This is a busy week for NATO. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel led separate meetings with the defense ministers from Estonia and the Czech Republic. In both meetings, the Ukraine crisis and how the US can increase its forces in Eastern Europe—to include beefing up exercises BALTOPS and Saber Strike, both coming in June—were at the top of the agenda.
Meanwhile, in the Baltic countries, officials are exuberant over the presence of US Army troops and the opportunity to train with them. Maj. Gen. Almantas Leika, Lithuania’s land forces commander (which consists of all of 4,000 troops) said that the US deployment “shows that we can rely on our ally” to help in the Baltics as well. “This is a very clear signal, and we read the signal very clearly.” Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., the commander of US Army Europe told Stars and Stripes that he is looking for ways to increase the assets deployed with those troops, to perhaps include helicopters and vehicles from other units.
Meanwhile, the handover of the NATO air-policing mission from US command to Polish command takes place on May 1. In addition to the 4 Polish Mig-29s, there are also 4 UK Typhoons all deployed in Lithuania, 4 Danish F-16s at the Amari air base in Estonia, four French Rafales at the Polish air base in Malbork, and 6 Canadian CF-18’s departed for Romania, on April 29, for a grand total of 22 forward-deployed fighter aircraft that will be flying NATO air patrols over Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
Polish defense minister Tomasz Sziemoniak declared, on April 28, that Poland will play the role of a regional defense cooperation leader in NATO, according to Xinhua. Sziemoniak has been at the forefront of efforts to bring more NATO infrastructure to Poland, including larger numbers of ground troops, and has been agitating to re-orient NATO, at its next summit in Wales in September, towards opposing Russia. It’s unlikely that he was discouraged from that path by the visit to Warsaw, on Monday, of NATO’s new deputy commander, British General Sir Adrian Bradshaw. According to a NATO release, he said:
“Poland’s contribution to the Baltic Air Policing Mission sends a strong message of Alliance solidarity during this time of increased tension. NATO is concerned by the current instability in Ukraine, which is why we are increasing our level of readiness.”