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US VP Pence seeks to reassure European allies

Michael Knigge
July 30, 2017

Vice President Pence's visit to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro is a new bid to try to calm the nerves of America’s European allies. In an ironic twist, the White House has hinted at the real reason for the trip.

Südkorea Besuch US Vizepräsident Mike Pence
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Jin-Man

Sometimes press communiques contain kernels of truths, sometimes unintentionally.

The Trump White House's curt official announcement of Vice President Mike Pence's trip to Europe seems like one of those statements.

"At the direction of President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Tallinn, Estonia; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Podgorica, Montenegro July 30-August 2, 2017," reads the first sentence of the announcement released by the White House last month.

This, of course, is ironic as it was President Donald Trump's public musings about the usefulness of the trans-Atlantic military alliance, his long-standing reluctance to reaffirm Washington's commitment to NATO's collective defense and his eagerness to improve ties with Moscow that made America's European allies nervous in the first place.

NATO Donald Trump in Belgium
Trump has often been publicly critical of NATOImage: Getty Images/M.Ngan

Trump, who is under pressure domestically with several investigations looking into the Trump campaign's alleged Russian ties, has recently softened his tone towards Europe, finally making the much-desired commitment to NATO's collective defense, article V in the NATO treaty, during his speech in Poland earlier this month.

But a single speech, especially by a president widely viewed as impulsive and prone to vacillating positions, is unlikely to fully convince US allies in the Baltics and elsewhere that the White House is indeed fully committed to its European partners.             

Grown-up in the White House

This is where Pence, who already tried to assuage European anxiety during the Munich Security Conference shortly after Trump's inauguration, comes in.   

"I think there is no question that Vice President Pence is meant to be the grown-up in the White House when it comes to European security and NATO policy," said Norman Naimark, professor of East European Studies, History and German Studies at Stanford University via email. "I think it is a very good move on the part of the White House, maybe encouraged by the State Department, to send Pence to these countries," he told DW.

The aim of the vice president's trip, said Mariya Omelicheva, a scholar of Eurasian security at the University of Kansas, is to "reiterate the US' continued commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, NATO, and the latter's collective defense principle. As a candidate and, now, the President, Trump made the East and Central European states, the former members of the Warsaw pact and republics of the Soviet Union, very nervous."

Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference
Pence made assurances to European leaders at the Munich Security Conference in FebruaryImage: Reuters/Bundesregierung/G. Bergmann

Pence, argued Naimark, due to his political background and his low-key style, is well positioned for what amounts to the vice president's second reassurance mission to Europe.

Drown out the Washington noise

"As a conservative Republican, he will also try to convince these nervous allies, who really do look to us for protection, that the incessant 'noise' in Washington about the Trump administration playing footsies with the Russians does not mean that the US will sacrifice their interests to a Moscow-Washington agreement," said Naimark, who also serves as fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Worries about a possible grand bargain with the Kremlin, repeatedly floated by Trump during the campaign, or at least a perceived unwillingness to confront what is viewed as a resurgent Russia, are a common thread connecting Pence's destinations. 

In the Baltic countries, whose leaders Pence is scheduled to meet on the first leg of his trip in Estonia's capital Tallinn, the fear of Russia is arguably the greatest, and most acute, among the countries visited by the vice president.

Moscow's war games

Pence's reassurance trip to the Baltic nations appears well-timed, since Russia will hold a large military exercise along its western borders and in Belarus in September. Moscow's war games involving tens of thousands of troops has US, NATO and Baltic officials worried.

Russian Sukhoi Su 25 fighter jets
Russia will stage its Zapad war games in SeptemberImage: Imago/ITAR-TASS

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last month demanded more information about Moscow's planned exercise, but also reported that the alliance's Russia deterrent force in Eastern Europe was now fully operational.   

University of Kansas Eurasian security expert Omelicheva said she expects Pence to reiterate America's commitment to the security of the Baltics in his Tallin speech, "but the language may be stronger now that Trump himself voiced support to NATO during the G20 meeting, and the White House indicated its approval of the new sanctions.”

Military assistance cuts

In Georgia, which is Pence's second stop and not a NATO member, the vice president will meet with the country's leaders and visit US and Georgian troops participating in a multinational military exercise in the country. Reassurance is high on the agenda in Tbilisi as well, said Omelicheva.

"Georgians have been very anxious about the high likelihood of cuts to the US foreign military assistance program based on the budget released by the White House in the spring." 

Georgian and US soldiers for Agile Spirit 2015
Trump will visit US and Georgian troops in TbilisiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Kurtsikidze

There could, however, be an additional motivation driving the Pence visit to Georgia, added Omelicheva: "The US government may feel they made a mistake by not responding more assertively in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war."

Making good with Montenegro

In Montenegro, the latest member of NATO - and a country which is traditionally friendly with Russia - Pence's visit may be intended to firm up its pivot to the West, said Stanford professor Naimark.

But, here too, there may also be another factor that helped put tiny Montenegro on the US Vice President's itinerary.

"I wonder," mused Naimark, "if it has anything to do with the perceived slight to Montenegro when President Trump pushed aside the Montenegrin Prime Minister at the last NATO meeting photo-shoot."