Baltics press EU to beef up defense

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The European Union must increase its spending on defense in response to justified criticism from US President-elect Donald Trump, according to officials from the three Baltic states.

“Maybe the way he said it was sharp but the criticism was right that we have to contribute more ourselves,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said in an interview in Paris. “Now we have to engage, not to complain.”

Trump’s surprise election victory last week has focused attention on the Baltic nations, the only former Soviet states that are members of NATO, which have seen incursions by Russian military jets over the past year as President Vladimir Putin looked to assert his influence in eastern Europe. Trump, who’s expressed his admiration for Putin, raised doubts during the election campaign about whether he would honor the US’s commitment to defend NATO allies if they failed to meet their own obligations on defense spending.

Only five of the alliance’s 28 members meet the target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on their military. Lithuania and its neighbor Latvia, which shares a land border with Russia, are planning to meet the target by 2018.

“We do understand the frustration that people in the US, especially foreign and security experts, had already for years about Europe’s inability to raise defense spending,” Latvia’s foreign-policy chief Edgars Rinkevics said in a separate interview. “I do understand this frustration but I also believe from our contacts with senators and Congresspeople that the US under President Trump will demand more defense spending and capabilities from its European allies. I don’t have those concerns that the US will abandon its commitments under NATO.”

Campaign Concerns

Foreign ministers from the three nations visited Paris on Wednesday to meet with French officials and tried to damp concerns that the US might retreat from its obligations to North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

“Campaigning is different than running a government. I expect there will be continuity in US economic and security policy,” Estonia’s Jurgen Ligi said at a press conference. “It’s clear that we have to spend more on defense, but there’s no way that the US contribution can be replaced.”

Rinkevics said that improved relations between the US and Russia, one of Trump’s stated goals during the campaign, “is not necessarily a bad thing for us.” But he said he hoped the US wouldn’t unilaterally ease sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine.

Whether the US maintains pressure over Russia’s meddling in Ukraine “is a test” of the new US administration, Linkevicius said.

European Union countries will meet in December to decide whether to roll over sanctions due to expire in January. Both ministers said there hasn’t been enough improvement in Eastern Ukraine to warrant ending sanctions.

“I don’t see any substantial progress,” Rinkevics said.

He said that while EU countries should cooperate more on military procurement and new threats such as cyber attacks, “the EU should not duplicate NATO.”

“I don’t think we should have any talk of creating headquarters or planning cells when there are no real armies,” he added.

New Détente for the New Cold War

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President-elect Donald J. Trump spoke by telephone for the first time on Monday, agreeing to review what both consider the poor state of relations between the two countries, according to a statement from the Kremlin.

The two agreed “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations,” said the statement, and they both endorsed the idea of undertaking joint efforts “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.”

The issues discussed included trade and economic ties as well as combating terrorism. Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump last Wednesday, sending him a telegram about an hour after he had emerged the victor, but the two men have not met nor had they spoken previously. Putin repeated the congratulations over the phone.

The Russian president said he hoped that Moscow could build a “collaborative dialogue” with Washington on the basis of “equality, mutual respect and noninterference in the other’s internal affairs,” a release said.