WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump made the case to the leaders of the Baltic nations Tuesday that the U.S. was “very tough on Russia,” pointing to U.S. support for increased defense spending by NATO countries as a check on Moscow’s aggression.
Trump, joined by the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, spoke a day after the White House dangled the prospect of extending a White House welcome to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Baltic states are seen as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
“Nobody has been tougher on Russia, but getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing. And just about everybody agrees to that except very stupid people,” Trump said. “We’ve been very tough on Russia, frankly.”
Trump was asked by a reporter if he considered Putin to be a friend or foe. “We’ll find out. I’ll let you know.”
Britain recently blamed Russia for the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil. Trump joined Britain in expelling scores of Russian diplomats in response.
Trump has pressured NATO members to boost their military budgets to meet a benchmark of 2 percent of their GDP on defense annually. He cited that as a benefit to the three Baltic nations, which are NATO members and remain anxious over Russia’s increasing military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea region.
Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite told Trump that the U.S. role in NATO is essential, calling the nation a “vital voice” in the military alliance.
“We expect, together with the United States, to go ahead with deep reforms of NATO, especially on decision-making, on decisiveness, on the denial which we expect to see from Russia in case of aggression,” Grybauskaite said. “Without the United States, this is not possible.”
During a joint news conference, Trump said the region “can trust the United States will remain a strong, proud and loyal friend and ally.” He praised the three nations for boosting their defense spending and said their “commitment to burden sharing” was an example for other nations to follow.
The Baltic leaders noted their security commitments under NATO. Grybauskaite said the Article 5 collective defense under NATO was “iron-clad for all of us” while Estonia’s Kersti Kaljulaid said the countries are “an axis of good.”
Trump said NATO “has taken many billions of dollars more than they would have had if you had crooked Hillary Clinton as president.” The 2 percent benchmark concerns how much each country spends on its own defense, not what it pays into NATO.
The leaders discussed security, business, trade and energy issues during a visit in which Trump also noted their 100 years of Baltic independence.
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