U.S. President Barack Obama has assured Estonia of U.S. support for regional security in the Baltics and the "unbreakable" U.S. commitment to defend any NATO ally against attack.
At a news conference in Tallinn on September 3 after talks with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Obama spoke of Russian "aggression against Ukraine" and said “Estonia will never stand alone.”
Obama also said that Russia’s role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine “gives us an opportunity to understand the importance” of updating and bolstering NATO’s defense capabilities.
The Estonian president also said the conflict in eastern Ukraine is "Russian aggression” and underscores the need for a “robust and visible” NATO presence in his country.
Ilves said "Russia must admit that it is a party to the conflict and take genuine steps for a de-escalation” of the crisis.
After their bilateral talks, Obama and Ilves were to meet with Latvian President Andris Berzins and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
The talks between Obama and the Baltic leaders come ahead of a NATO summit starting on September 4 in Wales that is expected to focus on the threats posed by Russia's moves in Ukraine.
The three Baltic states -- all former Soviet republics that chafed under Moscow's rule for decades after World War II -- joined the European Union and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ilves has said Estonia wants NATO to set up permanent bases on its territory to protect it against potential threats from Russia.
"We should not have NATO with two-tier countries: with NATO permanent bases and without. This is the wrong signal to send to the potential aggressor," he said on September 2.
Obama said at the news conference that he would seek support from the U.S. Congress to deploy additional aircraft and U.S. troops on a rotating basis at Amari Air Base at Harjumaa, Estonia.
NATO already has increased the number of its aircraft in Poland and the Baltic states as the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, with Russia taking similar steps with its air forces in the region.
The Pentagon last month also announced the deployment of Abrams M-1 tanks and armored fighting vehicles in Poland and the Baltic states for what it called a three-month “training exercise.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said NATO leaders at the summit in Wales would be asked to approve the creation of a high-readiness force to help the alliance’s easternmost members defend themselves.
Rasmussen -- who has accused Russia of engaging in "direct military operations" in Ukraine – said the plan calls for a “spearhead” force comprised of several thousand troops that would be contributed on a rotating basis by all 28 NATO countries.
He said the plan would not breach an agreement struck with Russia in 1997 that limits NATO’s troop presence in the East.
But Rasmussen also said the plan was aimed at showing "any potential aggressor" that an attack on NATO’s eastern members would target the entire alliance.
Moscow has said it will take steps to respond “with a view to ensure its security” if NATO begins regular troop rotations in the alliance’s easternmost countries.
Finland and Sweden, both members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, have said they are signing a pact allowing them to host NATO training exercises and grant greater access to NATO troops on their territory.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, BBC, ITAR-TASS, and Interfax.
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