Two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft perform multiple low-level passes over the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016.

Two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft perform multiple low-level passes over the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. Photos via U.S. Navy

Russian Flybys? NATO’s Baltic Allies Wanted Air Defenses A Year Ago

In an interview, Lithuania’s defense minister said the harassment of an American warship shows why the US should help build the region's missile defenses.

Russia’s razor-close fighter jet flybys of a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea this week shows that Moscow is weak, NATO is vital, and Europe’s eastern flank needs the new air defense systems Baltic leaders have been requesting for a year. That’s according to Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s defense minister, in town for a Washington visit.

The U.S. Navy released dramatic footage Wednesday of Russia jets and a helicopter flying dangerously close to the destroyer USS Donald Cook. The video caused alarm in Washington, where White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemned the acts and Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to raise it with his Russian counterpart. For his part, the top U.S. admiral in the region called the incident “unprofessional and unsafe.” (And Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov expressed surprise Thursday at the American outrage.)

But the maneuvers did not surprise Olekas, who has become accustomed to such near misses.

“For us, it’s nothing new,” the Lithuanian defense minister said in an interview, “because they fly very close, aggressively without responding, very close to our airspace borders.”

Olekas, who called Russia the top threat to his country, came to Washington to ask President Barack Obama and Congress to continue bolstering NATO with troops and exercises. He also asked for help in building medium-range missile defenses. He said Lithuania and its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia — NATO members all — need such systems to keep Russia off their borders.

“We have air policing in the countries, and also we have the short-range air defense system implemented in our military forces,” Olekas said. But, “when we saw the development of the in the current region, and problematic air defense for the Baltic, all Baltic states, we started to reach an agreement between the Baltics” to create a medium-range system to protect the larger region. “To do that, we need cooperation with the United States and Poland to implement a more secure environment.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., when asked about the issue, said the U.S. should be open to giving allies layered defenses that can shoot down missiles at different ranges and altitudes.

“It’s important not only to us, but obviously to our friends, that we be able to partner with our friends and neighbors in providing the same kind of missile defense shield that Israel has,” said Donnelly, the ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We certainly…will always support and fulfill our Article 5 obligations. That’s not even a discussion and Mr. Putin needs to know that that’s not even a discussion,” said Donnelly, who recently toured U.S. and allied missile defense sites in the Middle East and Europe.

Olekas, who spoke calmly in a Senate antechamber before an Atlantic Council event on Eastern European security, said “aggressive” stunts like the flyby would backfire on Moscow.

“On one hand, they demonstrate that they have some capabilities to do that. On another hand it’s a weakness,” he said. “They showed a weakness because they [draw] too much attention,” which causes NATO alliance members to unite and demonstrate their own prowess.

NATO’s prowess has come into question in the weeks since Donald Trump hammered the alliance as “very obsolete.” The GOP 2016 frontrunner also rolled out some much-anticipated foreign policy positions, including a demand that European countries meet their pledges to  spend the equivalent of 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

Trump is not alone in decrying NATO underspending; it’s a perennial complaint from Republican and Democratic defense leaders alike, including all four of Obama’s defense secretaries. But observers have long said there are other ways to measure NATO member commitments; for example, how Lithuania has sent troops to fight and die in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In the past few weeks, reporters have put questions about Trump’s views to several foreign leaders, defense secretaries, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who once commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan. All have defended NATO as more relevant than ever — while avoiding direct comment on Trump.

For his part, the Lithuanian minister professed support for the 2-percent pledge, in part because of Russia’s behavior. The way he sees it, NATO members have spent the past 10 years decreasing their defense spending and finding ways to draw a once-friendlier Russia into participating in a European security architecture. Meanwhile, Moscow was plotting another course.

“They have increased their defense expenditures, they modernized their military forces, and now they have capabilities and have the will to act aggressively. And the only one that can stop them is to show our strength, to show solidarity,” he said.

He said Europeans should spend more time, and money, on defense.

“I fully agree with the position of the United States and the secretary general that we should implement this part of the agreement,” he said. “As a demonstration of real solidarity. You shouldn’t already think other countries will pay more for you.”

So, Olekas said, Lithuania is accelerating its planned spending increase. Previously, the parliament had agreed to reach the 2-percent goal by 2020. But defense spending rose more than 80 percent from 2015 to 2016, bringing it already to 1.5 percent. There is now a preliminary agreement to reach 1.8 percent next year and 2 percent in 2018. For the relatively small country, that translates to roughly 700 million euros ($788 million).

“European security is very much tied to United States security,” Olekas said. “We are living in a small world. Russian ships can reach the border of the United States, fly very close.”

Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.