Following the Baltic leaders’ White House visit early this week, the majority of Lithuanian political analysts hurried to praise Donald Trump, the eccentric President of the United States, for his reaffirmation of the U.S.’s unwavering support to the Baltic States. Perhaps only analyst Kęstutis Girnius cast doubt on the sincerity of the U.S. leader, saying that Trump used the visit for domestic politics first.
Some of the analysts even believe that Trump may have even exasperated the Baltic leaders standing next to him by saying that he was «hopeful» he could have a «great dialogue» with Putin, the Russian president.
«I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin and if I did, that would be a great thing and there is also a great possibility that that won’t happen,» Trump said at the news conference. «Who knows?»
Yet Trump reiterated several times to Dalia Grybauskaitė, Raimonds Vējonis and Kersti Kaljulaid, the heads-of-state of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia respectively, that the U.S. was «very tough on Russia», pointing to U.S. support for increased defence spending by NATO countries as a check on Moscow’s aggression.
Grybauskaitė told Trump that the U.S. role in NATO is essential, calling the nation a «vital voice» in the military alliance.
Nodding to her remarks, he later called bluntly on the Lithuanian president to «testify» that NATO has become «much stronger» with him in the Oval Office.
«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,» Grybauskaitė circumvented the request. «Without the United States, this is not possible».
«United States President Donald Trump used the visit of the three Baltic presidents for domestic politics, however, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia managed to align their interests with those of the White House,» that is the conclusion of Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, director of the Vilnius University’s International Relations and Political Science Institute.
«As usual, the U.S. President used the meeting with the Baltic leaders for the objectives of his domestic policy agenda, accentuating that the Baltic states earmark enough money for defence and (…) a potential in selling energy resources,» Vilpišauskas said on Wednesday, April 4.
«On one hand, it may seem strange that Article 5 is mentioned in such agreements 14 years after the accession to NATO, as this should go without saying. However, looking at the context of the U.S. presidential election campaign and Trump’s statements, the words contained in the declaration and pronounced by Trump at the news conference should restate the US commitments,» said Vilpišauskas.
Kęstutis Girnius, a respected analyst and associate professor of American descent at the Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences at Vilnius University, noted that many other statement by Trump were «template phrases», which indicates his limited interest in the Baltic states. Moreover, flirting with the topic of Russia and Putin, Trump used the meeting «to some degree» to signal his «desire» to meet with Putin, the analyst stressed to BNN.
«Although he repeated in the conversations that he was the toughest U.S. President in dealing with Russia, particularly emphasising the fact that he expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the country, yet he hinted of a possibility of setting up a meeting with Putin,» Girnius noted.
«The summit was interesting, but no truly major decisions were taken. We’ve had them in the field of defence over the last couple of years. And in general, any new security decision has to involve NATO, so my belief is that they are all waiting for a NATO summit in Brussels in the summer,» Girnius said.
Calling the visit «important yet very symbolic», he, however, noticed that the U.S. President was «very attentive» to the Baltic leaders, which was «very relevant» considering the importance of the centennial anniversary of three Baltic States.
«There certainly was felt this huge appreciation of the fact that America played a major role in ensuring that the Soviet Baltic States were not recognized by the West,» the observer underscored.
Meanwhile, Agnias Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of the books «The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas», and «Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire», in a commentary to Reuters noted that the summit, which took place against a backdrop of diplomatic expulsions after Britain blamed Moscow for poisoning a former Russian spy in the UK and just days after Russia test-fired its new intercontinental ballistic missile Sarmat, was of «enormous strategic significance».
«When President Barack Obama met with the leaders of the three Baltic nations in Washington in 2015 he called them the United States’ «most reliable allies in NATO». More recently, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the Baltic states during his visit to the Estonian capital of Tallinn in 2017, saying that the United States stands firmly behind NATO’s Article 5 pledge of mutual defence of Alliance members: «An attack on one of us is an attack on us all,» she emphasised.
Grigas also underlined that the Baltic states are not «simply recipients» of NATO’s protection.
«They are also active supporters of U.S. foreign policy. Since joining the alliance in 2004, the Baltic countries have participated in a number of NATO missions. They have deployed their troops to Afghanistan as part of NATO-led operations and sent soldiers to Iraq to fight Islamic State. In addition, they are hosting NATO battalions in their countries as part of a broader bid to deter Russian aggression. Washington, which already has sent troops to Norway and Poland, should consider rotating American troops through the Baltic republics in the coming years as well,» the analyst pointed out.
Looking further east, she says, Washington should turn to its Baltic allies for «advice» on plans to provide support for the nascent democracies in the East.
«The Baltic states and Poland have particularly close relations with countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP); the leaders who met with Trump in Washington this week are among the best placed and informed to take the lead in shaping EU policy on this initiative. The Trump administration should also take guidance from the Baltic leaders on the best way to optimize programs like the Washington’s Emerging Donors Challenge Fund, which allows USAID to partner with 10 donor countries on a range of development and anti-corruption programs,» the observer of Lithuanian descent said.
And notably, the Baltic states are not only allies in the defence sector, Grigas says. In 2017, Lithuania began importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States.
«Along with Poland’s LNG terminal expansion and Polish and Lithuanian purchases of American LNG, this signals a powerful challenge to Russia’s dominance in Europe’s gas markets. While the globalisation of natural gas markets is boosting diversification options for gas-importing states, the arrival of American gas to this region is strategically important,» Grigas, who specialises in energy security issues, underscored.