RIGA - Russia is currently the biggest threat to Europe, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told journalists in Riga on Wednesday.
Austin emphasized that the U.S. will always stand up for Latvia's freedom and territorial integrity, which is why it is essential to help Ukraine win the war with Russia. Russia has chosen aggression and war. It is killing Ukrainians civilians and destroying critical infrastructure, Austin said, adding that Russia is currently Europe's biggest threat.
The US defense secretary indicated that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made NATO stronger. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO will also continue to increase security in the region.
At the same time, the U.S. official said that Russia should not regard NATO as a threat because NATO is a defense alliance. However, it is important for Russia to realize that any attack on a NATO member will automatically mean war against whole NATO, Austin said.
He noted that the U.S. together with its allies is doing a lot to make sure Ukraine wins the war. The U.S. discusses with Ukraine its military needs and developments in the war on a weekly basis to figure out what weaponry Ukraine needs. We will continue to support Ukraine by supplying powerful weapons that have proven their efficiency in the war against Russia, and we will do it as long as necessary, Austin said.
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks (Development/For) said that Latvia highly appreciates friendship between the two countries. The meeting between the U.S. and Latvian top defense officials dealt with several topics, including Russian aggression in Ukraine and the strengthening security in NATO member states.
Pabriks pointed out that Latvia's neighbor country Belarus, which cannot be "regarded as a sovereign state", should also be considered a threat to Ukraine. The minister believes that Belarus has lost its independence and should be regarded as a part of the aggressor state.
Austin's meeting with Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins (New Unity) focused on bilateral defense cooperation and how to strengthen it further, implementation of the decisions taken at the NATO Summit in Madrid and continued support to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia's military aggression, the prime minister's spokesman Sandis Sabajevs informed LETA.
"Latvia and the U.S. are close allies united by common values - freedom, democracy and the rule of law. We are close allies both in good and bad times. Now that Russia is waging a brutal war in Ukraine, the U.S. and we are united, working on strengthening NATO and providing support to Ukraine," Karins said during the meeting.
The prime minister underlined that the U.S. is Latvia's strategic partner and that defense cooperation between the two countries is especially important. Karins thanked the U.S for continued support to strengthening the security of Latvia and the Baltic region by ensuring the presence of U.S. troops in Latvia since 2014 and working closely with the Latvian National Armed Forces in training exercises and training military specialists in the U.S.
The officials also discussed strengthening bilateral cooperation, including in weapons purchases - Latvia has purchased several Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. and is planning to acquire also HIMARS artillery rocket systems. The Latvian prime minister and the U.S. defense secretary also discussed the decisions taken at the NATO Summit in Madrid and the bolstering of NATO's eastern flank.
During the meeting, Karins said that Latvia continues to develop its defense capabilities, which will strengthen the security of Latvia and the Baltic region - the Latvian government and parliament have decided to increase Latvia's defense budget to 2.5 percent of GDP in three years. This will help Latvia buy the necessary weaponry, develop a new military base and beef up the armed forces' combat power, the prime minister said.
The meeting also touched on the current situation in Ukraine and the necessity to provide continued assistance to Ukraine. Karins said that Latvia will keep providing all kind of support to Ukraine, stressing that only Ukraine's victory will stop the military ambitions of Russia's regime.
This is Austin's first visit to Latvia and the first visit of a U.S. defense secretary to Latvia since it joined NATO in 2004.