U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Monday there is no larger threat to Baltic states than the "specter of aggression" by Russia, as he pledged support for NATO allies Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
"At this very moment, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force, undermine democracies of sovereign nations and divide the free nations of Europe one against another," Pence said. "Under President Donald Trump, the United states of America rejects any attempt to use force, threats, intimidation or malign influence in the Baltic states or against any of our treaty allies."
Pence spoke in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, after meeting with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Latvian President Raimonds V?jonis and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
The U.S. vice president expressed hope for improved relations with Russia, but said that "recent diplomatic action" by the government in Moscow will not deter the U.S. commitment to its security and that of its allies.
Pence also praised Estonia for meeting the NATO alliance's target of spending at least 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on defense, and said Latvia and Lithuania would hit that level by the end of next year. Trump has repeatedly called on NATO members to boost defense spending.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all have asked for tangible demonstrations of U.S. military support. Concerns about Russian expansionism have increased sharply in the Baltic region with Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Later in the day, Pence traveled to Georgia, where troops from the United States and other NATO partners began military exercises Sunday. He was greeted at his plane by Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Pence's tour will also take him to Montenegro, NATO's newest member.
"Our message to the Baltic States, my message when we visit Georgia and Montenegro will be the same," Pence said Sunday after he arrived in Tallinn. "To our allies here in Eastern Europe: We are with you, we stand with you on behalf of freedom and it's a great honor for me to be here."
The NATO military exercise that began Sunday at Georgia's Vaziani military base, Tbilisi, marks the first time that U.S. and German heavy military machinery was deployed in the former Soviet republic, which borders Russia.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili attended the opening ceremony at the exercise, dubbed Noble Partner 2017. A total of 2,800 soldiers from five NATO members — the U.S., Britain, Germany, Turkey and Slovenia — joined troops from NATO partner countries Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.
Pence said the U.S. is making it very clear "that Russia's destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine, are unacceptable."
Referring to the prospect of increased U.S. sanctions against Russia, which Congress passed last week by an overwhelming margin, Pence said he and Trump "expect Russian behavior to change."
"If Russia will change its behavior," Pence said in Estonia, "our relationship can change for the good and can improve for the interests of both our countries, and for the interest of peace and stability in this region and around the world."
Pence said he expects Trump to sign the sanctions bill, which also applies new penalties to North Korea and Iran as well as Russia, "very soon."