President Trump on Tuesday told the leaders of the Baltic States — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — that he has been tough on threats from Russia, but said a better relationship with President Vladimir Putin would be “a good thing.”
“Nobody has been tougher on Russia,” Trump said during a luncheon meeting with Baltic leaders who have said they are worried about the threat of Russian expansionism.
Trump, who has been accused of cozying up to Putin, and whose presidential campaign is under investigation over Russian hacking, also said it “would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” if the United States got along with Russia.
“And just about everybody agrees to that, except very stupid people, OK?” he said.
Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, and Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia are worried about the prospect of Russia seeking to spread its influence throughout the region, and went to the White House as a group to seek more military assistance from the United States and NATO.
They generally praised Trump’s efforts to reform the military alliance, and even his unconventional way of calling out allies to pay more of their fair share toward collective defense.
Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, said she joked with Trump that NATO needed leadership – “even unpredictable leadership” – in order to provide the pressure and leverage to make changes. “We have seen that kind of leadership from President Trump,” she said.
Defense issues were at the forefront, with terrorism, cybersecurity and nuclear non-proliferation taking up much of the agenda. The Baltic countries also want to keep U.S. troops there on a “permanent rotational basis” — an arrangement meant to get around treaties banning permanent troops on the Russian border but with a similar effect.
But Trump has expressed skepticism over U.S. defense commitments overseas, and used the same press conference on Tuesday to say he wants U.S. involvement in Syria to end as soon as the Islamic State is defeated.
Baltic leaders have increased their criticism of Russia since it annexed part of Ukraine in 2014, but their White House visit comes at an unusual time for U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump surprised allies two weeks ago when he called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election, despite voting irregularities and little real competition. Trump then invited the Russian president to a meeting in the White House.
“I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia, and President Putin, and that would be a great thing,” Trump said Tuesday. “And there’s also a good possibility that won’t happen.”
White House aides have defended Trump’s handling of Russia, pointing to tougher sanctions and the expulsion of 60 diplomats that U.S. officials said were likely spies. Those moves were in retaliation to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the recent poison attack on an ex-Russian spy in London.
Meanwhile, a special counsel is investigating any links between Trump’s campaign and Russians who sought to influence the 2016 election by hacking Democrats and pushing fake news. Trump has denied any sort of collusion with the Russians.
Baltic leaders have raised questions about some of Trump’s rhetoric, including his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and his claim that the NATO alliance is not fairly sharing the burden of defending Europe.
During the meeting and the news conference, Trump took credit for increased NATO spending, claiming the organization had been “delinquent” in the past.
Actually, NATO members are spending more on their own defense budgets as part of part of their commitment to the alliance, pursuant to an agreement reached during the Barack Obama administration.
The Baltics see NATO as a bulwark against the threat of Russian expansionism.
Some foreign policy analysts say both the United States and NATO need to be careful about any military-type moves in the Baltic countries, lest they trigger a confrontation with Russia.
“The risk of escalation sparking a wider conflict — deliberately, inadvertently, or accidentally — between Russia and NATO is dangerously high,” wrote Ulrich Kühn, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is particularly the case in the Baltics, a region that would be difficult for NATO to defend because the military balance there very much favors Russia.”
On Tuesday, Trump told Baltic leaders he has “great respect” for them.
“These are great, courageous people, and have done a fantastic job for their countries,” Trump said. “So I have great respect for you and for your nations.”