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Why key US allies in Nato are rattled by Trump's plans to slash budget of State Department

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Last month workers unloaded US M1 Abrams tanks that will be deployed in Latvia for NATO's Operation Atlantic Resolve in Garkalne, Latvia Picture: Reuters

Last month workers unloaded US M1 Abrams tanks that will be deployed in Latvia for NATO's Operation Atlantic Resolve in Garkalne, Latvia Picture: Reuters

REUTERS

Last month workers unloaded US M1 Abrams tanks that will be deployed in Latvia for NATO's Operation Atlantic Resolve in Garkalne, Latvia Picture: Reuters

US President Donald Trump has proposed slashing State Department and foreign aid budgets by nearly 40pc. Now European diplomats are warning those cuts would be dangerous and expose European allies to further Russian aggression.

Six eastern European envoys, including the Ukrainian foreign minister, testified before the US senate this week to urge stronger US leadership in the region to hedge against Russia. While lauding US military assistance and recent troop deployments to the Baltic region under the Nato flag, they also warned cutting funding to non-military assistance measures could strengthen Russia's so-called hybrid warfare tactics.

"We will not feel safer when the budget for such projects will be essentially cut," Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek told a panel of Senate Appropriations Committee members.

"We hope that it's just a kind of deliberation - a kind of tweeting, not really a decision. Because this sounds very dangerous," he said.

Mr Wilczek, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, and the ambassadors of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Georgia all joined the panel urging the senate to keep the flow of military and non-military aid flowing to eastern Europe.

They pointed to the importance of US foreign military assistance, but also smaller government-funded efforts, from Voice of America to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, that play an outsized role in bolstering post-Soviet democracies and countering Russian aggression.

All are potentially on Mr Trump's budget chopping block. State and foreign aid could see their budgets slashed by 37pc, if the White House's opening salvo in the federal budget process sticks. His proposed cuts showcase "a troubling disregard for the important role [the State Department] plays in US national security, especially in regards to the transatlantic relationship", wrote Rachel Rizzo, research associate with the Centre for New American Security.

But it's not just Mr Trump's budget proposals that are rattling allies. During the campaign, he brushed off US commitments to Nato allies and openly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Top White House officials misled Congress on meetings with Russian diplomats during the presidential campaign season, which toppled Mr Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and hamstrung Attorney General Jeff Sessions as Congress prepares to investigate Russia's interference in the US election.

Since his election, Mr Trump has rowed back on his Nato scepticism. But allies are fearful he could neglect or even spurn European allies to forge more co-operation with Moscow.

The stakes are especially high for Ukraine and Georgia, both grappling with Moscow's illegal annexation of swaths of their countries. Mr Klimkin, Ukraine's foreign minister, detailed for Congress the size of Russia's military footprint. In eastern Ukraine, he said the Kremlin has poured in 4,200 regular troops and 40,000 militants, more than 400 tanks, and 1,000 artillery platforms. Some 23,000 Russian troops are in occupied Crimea, he added.

The Baltic states, unlike Ukraine or Georgia, are under Nato's protective umbrella as full members. But they're also staring down the barrel of Moscow's military might. Russia bulked up its military hardware on Nato's borders in the Baltic States and regularly conducts massive snap military exercises to showcase its force.

Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, has become the "most militarised region in Europe", Mr Wilczek warned. In October last year, Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles to the region. Some defence experts now doubt Nato could reinforce the Baltic states quickly enough in the unlikely event Russia invaded. Nato is funneling troops led by US, Canadian, German, and British contingents to the Baltic states to deter that scenario. The deployment "makes a very substantial difference in terms of credibility of Nato's deterrence", former Nato Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said.

Mr Vershbow, also former US ambassador to Moscow, said a conventional Russian invasion was highly unlikely, but what's more troubling is Russia's hybrid warfare - prodding US allies with subversive economic or political manoeuvres to undermine their strength. That's where US foreign aid matters, helping fortify democratic institutions and counter Russian propaganda.

Eerik Marmei, Estonia's ambassador in Washington, told the senate that Russia's hybrid antics weren't limited to the former Soviet Union.

"We, as neighbours to Russia, are just a bit more used to witnessing such behaviour," he said. "Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany are a perfect theatre for the Russian disinformation warriors," he added.

The Lithuanian Ambassador Rolandas Krisciunas said Russian spies tried to "aggressively" meddle in his country's domestic politics, adding Moscow was bankrolling Russian-speaking groups in the Baltic states to "incite ethnic tensions".

The European envoys largely sidestepped the elephant in the room: Mr Trump's possible ties to Russia. But lawmakers did not.

"We understand the interference you've had. We now count ourselves among those who are facing the same kind of interference," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy told the European diplomats.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: "If we forgive and forget regarding our own election, we'll invite future aggression by other countries."

Irish Independent