VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday assured Lithuania of NATO protection and U.S. support as he began a whirlwind visit to the three Baltic states that are increasingly nervous as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.
The former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are all members of NATO and Blinken aims to reassure them of their safety in case Russia chooses to expand its military operations.
“We are strengthening our common defense so that we and our allies are ready,” Blinken said, stressing that the US commitment to NATO’s mutual defense pact is “sacrosanct”.
“We will defend every square inch of NATO territory if attacked,” he said. “Nobody should doubt our readiness, nobody should doubt our determination.”
Memories of Soviet rule are still fresh in the Baltics and since invading Ukraine last month, NATO has moved quickly to bolster its troop presence in its eastern flank allies while the United States pledged additional support.
Blinken’s opened its Baltic tour in Vilnius, where Lithuanian support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion is palpable as signs of solidarity with Ukrainians are evident in many businesses and on public buildings and buses .
“Unfortunately, the deteriorating security situation in the Baltic region is of great concern to all of us and around the world,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Blinken. “Russia’s reckless aggression against Ukraine proves once again that it poses a long-term threat to European security, the security of our alliance.”
Nauseda said that a policy of deterrence was no longer enough and that what was now needed was “advanced defence”. He predicted that “Putin will not stop in Ukraine unless he is arrested”.
“It is our collective duty as a nation to help all Ukrainians with all available means,” Nauseda said. “By saying everything, I mean, indeed everything means everything, if we are to avoid World War III. The choice is in our hands. »
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called for increased aid to Ukraine, noting that NATO allies “are doing a lot, but we can’t stop”. He also called for an immediate halt to Russian energy imports. “We cannot pay for oil and gas with Ukrainian blood,” he said.
Lithuania also faces pressure from another major power – China – over its relations with Taiwan, the island that China considers a renegade province. China has taken action, including stopping imports of certain products, against Lithuania for allowing Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius.
Blinken said Ukraine’s situation is relevant to Lithuania’s situation in Taiwan, as all countries should have the right to pursue their own foreign policy. “Each nation is free to associate with whomever it wishes,” he said. The United States continues to stand with Lithuania and with each nation in choosing its own path.
Blinken arrived in the Baltics on Sunday evening from non-aligned Moldova, which is also warily watching war on its doorstep, and Poland, where he traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border and met refugees from Ukraine.
Later Monday, Blinken will travel to Riga, where he will meet with senior Latvian officials and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, before traveling to Tallinn, Estonia, then on to Paris for talks with the French president. Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend and Macron has been in frequent contact with the Russian leader.
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