PABRADE, Lithuania (Reuters) – A new contingent of U.S. troops and armour will be deployed in Lithuania in November but their presence is not linked to the situation in neighbouring Belarus, Lithuania’s defence minister said on Tuesday.
Belarus has undergone six weeks of protests since a contested Aug. 9 election which President Alexander Lukashenko said he won.
Since then, Lukashenko has accused NATO of a buildup near its borders, begun military drills near the borders with Lithuania and Poland, and put half his army on the highest state of readiness.
More than 500 U.S. soldiers, about 25 Abrams tanks and about 30 Bradley armoured transports will replace a contingent that arrived in Lithuania on Sept. 4 for a two-month stay near the Belarus border. The new force will stay until mid-June 2021.
Defence Minister Raimondas Karoblis said the U.S. military arrivals in Lithuania were not connected to the situation in Belarus.
Belarus military activity near the border has reduced this month compared to manoeuvres in August, Karoblis said.
“The U.S. presence makes us calmer, it’s a powerful deterrent, but it’s not connected specifically to the situation in Belarus, rather to the geopolitical situation after Russia began its aggression in Ukraine and Georgia,” Karoblis told reporters at the Pabrade Military Training Grounds.
Russia, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the EU and NATO, supported Lukashenko and has accused the United States of fomenting revolution in its neighbour.
The U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Robert Gilchrist, also said there was no connection between the troop presence and Belarus.
“It’s about readiness, it’s about working with our allies. There’s no link (to Belarus),” he said.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas, editing by Gwladys Fouche and Angus MacSwan)