Russia is testing NATOâ€™s willingness to respond to provocation ahead of an expected meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump, according to Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna.
Russiaâ€™s build-up of forces and violations of international law, including in Ukraine, show the need for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to increase spending on defense, Tsahkna, 39, said in an interview in Brussels on Wednesday, where NATO defense ministers met their new US counterpart James Mattis for the first time.
The 1.3-million-strong Baltic nation is one of just five NATO members whose spending on defense meets the allianceâ€™s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product.
â€œWhen we look at Russiaâ€™s behavior after the US elections, they have slowly been increasing tensions, and their behavior has become more aggressive, including on violating international law,â€ Tsahkna said. â€œThe limits are really being tested now. I hope this wonâ€™t open new conflict areas. Thatâ€™s why NATO has to be prepared.â€
Russiaâ€™s meddling in Ukraine has spooked the Baltic region, which broke free of communist rule as the Soviet Union collapsed and remains home to a large Russian-speaking minority. While Putin has repeatedly denied having any designs on the Baltics, worries over security in the region have resurfaced after Trumpâ€™s election triumph.
Putin and Trump may meet at a G-20 summit in Hamburg in July, but there are no details yet of any earlier meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 13. â€œWeâ€™re working for a more constructive relationship with Russia,â€ NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Thursday. â€œBut of course our dialog with Russia has to be based on some core principles: the respect for the territorial integrity of all nations, states in Europe, including Ukraine, and of course we need to combine dialog with credible deterrence.â€
US Defense Secretary James Mattis used his first NATO meeting to warn European governments that the US could scale back its pledge to defend Europe if allied nations donâ€™t increase military spending. Still, Tsahkna, speaking after the meeting, said he â€œdidnâ€™t sense a warningâ€ in Mattisâ€™s statements and saw â€œno signs of the US changing its commitments.â€
The discussion with Mattis was civil, without any defense ministers objecting to the secretaryâ€™s request for fair burden sharing, according to a person present at the meeting. Some at the gathering pointed to difficulties in setting out milestones to increase expenditures because that may require parliamentary approval, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.
Russia on Wednesday called on Trump to live up to his pledge to improve relations, after the US presidentâ€™s tweets and comments from White House spokesman Sean Spicer added to growing unease in Moscow that he may not lift sanctions imposed over the crisis in Ukraine. â€œWhen the US and Russian presidents meet, some cards will be played,â€ Tsahkna said. â€œIt is very difficult to predict whether some sort of solution is looming. Rather, it looks like Putin is raising the stakes and Putin has often overplayed his hand.â€
US: Russia must abide by intâ€™l law, prove itself
US President Donald Trumpâ€™s administration said it will make political overtures to Russia but that Moscow needs to abide by international rules and treaties.
â€œThe point about Russia is they have to live by international law just like we expect all mature nations on this planet to do,â€ US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Thursday after a NATO meeting in Brussels. â€œWeâ€™ll engage politically; weâ€™re not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level.â€
Mattis used the gathering at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to reaffirm US support for the alliance while also calling on nations to meet their defense spending targets. Russiaâ€™s annexation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine have shaken Europe as NATO has struggled to work on a constructive relationship with Moscow.
US intelligence agencies said they had â€œhigh confidenceâ€ in a declassified report that Russia interfered with last yearâ€™s presidential elections. They said Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a hacking and disinformation operation that sought to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton and, eventually, to help Trump win.
While Mattis didnâ€™t comment on the US intrusion, he did give broad acknowledgment of Russian meddling.
â€œThereâ€™s very little doubt that they have either interfered or theyâ€™ve attempted to interfere in a number of elections in democracies,â€ Mattis said.