US reaffirming ties with smaller European allies

V-P Pence's Eastern Europe tour comes at time of angst over Russia

US Vice-President Mike Pence is embarking on a tour of Europe today "at the direction of President (Donald) Trump" in order to reaffirm the country's commitment to its European allies, as the White House put it.

But although Mr Pence has specifically chosen US-friendly former communist nations, which are likely to roll out the red carpet for him, the trip is unlikely to lay to rest lingering fears elsewhere in Europe that the Trump administration may use its engagement to undermine the European Union's cohesion.

As the more predictable and conventional face of the new administration, Mr Pence is by now a specialist in the art of soothing allies unnerved by the antics of his White House boss.

Barely a few weeks after President Trump was sworn into office at the start of the year, Mr Pence led a high-level US delegation for security talks with the Europeans, where his main message was that Washington is more interested in continuity than change. Mr Pence acted in the same way during an April tour of Asia and of Latin America last month.

The Vice-President's itinerary for the four-day European trip continues in a similar vein, by emphasising the United States' presence in smaller countries on Europe's geographic edges. Mr Pence will visit the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Europe's northern approaches, the small nation of Montenegro in the south, as well as Georgia on Europe's south-eastern edges.

There is no question that his presence is welcome: All these nations were ruled by Soviet-imposed communist regimes, all fear Russia's new strategic assertiveness and all see the US as their own long-term security provider.

The timing of Mr Pence's visit is also calculated to send a subtle message to Russia, just as Moscow is putting the finishing touches to the start of a massive Russian military exercise, which many Europeans see as just an act of intimidation.

"This visit is yet another important confirmation of the US support for Georgia," boasted Mr Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the Prime Minister of the country which fought a war with Russia in 2008, and still has a fifth of its national territory occupied by Russian troops.

Nor is there much doubt that the Vice-President will reassure his hosts about the US and its military commitment - unlike President Trump, Mr Pence has no hesitation in reiterating the US security guarantee to Europe, as embodied in the treaty establishing Nato, Europe's US-led military alliance.

The timing of Mr Pence's visit is also calculated to send a subtle message to Russia, just as Moscow is putting the finishing touches to the start of a massive Russian military exercise, which many Europeans see as just an act of intimidation.

Still, not all European politicians regard the sudden interest which the US administration is showing to Europe as an unadulterated blessing. For while President Trump has now stopped talking about the impending disintegration of the EU, he has yet to express his full support for it in the way all his predecessors have done since the 1970s.

And although the threat of a full-blown trade war between Europe and the US has been averted, tensions remain over Germany's trade surplus and, more recently, over the US congressional decision to impose new sanctions on Russia, which can have an impact on European oil and gas companies trading with the Russians.

The suspicion among leaders in big Western European countries such as Germany and France is that Mr Pence's assiduous courtship of the former communist nations on the continent is part of an attempt to bypass the EU as a whole. Officials in Washington now frequently contrast the former communist states' enthusiasm about the US with the lukewarm response to Mr Trump in Western Europe.

And there is some irritation in Germany over repeated offers by the Trump administration to sell US shale natural gas to Europe, at the expense of the Russians, who dominate European energy markets.

The Germans see this as nothing but an encouragement to the East Europeans to continue opposing Berlin's plans to build a massive undersea gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, a project which will transform Germany into Europe's key energy hub, but also increase Europe's dependence on Russia.

US officials dismiss all these concerns as misplaced, pointing out that the same Europeans who now complain about getting too much attention from Washington were until recently bemoaning the fact that they were being ignored.

Still, there is no question that the fondness of the current US administration for the smaller former communist nations of Europe is raising eyebrows in Brussels.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'US reaffirming ties with smaller European allies'. Print Edition | Subscribe