US vice president Pence starts Baltic tour in Estonia

US Vice President Mike Pence started a tour Sunday of three Baltic members of NATO, arriving in Estonia for talks about military support which could include a possible anti-aircraft defence deal.

The plane of US Vice President Mike Pence stands on the tarmac after arriving in Tallinn, Estonia, on July 30, 2017
The plane of US Vice President Mike Pence stands on the tarmac after arriving in Tallinn, Estonia, on July 30, 2017 (AFP)

US Vice President Mike Pence started a tour Sunday of three Baltic members of NATO, arriving in Estonia for talks about military support which could include a possible anti-aircraft defence deal.

The trip comes as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seek US assurances after years of Russian military expansionism.

Pence is to continue the eastern European tour by heading to Georgia and Montenegro.

Relations between Moscow and Tallinn have been fraught since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, joining both the EU and NATO in 2004.

Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said on public radio that the subject of Patriot air defence systems had been raised in his first talks with Pence, but he did not give any details.

"First stop in Estonia was meeting with Prime Minister Juri Ratas, who walked me through the historic Stenbock House in Tallinn. #VPinEurope," the US vice president tweeted.

Possible use of Patriot systems was expected to be central to the trip.

An Estonian military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deployment of Patriot batteries on Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian soil could be the three nations' aim.

Such a battery was recently used during an exercise in Lithuania.

"The contribution of the US to the security of the Baltic states and also the whole of Europe is vital, and I certainly wish to thank the vice president," Ratas said before Pence's arrival.

"Besides that, we plan to speak about the Estonian digital solutions that are of interest to the US, and developing cooperation in cyber defence at our meeting.

'Spooked by Russia'

"Another important topic... is the cooperation between the EU and the US," he added.

Estonia and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania have been spooked by Russia's frequent military exercises near the region and its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

As Pence arrived, Georgia and the United States launched their biggest ever joint military exercises in the latest show of support for the tiny Caucasus nation that has squared off against Russia.

Some 800 Georgian and 1,600 US troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills -- the largest ever in Georgia since it fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

In Tallinn, Pence will meet Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and her Lithuanian and Latvian counterparts, Dalia Grybauskaite and Raimonds Vejonis.

He will then visit troops from the Enhanced Forward Presence programme, under which NATO has deployed four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland to bolster the western defence alliance's eastern flank.

Local analysts expect Pence to offer Estonians what they want to hear, including that "the US is a good loyal ally and that they appreciate Baltic sacrifices including their two percent of GDP spending on defence and their participation in military operations in Afghanistan," according to Tallinn University international relations specialist Matthew Crandall, as quoted by public television ERR.

Pence is to head to Montenegro, which joined NATO last month, on Monday.