With Russia and Belarus preparing to conduct military exercises next month, The United States sent extra fighter planes to guard the Baltic skies despite Russian officials insisting the exercises pose no threat.
Seven U.S. F-15 fighters arrived in Siauliai airfield in Lithuania this week, which is three more than usually sent, Reuters reported Wednesday. The aircrafts will guard the skies over NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as Russia gears up for the Zapad war games.
The military exercises are expected to occur between Sept. 14 and 20 in Belarus, western Russia and Russia’ enclave of Kaliningrad, with fewer than 13,000 troops participating in it.
Top U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, Todd Wolters, said the increase in fighter aircrafts is a response to “training opportunities” in Lithuania.
“The air policing mission will remain as it has been. And the purpose of the air policing mission is to protect the sovereign skies of the three Baltic nations,” Wolters said.
NATO announced on Wednesday it will also send three experts to observe the Zapad games, but alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he wants rules to be changed to allow broader monitoring.
“It’s especially important now, because tensions are higher than they used to be. There is more military activity, more exercises and therefore it’s even more important that we avoid incidents and accidents or misunderstandings,” he told The Associated Press on Friday, in Orzysz, Poland.
The main concern for NATO members is that the Russian military will leave soldiers in Belarus after the exercises are over, allowing Putin to send troops quickly across the border if he plans to invade. The Russian president deployed the same tactic in 2008 with Georgia and 2014 with Ukraine.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Lt. Gen. Alexander Fomin rejected “myths about the so-called Russian threat.”
A continuous rotation of about 4,000 U.S. troops are being stationed in Eastern Europe and are being trained on Cold War-era fighting tactics to keep the Russian aggression in the region in check. The additional troop rotations were first announced in March 2016.