White House touts new infusion of military aid, financial support for Baltic states
WASHINGTON — The White House announced Tuesday that the United States would boost its alliance with the Baltic states through an infusion of more than $170 million in military aid as the region looks to fend off potential Russian aggression.
But earlier Tuesday, it was uncertain whether the Baltics leaders would get such reassurances during a free-wheeling lunchtime discussion with President Donald Trump in which he meandered from proposing the military guard the U.S.-Mexican border to bashing tech giant Amazon and his former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.
By an afternoon joint news conference with Presidents Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia and Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, a more scripted Trump touted strong support of the Baltic states.
“We are with [the Baltic states], we are friends and we are allies,” Trump said from the East Room while flanked by the Baltic leaders. “The Baltic republics can trust the United States will remain a strong, proud and loyal friend and ally.”
The White House on Tuesday said the United States would boost its Baltic defense and security cooperation with nearly $100 million to procure large-caliber ammunition and more than $70 million in training and equipment programs to build the capacity of the national-level military or security forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The United States will also continue its efforts to improve defense and security infrastructure in the Baltic region, strengthen Baltic national resilience efforts and build defense capacity through security assistance programs such as the Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training programs, or IMET, the White House said.
The Baltic states have received about $3.5 million annually through the IMET program that has allowed 150 students attend training through U.S. military academies, the White House said.
This year, in addition, more than 5,000 U.S. troops will join multinational forces in exercises, the White House said in a statement. Also, the United States will work to aid Baltic energy sector improvements, boost student exchange programs and provide $3 million in aid to fend off disinformation campaigns.
“These are just some of the many wonderful opportunities we can seize together,” Trump said in detailing some of the efforts.
The Baltic leaders of the Baltic states had come prepared to ask Trump for military aid to defend against Russian aggression and lauded the U.S. role in NATO.
“This is about real friendship, about real cooperation between our region and the United States,” Grybauskaite said.
Following a closed-door meeting with the leaders, Trump during a working lunch with the Baltic leaders also touched on trade issues with China to hundreds of Honduran residents marching through Mexico to the job security of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt.
For 18 minutes, the leaders sat “stoically and largely expressionless” as Trump spoke on various concerns not related to the Baltics, according to a White House news pool report. Trump was flanked by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, among others.
Trump did, however, praise the Baltic leaders and said he’s been tough on Russia, comments he reiterated during Tuesday’s joint news conference.
“We want to be able, if possible, ideally, we would like to get along with Russia maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Probably nobody’s been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump,” the president said. “If we got along with Russia that would be a good thing, not a bad thing. And just about everybody agrees to that, except very stupid people.”
Tuesday’s meeting comes at a time of enormous tension between the West and Russia. Dozens of Russian diplomats have been expelled from more than 20 countries in response to a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yuli in the United Kingdom.
In the Baltics, uncertainty has clouded Trump’s motives with regards to Russia. Even as the United States increases its military presence in Europe despite threats of reducing its NATO support, Trump’s rhetoric toward Russia and its president Vladimir Putin has been conciliatory – a source of consternation among some allies.
Grybauskaite said Tuesday that the group discussed – behind closed doors – the importance of the United States in NATO.
“We expect together with the United States to go ahead with deep reforms of NATO,” she said. “Without the United States, this is not possible. About 80 percent of spending is coming to NATO from the United States… We are behind and with you.”
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this story.