Russia expulsions won't deter US 'commitment to allies,' Pence says
(AFP) US Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday that Moscow's demand that Washington cut 755 American diplomatic staff in Russia will not lessen the US commitment to its allies.
"We hope for better days, for better relations with Russia but recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow will not deter the commitment of the United States of America to our security, the security of our allies and the security of freedom loving nations around the world," Pence said in Estonia after meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states.
At a news conference, Pence said he had passed on a "simple message" from President Donald Trump to the three countries who regained their independence following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union: "We are with you."
President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday the United States would have to make the diplomatic staff cuts and warned of a prolonged gridlock in ties after the US Congress backed new sanctions against the Kremlin over alleged meddling in the 2016 US election and in Ukraine.
Estonia, where Pence on Sunday raised the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system and which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is the first stop of a European tour also taking him to Georgia and Montenegro as he seeks to reassure allies fearing Russian expansionism.
"We stand with the people and nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and we always will," Pence said, stressing Washington's strong bond with the region.
A "strong and united NATO" is important, as Russia continues "trying to redraw borders", he said. "The US will check any attempt to use force."
The US government hopes for a better relationship with Russia, but stands by the NATO treaty's article 5 on collective defence, "an attack on one of us is an attack on us all," he added.
In a prepared text stressing the importance of NATO, which Trump had initially called "obsolete" on taking office in January, Pence observed that "no threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east."
Pence also said that exports of US liquid natural gas to the Baltic states, which have already started, "will contribute to prosperity and security" in the three countries which are still heavily dependent on Russian gas.
Pence had earlier joined his host, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, to hear from Estonian experts on innovation and cyber issues as well as Estonia's pioneering implementation of e-governance and cyber security.
The US vice president's office said he had praised Estonia as a model for innovation and thanked the country for hosting the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence while stressing Washington's desire for enhanced cooperation in those fields.
Kaljulaid praised the United States for having "always stood by freedom to choose for people and countries."
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite focused on the energy issue, saying Russia was using energy as a "tool" of "suppression" and "manipulation."
Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis praised the United States as the Baltic states' "closest partner" and welcomed the US commitment to LNG provision. He added his country was committed to lifting defence spending to two per cent of gross domestic productnby next year after Trump's focus on burden-sharing in the NATO alliance which has some 3,000 troops stationed in the Baltic states.
Following a military briefing on NATO's eastern flank, Pence and his wife flew into the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where he will meet the pro-Western country's leadership on Tuesday on the penultimate leg of his trip.
Pence arrived in Georgia a day after the ex-Soviet nation launched its biggest ever joint military exercises with US troops.
While in the tiny Caucasus nation, which fought a brief war against Russia in 2008, Pence is expected to reiterate Washington's backing for Georgia's sovereignty and NATO membership aspirations.
Georgia's bid to join NATO has angered its Soviet-era master Russia and the confrontation culminated in the conflict over the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.
After routing Georgia's army in five days, Moscow recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway province Abkhazia as independent states and moved in thousands of troops.