TALLINN, Estonia — The strains of American jazz great Horace Silver filled the cavernous industrial Kultuurikatel or “Culture Cauldron,” a plant-turned-hip-banquet hall lit by modern chandeliers. With bitter sage wine flowing, a Finnish saxophonist joined an Estonian playing the opening number, a subconscious nod to the American troops helping guard this tiny NATO member on Russia’s doorstep, kicking off an annual Baltic defense conference.
The Trump administration didn’t send any its top officials to the Lennart Meri meeting, northern Europe’s premier annual defense conference. Still, its fiercest defender just might be conference host Estonia
“In the new administration's steps, I see not a single U-turn,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, referring to Washington’s historical defense of Baltic states.
She crisply and dryly upbraiding a couple of American panelists including writer Sarah Kendzior, who warned Baltic nations to be “wary” of a president “with obvious autocratic leanings…who is not rational, who is destructive.”
“When we're done with synchronizing all our gossip about the new administration, then we need to look at the facts,” she said. “If I now look at relations between the new administration and Estonia, a small country, any relations towards Estonia have to be values-based or it is ignored,” she said bluntly. “I haven't left Europe since my election in October. I've met close to 20 senators and congressmen. On this continent, I've met Vice President (Mike) Pence,” and her ministers have met the top Pentagon and State chiefs, she said.
“Am I overlooking something?” The panelists took a beat to respond.
The Estonian president’s rhetorical fightback is thanks to what Estonian and other Baltic diplomats called unprecedented outreach by President Donald Trump’s administration – both from top Trump officials, and a steady stream of mostly Republican lawmakers who've made their way here since Trump took office.
Of course, Trump himself hasn’t always been so solicitous. On the campaign trail, he dinged NATO as “obsolete” and threatened to leave alliance members high and dry if attacked, unless they’d met their NATO investment targets.
That was a challenge to NATO’s Article 5, which says if one member is attacked, all will respond. It’s an article that has only been invoked once by the United States after 9/11 – and more than a dozen Estonian troops have lost their lives answering that call.
Trump campaign surrogate Newt Gingrich even ventured last year that the U.S. might not come to Estonia’s aid. "I'm not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” he said.
Since then, Trump reversed himself on NATO, even claiming credit for the fact that more countries are meeting their pledged NATO investment targets, and also investing in counterterrorism, although those targets and those programs were all started under the Obama administration.
His newfound warmth toward NATO has spread to the Baltics.
“We’ve had more meetings with top Trump officials than we had with Obama officials in eight years,” one Baltic diplomat said, to the ready agreement of others in attendance.
There was no immediate response to emailed requests for comment to former Obama administration officials.
"Continued American assistance and NATO security cooperation in Estonia is critically import to deter Russian aggression," said Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul, who visited the Baltics as part of a congressional delegation last week.
“At Least He’ll Have Adult Supervision”
"They're good guys - better than the Obama team, actually,” one of the officials said, warming to the new team because of their accessibility. “The only problem is they have limitations," in that they enact policy, but don't make it. "That depends on Donald Trump and whoever he last met with," one of the officials said with a laugh, repeating a phrase oft used in Washington.
The officials said Trump officials are trying to reassure us of the strength of the alliance, whatever is coming out of the White House, one of the diplomats said. “The administration officials tell us, don't worry, and the lawmakers say, we know you're worried, and we're worried too, but we're on your side,” the official said.
There’s a wariness about what Trump might say when he attends the upcoming NATO summit, or what he might tweet, and a near-universal derision among diplomats here toward Trump’s perceived lack of consistency, loyalty to a given viewpoint or self-control. That was best summed up in one senior diplomat’s description of Trump’s upcoming visit, saying “at least he’ll have adult supervision.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about the still-evolving White House policy toward NATO, Russia and the Baltic nations.
Others are ready to ignore the Trumpian drama, and give his policymakers a chance.
“We don't ignore the tweets, but we can't act on tweets. We act on real life and there is real commitment from the U.S.,” a senior Baltic defense official told The Daily Beast. “Relations with the U.S. are brilliant!”
Lithuanian defense minister Raimundas Karoblis told The Daily Beast in an interview that there was fear among his public that a Trump administration might “betray” Lithuania and the other Baltic nations to Russia, which has tried to push the idea that they are indefensible.
But after meetings with Mattis and others, “we don’t have a moment of doubt,” Karoblis said.
From the Baltic point of view, Trump was preaching to the converted when he complained NATO nations needed to “pay up,” i.e. Invest two percent of their GDP in defense. Estonia has met that mark since 2014, and Lithuania and Latvia are on target to meet the spending goal by 2018. Russia’s covert invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 helped concentrate minds, and open the public’s wallets and government coffers.
“Now the society is starting to understand what the position is, because the troops are so close to the Russian border,” one of the senior defense officials said. “We have to use this momentum to make further steps.”
“Otherwise Putin Takes Everything He Needs”
So far, the Trump administration has followed through with everything the U.S. Army planned under the Obama administration as part of “Atlantic Resolve” to protect eastern Europe is going forward this year.
“The mission has remained the same,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the head of U.S. Army Europe, in an interview. “This is about deterrence and protecting U.S. interests,” he said.
That includes bringing a 4,000-soldier U.S. Army armored brigade to Europe with roughly 1,000 vehicles including tanks, and a combat aviation brigade with attack helicopters, to be sprinkled across NATO nations including those bordering Russia. The U.S. is also prepositioning enough military equipment that it could send over another full army brigade if needed.
The general cautioned against seeing this as the U.S. versus Russia. “This is not the U.S. sending a message to anybody,” Hodges said, explaining that the deployments were announced as part of NATO’s collective decision last year to switch to “deterrence” - i.e. to signal Russia that they are ready to fight if necessary to defend NATO members.
Britain and France have deployed troops to the Baltics as well as part of NATO’s deterrence mission, in addition to the 600 or so American troops rotating through the northern region. “By political decision, these…are supposed to be warfighting capable formations that can actually fight tonight.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed: the U.S. keeps asking NATO members to contribute more. “We’re encouraging allies to look for ways to increase their investment,” Hodges said, ticking off a wishlist of greater spending on military transportation, air and missile defense, munitions, military-specific fuel and even repairing crumbling infrastructure like bridges.
One of the Baltic defense officials said having U.S., British, and French troops stationed in their countries, even in small numbers, is like arming the Baltics with a kind of nuclear tripwire—in that Russia knows better than to attack troops from those three nuclear-armed powers. The danger of escalation is too great, he explained.
The challenge for the Baltic nations is striking a balance making them too thorny for Russia to swallow whole, but not so well armed they invite a Russian invasion.
“Deterrence is a tricky game,” warned a European defense official. “We must avoid escalation—too many systems of the wrong kind could look like we are depriving them of military action.”
“The Russians know we’re not going to invade them,” snorted a Baltic defense official, at the thought of Moscow quaking over the thought of the Baltic nation’s tiny numbers of troops marching its way. Estonia’s army is six-thousand strong, half of them conscripts.
“When both sides think safety means having their troops at the other one’s border, that's a problem” another diplomat said, speaking anonymously to describe the tension with Russia.
The tiny Baltic nation of only 1.3 million could teach Trump a thing or two about Russia. It lost scores of politicians and troops who tried resist before and during Soviet rule. Since breaking away from the crumbling U.S.S.R. in 1991, the country has made strides in economy and modernization, becoming one of the most Internet-savvy nations in Europe, but also suffering a fairly substantial denial-of-service attack in 2007—a strike widely blamed on Russia.
The Baltic defense leaders’ message to Trump on Moscow: talk to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but don’t trust him.
“We need to have a dialogue with Russia...with the condition that it’s from the point of view of strength,” said one of the senior Baltic defense officials. “Otherwise Putin takes everything he needs.”
Trump critic Sarah Kendzior had advice for the Estonian president and others at the conference: “Watch your back and hope for the best.”
This story was updated to correct that a Finnish, not Lithuanian, saxophonist joined the Estonian saxophonist at the banquet.