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Trump Tells Baltic Leaders 'Nobody Tougher' On Russia Than Him

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite (file photo)

The presidents of the three Baltic states are asking U.S. President Donald Trump to do more to deter Russia by bolstering U.S. forces on NATO's eastern flank.

Their request on April 3 came during a White House meeting attended by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis.

They are among the strongest critics of Russia in the European Union and were visiting Trump amid mixed signals about his intentions toward the Kremlin.

As the White House talks were under way, Trump was heard by reporters telling the three Baltic presidents that "probably nobody has been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump."

"Ideally, we want to be able to get along with Russia," Trump said. "Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Now, maybe we will [get along] and maybe we won't."

Trump also said that he has been pressing other NATO members to increase their defense spending.

Asked by a reporter if Russian President Vladimir Putin is a friend or a foe, Trump said, "We'll find out. I'll let you know."

The meeting came as the White House has raised the possibility of Trump welcoming Putin to the White House.

But Washington also recently imposed a new round of sanctions targeting Russian individuals, companies, and intelligence agencies.

The White House also expelled 60 Russian diplomatic staff – calling them “Russian intelligence officers” -- in reaction to Moscow's alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

A senior Lithuanian official told the AFP news agency that the three Baltic leaders want Trump to more frequently send Patriot long-range air-defense missiles to NATO military exercises in the Baltics.

The official said they also want to become a part of NATO's larger European antimissile shield.

"I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended," Lithuania's Grybauskaite told her country's public broadcaster LRT ahead of the visit.

"It is important that [U.S. troops] are here on a permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states," she said.

Last year, NATO deployed four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states as tripwires against possible Russian adventurism, while the U.S. military sent a Patriot battery to Lithuania for drills.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in July raised the possibility of deploying Patriots in nearby Estonia.

Citizens of the Baltic states were rattled by Trump's campaign rhetoric in 2016 questioning NATO's relevance and his unwillingness to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, public opinion polls showed.

But polls showed the public mood changed after Trump decided to boost funding for U.S. forces in Europe and provide antitank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists.

Trump, who has repeatedly attacked other European allies for failing to meet NATO's targeted level of defense spending, is expected to praise the Baltic presidents for agreeing to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defense, as agreed by the military alliance.

"The president wants to show that these countries are setting standards where we want to see allies moving in terms of defense," said Anne Hall, the U.S. ambassador to Lithuania.

The Baltic-U.S. summit will also include a business forum where Lithuania plans to sign deals to boost imports of liquefied natural gas from the United States to reduce reliance on Russian gas.

The Baltic states, with a combined population of just 6 million people, were occupied and annexed by Moscow during World War II.

The trio broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991 and joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004.

With reporting by AP and AFP