Trump Tells Baltic Leaders 'Nobody Tougher On Russia' Than Him
RFE/RL April 03, 2018
The three Baltic presidents, after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, pledged to continue meeting NATO's defense-spending obligations in the hope that the alliance will bolster security along NATO's eastern flank.
"We will continue to commit 2 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) toward the development of our military capabilities for the purposes of both strengthening NATO's posture and contributing to international security," Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis said after the April 3 White House summit.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite also vowed to continue meeting NATO's defense-spending obligations, indicating they hope the United States will beef up forces in their region.
But although the three Baltic presidents urged Trump to do more to deter Russia by bolstering the U.S. military presence, Trump did not announce any specific new U.S. military deployments.
Instead, Trump praised Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia for meeting NATO's defense-spending obligations -- and said other NATO countries must do so as well.
"Your commitment to burden-sharing is an example, really, that other NATO nations and partners all around the world will have to all get together and bear," Trump said while standing beside the Baltic presidents at a joint press conference after their meeting. "Some of them do not make the same commitment. Hopefully, they soon will."
Grybauskaite said Trump's pressure on other NATO states to meet their defense-spending obligations is critical for security.
"Without the leverage and pressure, there would be no additional spending in our defense in NATO," Grybauskaite said. "There would be no additional decisions for rotating military forces of the United States in our countries. There will be no willingness to look into the matter of air defense, which we need very much.
"From all these points of view, we trust that our partner and ally is investing seriously in the future of our defense - not only our regions, but NATO's territorial defense and in the peace and security of the world as it was before," Grybauskaite said.
Grybauskaite, Kaljulaid, and Vejonis are among the strongest critics of Russia in the European Union and were visiting Trump amid mixed signals about his intentions toward the Kremlin.
As the White House talks were under way, Trump told them that "nobody has been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump."
"Ideally, we want to be able to get along with Russia," Trump said. "Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Now, maybe we will [get along] and maybe we won't."
Asked by a reporter if Russian President Vladimir Putin is a friend or a foe, Trump said, "We'll find out. I'll let you know."
The meeting came after Trump's administration raised the possibility of the U.S. president hosting Putin at the White House.
But Washington also recently imposed a new round of sanctions targeting Russian individuals, companies, and intelligence agencies.
The White House also expelled 60 Russian diplomatic staff – calling them "Russian intelligence officers" -- in reaction to Moscow's alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
A senior Lithuanian official told the AFP news agency before the talks that the three Baltic leaders want Trump to more frequently send Patriot long-range air-defense missiles to NATO military exercises in the Baltics.
The official said they also want to become a part of NATO's larger European antimissile shield.
"I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended," Grybauskaite told her country's public broadcaster LRT ahead of the visit.
"It is important that [U.S. troops] are here on a permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states," she said.
Last year, NATO deployed four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states as tripwires against possible Russian adventurism, while the U.S. military sent a Patriot battery to Lithuania for drills.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in July raised the possibility of deploying Patriots in nearby Estonia.
Citizens of the Baltic states were rattled by Trump's campaign rhetoric in 2016 questioning NATO's relevance and his unwillingness to criticize Putin, public opinion polls showed.
But polls showed the public mood changed after Trump decided to boost funding for U.S. forces in Europe and provide antitank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists.
The Baltic-U.S. summit also included a business forum where Lithuania signed deals to boost imports of liquefied natural gas from the United States to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas.
The Baltic states, with a combined population of just 6 million people, were occupied and annexed by Moscow during World War II.
The trio broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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