U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a point of showing solidarity with the Baltic States during a visit to Estonia Wednesday, which his spokesman says was aimed in part at reassuring the former Soviet satellite nations of continued U.S. and NATO support. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Tallinn.
Secretary Gates met with his counterparts from the three Baltic States, just before they all attended a NATO defense ministers meeting that will discuss bids by former-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance.
U.S. officials say the meeting might have been handled at the working level, but Secretary Gates decided to attend to stress U.S. support for East European NATO members who are concerned about their security following Russia's invasion of Georgia in August.
Earlier, after meeting with Estonia's prime minister, Gates announced an increase in U.S.-Estonian cooperation, with American funding of an Estonian center to study cyber security. Estonian computer systems were attacked last year by hackers believed to be based in Russia.
The move was widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to intimidate new NATO members from further deepening their ties to the West, a policy Secretary Gates says is not justified.
"Russia has no need to impede a sovereign country's desire to more fully integrate with the West. Doing so is not a threat to Russia's security," he said.
Gates was referring to Estonia, but his comments also apply to the U.S. view of Russian opposition to the plan for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and to the U.S. effort to put parts of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Russian news agencies Wednesday quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying Russia has rejected the effort by Secretary Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ease its concerns about the missile-defense system. Among other things, they have offered to allow Russian monitoring of the sites, and to delay their activation until Iran tests a missile that could reach Europe.
Asked by an Estonian reporter whether NATO has an updated plan to defend Estonia, as it is required to do, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said NATO will fulfill its obligation, if necessary, and it has plans for the defense of all its members, plans he said change as circumstances change. Secretary Gates said he agrees, and added this.
"We engage in prudent planning," he said. "We are always reviewing our assessment of the security situation. European Command had representatives here in Estonia, I believe in September. And so these consultations and talks continue."
Gates also thanked Estonia for maintaining troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and for allowing those troops to be used as needed, without the kind of restrictions many countries place on the use of their forces.
The NATO meeting Thursday is expected to focus on the question of when Ukraine will formally begin the process of joining the alliance. The issue of Georgia's timetable may also come up. NATO leaders have agreed both countries will join, but have left the timing vague.
U.S. officials say no decision is likely at this meeting, and perhaps not at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting next month either, in part because of upcoming elections in Ukraine and the January transfer of power in Washington.