President calls NATO membership 'Lithuania's best investment'

  • 2024-03-28
  • BNS/TBT Staff

VILNIUS – Lithuania's decision to join NATO was its best ever investment, President Gitanas Nauseda said on Thursday as the nation marks 20 years since it became a full-fledged member of the defense alliance on March 29, 2004. 

"Becoming a member of the Alliance was the best decision Lithuania took, the best investment we have ever made. It has also brought us the best friends one could have," Nauseda said in Siauliai.

"Our duty is to make sure (Russian President Vladimir) Putin fails to cut the transatlantic link and split the Allies. Our duty is to make sure that Ukraine wins and that democracy and freedom, and respect to human rights flourish in Europe for many generations to come," he said. 

The president noted that Lithuania spends 2.75 percent of its GDP on defense, adding that "we are striving for more".

Siauliai is hosting on Thursday an event marking Lithuania’s NATO membership anniversary and the launch of the Alliance's Baltic air policing mission 20 years ago.

The commemoration coincides with a hand over-take over ceremony of the mission flown from Siauliai, the Defense Ministry said in a press release.  

"The symbolic key to the Baltic airspace will be passed from the Belgian and French contingent commanders to the Spanish and Portuguese contingent commanders," it said. 

Defense Minister Laurynas Kasciunas said during the event that Lithuania, as a member of the Alliance, is the safest it has ever been "throughout the nation's history."

"We should move forward; we are in the strongest alliance in the world. (...) We need to think how to move forward with rotational air defense," he said.

NATO member countries agreed on a rotational air defense model last June in response to calls from the Baltic states to reinforce the current air policing mission due to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Arvydas Anusauskas, the then defense minister, said in early March that a rotational air defense system would be operational later this year and that Patriot air defense systems would be deployed in Lithuania. However, he did not name any specific countries or give dates.

Chief of Defense General Valdemaras Rupsys described Lithuania's NATO membership as 20 years of continuous growth and improvement for the country's armed forces.

"For us, (NATO membership) means peace and security, and being able to live in freedom, build our state and our well-being, grow, strengthen, and survive," he said at the event in Siauliai.

Admiral Joachim Ruehle, Chief of Staff at NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), said, "The Lithuanian people chose to join NATO because they believe in the ideals the Alliance represents, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

He called Lithuania a committed ally.

The first air policing mission was launched at the same time as Lithuania became a full -fledged member of NATO.

The first Allied F-16 fighter jets of the Belgian Air Force entered Baltic airspace and touched down at the Lithuanian Air Force's base in Siauliai at 4:47 p.m. on March 29, 2004. 

The current rotation conducted by the Belgian and French contingents from Siauliai is the 64th one since its launch in 2004.  

"So far, 17 Allies deployed their equipment and other capabilities to the mission in the Baltic states conducted from the Lithuanian Air Force Base in Siauliai and from Amari in Estonia," the ministry said.