President Donald Trump claimed Tuesday that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than he has, before immediately insulting the American press, during a joint press conference with Baltic State leaders at the White House.
Trump made the comment in response to a question from a Baltic reporter, adding, “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have. I know you’re nodding yes because everyone agrees when they think about it.”
However, the president seemed unsure about how he actually feels about the country, saying first that he thought he could have “a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin,” before adding that there’s a “great possibility” that he and Putin actually don’t have a good relationship.
Trump’s meeting with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis comes at a time of increased tension in Europe over Russia’s military buildup and intrusive cyber activities, combined with pervasive confusion over the Trump administration’s mixed messages toward the Kremlin.
On the one hand, the U.S. and more than a dozen other countries expelled over 150 Russia diplomats in the last two weeks, following a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K. last month. The Trump administration also announced sweeping sanctions last month against several Russian individuals and entities for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and attempting cyberattacks other key American infrastructure.
On the other hand, President Trump offered a warm congratulations to Putin for his re-election in a personal phone call last month, reportedly against the wishes of his aides, and the two plan to meet at the White House in the “not-so-distant future.”
Trump’s talking points on Russia Tuesday weren’t all that different from what the public has heard before, Andrew Weiss, vice president for Russia and Eurasia studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told VICE News. Trump refused to outright critique the Kremlin for its behavior, despite willingly critiquing some NATO members just moments before, and since before his election for not paying “their fair share.”
However, the “numbers game” Trump used to defend his toughness on Russia “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Weiss, who worked in the Clinton White House said. Worse, he said, it may fuel skepticism in Europe over the U.S.’ commitment to countering Russia when push comes to shove.
In one aside, Trump bragged that he had expelled 60 Russian diplomats, while Germany had only expelled four. But the size of the Russian mission in the U.S. is substantially larger, and comparing their actions is like “comparing apples to oranges,” Weiss said.
The U.S. requested $4.8 billion in its defense budget to beef up American military presence, primarily in Eastern Europe to “deter and defend against Russian aggression,” a $1.4 billion increase from 2017 under the European Deterrence Initiative. The American build-up, which includes boosting rotational troop presence and investing in cold-weather training in countries like Norway, also signals increasing concerns over countering Russian aggression. The U.S. deploys nearly 7,000 service members under the program, according to the U.S. European Command.
In the meantime, the Baltic states have urged the U.S. to give more support. Lithuania's Grybauskaite told local reporters ahead of the meeting that she hoped “the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended.”
"It is important that [U.S. troops] are here on a permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states," she added.
Cover image: WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: (L-R) Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House April 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. Marking their 100th anniversary of their post-World War I independence from Russia, the three Baltic heads of state participated in the United States-Baltic Summit at the White House. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)