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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta escorts Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene through an honor cordon into the Pentagon, Jan. 4, 2012. Panetta and Jukneviciene met to discuss bilateral defense issues and the continuing partnership between the United States and Lithuania.

The United States of America remains the key guarantee of security and stability in Europe, especially in the Baltic Region, as it was stated by the Lithuanian Minister of National Defense Rasa Juknevičienė on Wednesday during a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Leon Edward Panetta in Washington. The meeting officials agreed that USA would maintain its commitments to security in the Baltic Region and foresee more participation in military exercises, more support to the NATO’s Air Policing mission and more contribution to defense planning.

“Partnership with the United States in fundamental to our statehood”, claimed R. Juknevičienė.

Defense Ministers discussed the upcoming NATO Summit due this May in Chicago. According to R.Juknevičienė, proper attention in the Summit should be paid to collective defense as well as to the role of nuclear deterrence.

R. Juknevičienė and US Secretary of Defense discussed the Baltic Air Policing mission, Lithuanian Minister also thanked for the political support of USA in seeking a permanent mission in the Baltic States. According to Lithuanian Minister, the Baltic States are making every effort to make the mission as appealing to the allies as possible.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene pose for a picture at the Pentagon, Jan. 4, 2011.

“The Air Policing mission is extremely rewarding”, L.E. Panetta said.

R.Juknevičienė emphasized that since increasing energy security is on the NATO Agenda, therefore US participation in the activity of the Energy Security Center in Lithuania would be particularly important. “We anticipate accreditation of the Center as the NATO Center of Excellence this year,” said Lithuanian Minister.

Minister of National Defense also stressed that the Government of Lithuania seeks for a stronger security in the region through close cooperation with the Nordic countries and by facilitating integration of the Baltic States. “Support of such strategic partners as the United States is vital for the process”, Minister said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, speaks with Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene, right, at the Pentagon, Jan. 4, 2012.

The officials also addressed the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. L.E. Panetta pointed out the transition process ongoing in the country aimed at transferring responsibility for security on the local security forces.

“Afghan forces are doing quite well,” said US Secretary of Defense. He expressed gratitude for Lithuania’s contribution in Afghanistan despite national financial difficulties. Later on defense financing was touched upon. L.E. Panetta highlighted that USA planned to cut defense spending by 450 billion USD over the following 10 years which was a huge but manageable challenge. In her turn R. Juknevičienė said that the economical recession had made Lithuania decrease financing in all the sectors but our country was able to maintain the same level of defense budget as the two previous years.

In a discussion over the security situation in the Baltic Region, opinions on missile defense were exchanged.