Baltic States Face Uncertain Security Situation Under Trump Administration
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The election of Donald Trump took America's allies in NATO by surprise. During the campaign, Trump said the U.S. should reconsider its commitments to NATO. Now people in the Baltic nations - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - are worried. They're looking at their giant neighbor Russia and wondering how secure they'll be with a Trump administration in Washington. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Ladies and gentlemen.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Actors pull a cart over the cobbled streets of Tallinn's old town as they rehearse for a show. Above them, church spires poke into the drizzly fog. This picturesque city was once ruled by German knights and Swedish kings. For most of the last three centuries, the leaders of Russia also valued Tallinn's strategic location.
These days, Estonia is a member of NATO and relies on the U.S. for its security. So Estonians took note when Donald Trump suggested during the campaign that the U.S. might not come to the aid of member countries that he said weren't pulling their weight. Estonia's former foreign minister, Juri Luik, says Estonians are hoping presidential reality will outweigh election trail rhetoric.
JURI LUIK: Some of it is simply unfeasible to be implemented. And obviously for us the key issue is his approach towards Europe, towards NATO, towards allies and of course also the military dimensional of that.
KIM: The Soviet Union seized Estonia and the other Baltic nations during World War II. But the U.S. and its allies never recognized the annexation. After the collapse of communism, this tiny country of 1.3 million people regained its independence and together with its neighbors joined NATO, hoping that would guarantee its security.
But after Russia annexed Crimea and supported an armed rebellion in Ukraine in 2014, people in the Baltics felt insecure once again. President Barack Obama visited Estonia later that year, promising the U.S. would uphold the NATO doctrine that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before with NATO, you will never lose it again.
KIM: Since then, the U.S. has beefed up its military presence in the region. Next year, Western countries will deploy NATO battalions to the three Baltic States and Poland. But not everyone in Estonia welcomes the NATO presence. More than a quarter of Estonia's population is ethnic Russian. And political activist Vladislav Palling says his community wants to see less military activity in the region.
VLADISLAV PALLING: It's really a very nervous situation here. Russian planes are flying behind the border. And Russian troops are training behind the border. NATO troops are training here. And just one mistake and the result can be very, very awful.
KIM: Palling was so happy with Trump's election that he wrote an open letter of congratulations to the president-elect. Estonian government officials say they have nothing against good U.S.-Russian relations. But they worry that if Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin strike a backroom deal, the interests of smaller countries will be ignored. Estonia's defense minister, Hannes Hanso, says the presence of U.S. and other NATO troops in Estonia is meant to send a message to Moscow.
HANNES HANSO: Russia must understand that if they wish to attempt an adventure such as we have seen in Ukraine, for example, they are not only up against Estonian forces - which always will be here - but also other allies. So if they do understand that, I mean, we have achieved our goal - peace and stability.
KIM: Hanso says he hopes that even with a new president in the White House, the U.S. and its NATO allies will maintain their commitment to Estonia's independence. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Tallinn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.