.