Baltic leaders to seek more US protection against Russia

VILNIUS • Baltic state leaders will ask the United States to send more troops and bolster air defences on Nato's eastern flank to deter Russia when they meet President Donald Trump, officials said.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis were to meet him yesterday. They are visiting the White House as Washington is apparently adopting a harder stance towards Moscow.

Mr Trump's more confrontational rhetoric of late has eased initial concerns in the region over what had appeared to be a more conciliatory approach to the Kremlin when the US leader first arrived in power.

A senior Lithuanian official who wished to remain unnamed said the three Baltic leaders were asking the US to send Patriot long-range anti-aircraft missiles more frequently for war games. They also want to become a part of Nato's larger European anti-missile shield.

"I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended," Lithuania's Ms Grybauskaite told her country's public broadcaster LRT ahead of the visit.

"It is important that (US troops) are here on permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states," she said.

STRENGTHENING DEFENCE

I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended. It is important that (US troops) are here on permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states.

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT DALIA GRYBAUSKAITE, on the need for greater military support from the US.

Last year, Nato deployed four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states as tripwires against possible Russian adventurism, while the US military sent a Patriot battery to Lithuania for drills.

US Vice-President Mike Pence in July raised the possibility of deploying Patriots in nearby Estonia.

The Baltic states were deeply rattled by Mr Trump's campaign rhetoric questioning Nato's relevance, his erratic behaviour and his initial unwillingness to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2016, Vilnius artists painted a mural depicting Mr Trump passionately locking lips with Mr Putin, while a public opinion poll last year showed two-thirds of Lithuanians did not trust the US President.

But the public mood changed after Mr Trump decided to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists and to boost funding for US forces in Europe.

For Mr Simas Celutka from the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, the recent expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of a spy was a sign of a more confrontational posture.

"Advisers might have convinced Trump that a resolute show of strength is the only form of communication Putin takes seriously," he said.

The Baltic states, with a combined population of just six 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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Baltic leaders to seek more US protection against Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe