A leading American senator is telling Baltic state leaders they can count on continued U.S. support from the incoming Donald Trump administration in the event of any Russian aggression.
Sen. John McCain, a member of President-elect Trump's Republican party, also said Tuesday in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, that he does not foresee any easing of sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
"I think the presence of the American troops here in Estonia is a signal that we believe in what Ronald Reagan believed, and that is peace through strength," said the Arizona senator, who is visiting the three Baltic states this week accompanied by fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham.
U.S. Senator John McCain, left, speaks during a joint news conference with the Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas in Tallinn, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016.
"And the best way to prevent Russian misbehavior is by having a credible, strong military and a strong NATO alliance of which Estonia is a very important part," he said.
NATO announced plans this year to deploy a 4,000-person deterrent force in the Baltics and eastern Europe.
Leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia -- all former Soviet republics that have since joined NATO -- have been unnerved by Russian takeovers of border regions in Ukraine and Georgia as well as Moscow's arms build-up close to their borders in its Kaliningrad enclave.
Trump added to the unease when he suggested during his campaign that the U.S. commitment to its NATO allies might be conditioned on how much the members spend on their own defense.
Zygimantas Pavilionis, Lithuania's former ambassador to the United States, told the Reuters news agency that Baltic leaders are worried about Trump's positive public comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"There is fear ... that sanctions against Russia will be weakened or called off, and not strengthened as the Congress would want," he was quoted as saying.
McCain, who has called for even tougher sanctions in response to suspected Russian efforts to undermine this year's U.S. elections, said he was not aware of any plan to soften the measures.
"That is certainly not the case today as I know it," he said.
McCain and Graham were scheduled to be in Latvia on Wednesday and Lithuania on Thursday.