German troops deploy in Lithuania under NATO banner

An M1 Abrams main battle tank prepares to move on a range near Zagan in Poland, January 26, 2017. [NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization / Flickr]

Germany and NATO yesterday (7 February) underscored their commitment to beefing up the defence of Eastern Europe’s border with Russia as the first of four new battalions under the North Atlantic alliance’s banner arrived in Lithuania.

In moves agreed last year under former US President Barack Obama, NATO is expanding its presence in the region to levels unprecedented since the Cold War, prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and accusations – denied by Moscow – that it is supporting a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The German-led battle group of 1,000 troops in Lithuania will be joined this year by a US-led deployment in Poland, British-led troops in Estonia and Canadian-led troops in Latvia. They will add to smaller rotating contingents of US troops.

German defence minister says Berlin is ready to expand military role

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday (17 October) that Berlin was ready to play a larger military role than in the past in the service of closer European defence cooperation.

Doubts about the US commitment to NATO have surfaced since the election of President Donald Trump, who has described NATO allies as “very unfair” for not contributing more financially to the alliance.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe realised it needed to strengthen defence cooperation and was doing more to solve its own problems.

German minister backs European 'defence union'

Germany’s defence minister called for a European “defence union” on Thursday (8 September) during a visit to the Baltic state of Lithuania, where Berlin is preparing to lead a battle group of about 1,000 troops as a deterrence against neighbouring Russia.

She also said US Secretary of Defence James Mattis reassured her about Washington’s commitment to NATO in a recent telephone call.

“After what we discussed, I have no doubt about his deep conviction in the importance of NATO and the commitment of the Americans within NATO to what we have agreed,” she said at a welcoming ceremony at Lithuania’s Rukla military base, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Russian border.

Von der Leyen is due to hold her first meeting with Mattis in Washington on Friday.

In a phone call on Sunday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump agreed to meet alliance leaders in Europe in May.

Western Mediterranean countries plead for increased NATO presence

Defence ministers from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have called on NATO to increase its presence in their part of the world. Euractiv Spain reports.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the German battalion was arriving “(at) the right place and at the right time,” adding she hoped the troops’ stay would be peaceful.

A NATO official said the NATO forces would participate in a major exercise in eastern Europe in June. A second official said it would include a simulated nuclear attack.

There are no end dates for stay of the new contingents, which will rotate every six months partly to comply with NATO’s 1997 promise to Russia to avoid “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe.

German officials said the battalion in Lithuania, which includes over 200 tanks and other ground vehicles, will be fully formed by June 2017, including troops from Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg.

EU backs minimalist defence plan in effort not to undermine NATO

EU ministers approved a common defence plan yesterday (14 November) despite sharp differences over how far it should go, as Donald Trump’s election win stoked fears about Washington’s commitment to European security.

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