Pence travels to Baltic states to reassure allies and send message to Russia

TALLINN, Estonia — Vice President Pence touched down in Estonia Sunday on the eve of President Trump’s expected signing of legislation to impose broad sanctions against Russia, and said he came bearing a message from the president: “Russia’s destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine, are unacceptable.”

Speaking briefly with reporters in Town Hall Square here in Tallinn’s old town, Pence reaffirmed the president’s decision to sign the sanctions bill but also held out the possibility that the implementation of the penalties — for which Russia has already retaliated — might actually improve relations between the two countries, saying he and Trump “expect Russian behavior to change.”

“The president and I remain very hopeful that we’ll see different behavior by the Russian government, with regard to Ukraine, with regard to supporting rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea,” Pence said. “We continue to believe that if Russia will change its behavior, our relationship can change for the good and improve for the interests in both of our countries and the interest of peace and stability in this region and around the world.”

Russia has rejected the idea that the sanctions will in any way improve relations, with its U.S. embassy tweeting on Saturday: “Washington still doesn’t get the fact that pressure never works against @Russia, bilateral relations can hardly be improved by sanctions.”

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin said Sunday that the U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia will have to reduce their staffs by 755 people.

Pence’s long-planned, 3 ½-day trip to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro was originally intended to reaffirm the United States’s commitment to NATO — Estonia is one of five countries meeting its defense spending commitment — and touch on the United States’ commitment to the security of the Baltic states. All three countries have been the targets of Russian aggression. 

But in the wake of Trump’s decision to sign the legislation — which passed the Senate Thursday on an overwhelming 98 to 2 vote — the vice president’s trip has taken on a clear Russia focus, senior administration officials said. Nearly all of Pence’s remarks and speeches are likely to address the challenges Russia poses in this part of the world.

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But Pence’s rhetoric abroad so far seems slightly out of sync with some of his boss’s previous comments and actions on the topics of both Russia and NATO.

Despite the firm conclusion of his own intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Trump has repeatedly refused to fully accept that determination. When he has acknowledged that Russia did meddle, he has downplayed Moscow’s role, saying other state or individual actors could have played a role as well. 

When asked how the Baltic states can accept Pence’s reassurances that the United States will support them against Russian aggression and interference in their domestic politics when Trump has frequently taken a softer line, the vice president said, “The president has confirmed repeatedly that we believe Russia did meddle in U.S. elections. I think he has also said it could have been other actors as well.”

His message throughout Eastern Europe, Pence added, is a simple one. “While our policy is America-first, it’s not America-alone, and that our allies in Eastern Europe can be confident that the United States of America stands with them,” he said. “We are committed to NATO, we are committed to our common defense.”

Trump’s comments and actions have at times raised questions about his commitment to the alliance, despite statements of strong support from Pence and other administration officials.

While attending a ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels in May on his first trip abroad, Trump delivered a speech from which he specifically removed a roughly 20-word section intended to reaffirm U.S. support for the treaty’s Article 5, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all members. He later committed to NATO’s collective defense ideal, which is the cornerstone of the treaty, but the earlier omission worried European leaders.

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Pence on Sunday again tried to downplay the president’s previous uncertainty on Article 5, arguing Trump has never wavered in his commitment. 

“From the time the president sent me to speak at the Munich Security Conference, we made it clear that the policy of our administration is to stand firmly with our NATO allies and to stand firmly behind our Article 5 commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all,” Pence said. “The president has made it clear from the outset of our administration and will continue to make it clear to all our allies in the region.”

Trump was initially reluctant to accept the Russia sanctions legislation, which curbs his ability to lift them on his own without consent from Congress. But he finally agreed to sign it after revisions, which also include sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

In many ways, the president had no choice. Trump would have encountered a fierce political backlash — as well as faced the threat of a veto override from a Republican-controlled Congress — had he refused to sign the bill. Rejecting the legislation also would have raised further questions about his seeming reluctance to confront Putin.

Pence’s trip also comes as Trump is facing growing scrutiny at home over Russia, in the form of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s widening investigation. In addition to looking into if Trump’s associates colluded with Russians in the 2016 election, Mueller’s probe has grown to include questions about Trump and his family’s finances, as well as possible attempts to obstruct the investigation.

Michael McFaul, the ambassador to Russia under former president Barack Obama, said that Pence’s tough-on-Russia message will be “welcome” in each of the countries he’s visiting — but may disguise a deeper uncertainty about what the Trump administration’s true policy is toward Moscow. 

“It will be easy for him to have positive bilateral meetings when he goes there,” McFaul said. “But of course he has a very convoluted message on what they’re doing on Russia.” 

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All three countries have struggled for years with Russian aggression. In 2007, Estonia faced a cyberattack that hobbled dozens of corporate and government websites — an attack for which it blames Russia, though the Kremlin denies the charge. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, and Montenegro has accused Russian agents of an attempted coup in 2016, aimed at preventing the nation from joining NATO.

“Most certainly all three of these countries have felt the influence — the coercive influence — of Russia on their domestic politics, so from my point of view, that’s an interesting and positive set of countries for him to go to, with the caveat that I don’t know what their Russia policy is,” McFaul said. “I follow it pretty closely, and I could not tell you what the strategy is.”

But Sunday afternoon, in the sun-soaked town square, Pence seemed to only have one overarching message — that he and the president are in policy lockstep, and that he is just a humble emissary spreading Trump’s greetings abroad.

The vice president stopped to shake hands with a few of the people who had gathered to watch the spectacle, many of them — like Pence — tourists in Estonia. As each individual introduced themselves, Pence often tied their comments back to Trump, telling a man from Paris, “The president was just in Paris for Bastille Day,” and telling a couple from Poland, “The president was just in Warsaw.”

Then, he ducked into his motorcade and pulled away.

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