U.S. defense officials said a long-range Patriot missile battery may be deployed to the Baltic region later this year as part of a military exercise. The move, if finalized, would be temporary but signal staunch U.S. backing for Baltic nations concerned about the threat from Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday declined to confirm the specific deployment, but said, "We are here in a purely defensive stance. Everyone knows this is not an offensive capability. For anyone who says otherwise, I would just say I have too much respect for the Russian army to think that they actually believe there's any offensive capability."
At a news conference with Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite, Mattis said the U.S. "will deploy only defensive systems to make certain that sovereignty is respected. The specific systems that we bring are those that we determine necessary."
Asked about a potential Patriot deployment, Grybauskaite would only say that "we need all necessary means for defense and for deterrence, and that's what we will decide together."
U.S. officials said the Patriot surface-to-air missile system could move into the region during the July air defense exercise, but it would be gone by the time a large Russian military exercise begins in August and September.
They said there will be a U.S. component to the air defense exercise, adding that the U.S. is not considering any long-term change to its air defense status in the region.
The potential placement of the Patriot system in Lithuania has been discussed since last fall. It would be the first time the system has been deployed in the Baltics.
The officials said the U.S. will keep a close eye on the Russian exercise, called Zapad, which will take place in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, wedged between Lithuania and Poland, and the western section of the country. They said the U.S. will have an enhanced presence in the region at that time to monitor whether Russia uses the exercise as an opportunity to mass troops and equipment there and leave some behind when it's over.
The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russia could have as many as 100,000 troops in the region for the exercise.
Lithuania, which borders Kaliningrad, has deep concerns about the Russian threat on its eastern flank. Grybauskaite said Mattis understands the challenges and threats facing Lithuania.
Also Wednesday, Lithuania said it had signed a contract to build a 44.6-kilometer (26.7-mile) stretch of a protective fence on the border of Kaliningrad exclave where Moscow reportedly last year deployed anti-shipping missiles. Construction of the 2-meter (6½-foot) tall fence will be started shortly, according to Lithuania's Border Guard Service said.
NATO has strengthened its military support for the Baltic region. Last July the alliance decided to deploy four multinational battalions in Poland and in the three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — this year as a response to growing Russian military activity.
Those countries have been increasing the size of their military forces, buying new weapons systems and improving their artillery forces.
Also Wednesday, Mattis toured the Pabrade training area, northeast of Vilnius near the Belarus border, where a German battle group has been based as part of the NATO effort. He walked along displays of tanks and soldiers, asking commanders about how well the forces are getting along together and with their allies.
The U.S. has an armored brigade in Poland.
Mattis is in Lithuania as part of a three-country trip, including stops in Denmark and London.
Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.