The presence of U.S. and other NATO troops in Latvia sends a message to Vladimir Putin that Russia should stay away, Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said on Friday as he greeted a small deployment of U.S. soldiers.
The group of some forty U.S. service members arrived from Italy early on Thursday - before hostilities in Ukraine began. The deployment is expected to grow to more than 300 soldiers.
"We are a small country. We are ready to do whatever is needed to defend ourselves. We are not afraid to die for that. But we might be overwhelmed, so this is very much why we welcome you here," Pabriks told the troops in Adazi military base on Friday.
Russia invaded Ukraine by land sea and air on Thursday after massing more than 150,000 troops around the country's borders including in Latvia's neighbour Belarus.
Latvia, together with Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, was once ruled by Moscow. They had long seen Russia as a security threat. But unlike Ukraine, the three countries joined the European Union and NATO, which brings security guarantees.
NATO's founding treaty contains an article on collective defence stating that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members.
"We are not afraid that somebody might invade us, but the signal that U.S. soldiers are with us, and that other allies, from Canadians to Europeans are with us, is a good signal to Putin - don't mess with us," Pabriks said.
Over the past two days the United States has sent the troops to Latvia as well as advanced F-35 fighter aircraft to Lithuania and Estonia. It has also announced it will not be withdrawing 500 troops in Lithuania in April, as planned.
About twenty U.S. Apache helicopters landed in Latvia on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Janis Laizans in Adazi. Writing by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)