US 'has your back', Pence tells Baltic countries
US Vice President Mike Pence said the country stands with the Baltic nations against any threats from Russia as tensions continue to flare between the former Cold War foes.
Mr Pence made Estonia his first stop on a visit to eastern Europe that will also take in Georgia and Montenegro, where he'll meet Balkan Nato members and aspirants.
His trip follows last week's Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and comes before planned Russian military drills in September that have in the past simulated an attack on the region.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine spooked the Baltics and triggered a rethink of Nato's role in ex-communist Europe.
Western troops were added in response in nations such as Estonia and Latvia, unwilling former Soviet republics with large Russian-speaking minorities. While recently backing Nato's collective-security pledge, President Donald Trump has courted Russian President Vladimir Putin and raised doubts about the US's commitment to far-away allies.
"No threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the spectre of aggression from your unpredictable neighbour to the east," Mr Pence said yesterday in Estonia's capital Tallinn. "At this very moment, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine democracy of sovereign nations and divide the free nations of Europe one against another."
Mr Pence spoke a day after Mr Putin told the US it must cut staff at its embassy in Moscow and other facilities in Russia by 755 by September 1, a retaliatory move for sanctions legislation passed by Congress last week and earlier diplomatic expulsions by the US. The move "won't deter" US commitments to its allies, Mr Pence told a news conference with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Mr Putin, at a meeting with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto last week, said "anti-Russia hysteria" is growing and "Russophobic instruments" are being used as part of a domestic US political fight that may result in stricter sanctions against his nation. Mr Pence said his country "hopes for better relations with Russia".
Last month, the US for the first time temporarily brought Patriot air-defence systems to Lithuania as part of military exercises. Estonia, which borders Russia, has said it wants to enhance its defensive capabilities with anti-aircraft weapons and is seeking a more permanent deployment with other countries inside Nato.
"The US rejects any attempt to use force, threats, intimidation or malign influence in the Baltic states or against any of our treaty allies," Mr Pence said.