WASHINGTON — Top US congressional leaders met with representatives from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on Wednesday in order to reassure the Baltic nations that the US will honor its NATO commitment, despite comments made by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail.
The attempt to reassure the allies was apparently important enough to draw top members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.; Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn; his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland; and others, including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
In a statement, McCain said the US officials used the meeting to convey "our abiding bipartisan commitment to the NATO alliance, to our obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty, and to the defense of our Baltic allies against Russian aggression." He also said he would be visiting the Baltic states later this month.
The effort was enough to reassure the visiting dignitaries, according to Mārtiņš Bondars, a member of Latvia's parliament and a chairman on the Latvian Regional Alliance parliamentary group. Bondars said he was "very happy and thankful" after the discussion.
Bondars, a former basketball star and banker who ran for president of Latvia in 2015, admitted Thursday that many in his country were concerned by Trump's comments made over the summer that implied he may not respond to aid NATO countries if they were not spending at least 2 percent GDP on defense. However, he walked away from the meeting trusting that the Trump administration — and its Senate allies — will meet their treaty obligation.
"It has been very, very fruitful in terms of get those reassurances and to bring them back home," Bondars said. "It is definitely clear there will be changes in accents of cooperation in transatlantic community, with new admonition coming in … this is an important time to communicate with each other [that] there won’t be strategic changes in cooperation."
Just what those changes in "accents" to the transatlantic relationship will be is unclear, Bondars acknowledged, but he indicated those details would come out in time and he was not concerned with them.
"I think it’s done. Right now, there is no concerns as such and those who wanted to undermine credibility of NATO. I think they can definitely look for other times and other politicians," he said. "This will not be an administration that will allow to undermine credibility of NATO. I believe this Senate leadership and Congress leadership will also be very strong on issues of transatlantic links."
At the same time, Bondars, whose centrist Latvian Regional Alliance party controls only seven of the 100 seats in the Latvian parliament, said he "fully agrees" with Trump about the need for NATO countries to hit the standard of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, noting Estonia already meets that threshold and that Latvia will be there in 2018.
Asked about spending priorities for Latvia, the parliamentarian said the focus is on increasing troop levels preparing to accommodate NATO forces that will be based in-country. But, he said, the government also wants to increase "buying different kinds of equipment form the US." While declining to share details, Bondars did mention "cyber, ground vehicles, border security, our airspace. As much as you can imagine."
In his statement, McCain noted that the continuing resolution passed by the House on Friday includes the full $3.4 billion funding measure for the European Reassurance Initiative, a key part of the Obama administration’s plan to increase the US presence in Europe.
Bondars and his counterparts raised the question of the European Reassurance Initiative and the CR with congressional leaders, and again received vocal support.
He also said the visiting dignitaries encouraged the US to continue sanctions against Russia — and said he was "very positive" that the US will keep sanctions in place, despite comments from Trump over the last year indicating a closer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be in the future.
"I think sanctions are the only way how to force Russia to implement the Minsk Agreement," Bondars added. "I am very positive. I am full of hope that [the] next administration will get deep in their files what is happening in those regions and will make right decisions. I somehow don’t have any concerns on that front."
And that is vital, he acknowledged, because if America loosens sanctions, so too will Europe.
"No one will say it publicly, but I think I can: Everybody in Europe looks to US leadership on this issue," Bondars said. "If US will be very strong on maintaining sanctions and going to direction of basically sending clear message to Russia about unacceptable behavior on international arena, then Europeans will somehow line up and say: 'OK, we are also supporting this.' "
The meetings came as a bipartisan group of 27 US senators, led by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio — the co-chairs of the Senate Ukraine Caucus — called on Trump to continue America’s tradition of support for Ukraine and the NATO alliance.
"In light of Russia’s continued aggression and repeated refusal to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign right to choose its own destiny, we also renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic, and military support for Ukraine," the letter read. "This includes defensive lethal assistance as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians better defend themselves, deter future aggression, and implement key structural reforms. Similarly, we believe that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea should never be accepted, nor should we lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in eastern Ukraine until key provisions of the Minsk Agreement are met."
The US Congress on Thursday sent US President Barack Obama an annual defense policy bill for 2017 that boosted the authorization for $350 million in US security assistance to Ukraine — $50 million more than last year.
The security assistance and intelligence support fund has been expanded to cover equipment and technical assistance to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine for the purpose of developing a comprehensive border surveillance network for Ukraine, as well as training for staff officers and senior leadership of the military.
"We appreciate the bicameral and bipartisan support in the US Congress for Ukraine in our fight against the ongoing Russian aggression," a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington said.
Bondars said it was important for European nations to remember countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which do not fall under NATO’s protective umbrella and have seen Russian aggression in the past.
"I believe we have certain dues to countries like Georgia, who have also been doing their homework, regarding changing their societies, changing their economies, enforcing rule of law," he said. "And yeah, we cannot turn our backs to those countries who are doing their homework, who are becoming like us, and we have to look at each case separately — including Ukraine if it steps on path to democratization and cleaning up corruption issues and justice systems, etc."
The parliamentarian also indicated he would be open to Georgia or Ukraine joining NATO in the future if required reforms were to happen.
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.