AP Interview: Lithuania confident of US commitment to NATO

From left, Lithuania's Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis, Norway's Defense Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Belgium's Defense Minister Steven Vandeput and Luxembourg's Defense Minister Etienne Schneider pose before signing a european military cooperation agreements at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Francois Lenoir, Pool Photo via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Lithuania’s defense minister said Thursday he is confident that all NATO allies will help protect his country from Russia despite recent concern over the U.S. commitment to European security.

Raimundas Karoblis told The Associated Press that he had no doubts about “the solidarity from any NATO country, including the United States.”

U.S. President Donald Trump sparked anxiety at NATO with his election campaign suggestion that he might not help defend countries that don’t pay their fair share.

Karoblis said the deployment of NATO troops to Lithuania, which borders Russia’s Kaliningrad territory, is “a really powerful measure of the deterrence” the allies are providing.

He said that any “potential invader” of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia is now “calculating the consequences.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned NATO allies this week to boost defense spending to 2 percent of economic output or Washington could “moderate its commitment” to the alliance. Mattis declined Thursday to say exactly what that meant. Only five countries — the United States, Britain, Estonia, Poland and Greece — are meeting the target, according to NATO figures.

Karoblis said Lithuania is on target to meet the spending benchmark soon.

“Next year without any doubt we will reach two percent of our GDP and it’s not the limit, we will go further according to our (defense) needs,” he said, on the sidelines of talks with his NATO counterparts in Brussels.

Lithuania has been spurred to boost its military budget by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its continued support for separatists in Ukraine. Karoblis said Russia is also responsible for hostile propaganda aimed at destabilizing his country — which has a large Russian speaking minority — and is raising concerns by moving nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad.

“The security situation around Lithuania is quite tense,” he said. “Sometimes it is difficult to predict the actions of Russia, but we are preparing ourselves for defense as necessary.”

NATO allies, including the United States, are currently deploying around 4,000 troops to the Baltic States and Poland in an effort to deter an increasingly aggressive Russia.

But Karoblis warned that it’s not just Lithuania and its neighbors that are under threat.

“We are speaking here about the possible test of all NATO,” he said.