Pence looks to reassure NATO Baltic allies amid Russia tensions

Pence looks to reassure NATO Baltic allies amid Russia tensions
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Vice President Pence arrived in Estonia on Sunday to showcase support for NATO allies in the Baltic region and eastern Europe amid increasing concerns about Russia's influence in the region. 

The vice president will meet with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas to discuss potentially installing an American anti-aircraft defense systems in the small Baltic country, which is made up of just 1.3 million people.

Earlier this month the U.S. deployed a battery of long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Lithuania.

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Pence's visit comes after Russia spooked NATO allies when it sent 2,500 troops to the Latvian and Estonian borders earlier this month as a part of a military drill in the Pskov region. 

The visit also precedes Russia’s highly anticipated Zapad 2017 exercise along with Belarus, which NATO officials expect could bring up to 100,000 troops to Baltic borders.

Belarus has reportedly invited Estonia to watch the military exercise.

Estonia, which is home to 300,000 ethnic Russians, is seen as a future target of Russian aggression, considering it was invaded by the Soviet Union during World War II. It became a NATO member in 2004.

The vice president is also set to make stops in Montenegro, which became a NATO member this year, and Georgia, which has long aspired to join the alliance.

Russia has attempted to counter NATO by increasing its sphere of influence in eastern Europe over the past decade.

Russia invaded Georgia in August of 2008, and annexed Crimea in 2014, which has a sizable ethnic Russian population. The move led to a bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the country's eastern region. 

Montenegro accused the Kremlin of being involved in efforts to assassinate the country's prime minister in October of 2016 in order to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO. 

The Trump administration has maintained a perplexing — sometimes tense and sometimes, according to critics, too friendly — relationship with Russia. 

The White House is currently grappling with the ongoing federal probe into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. 

However, the White House announced on Friday the president would sign legislation implementing new sanctions on Russia, despite its efforts to water down the sanctions. 

Russia has pledged to retaliate against the move by ordering the U.S. to reduce the number is diplomats in Moscow. 

Pence's visit could also serve as a reassurance to NATO, given Trump's past critical rhetoric toward the alliance. 

The president has maintained a rocky relationship with NATO, often saying the alliance's member nations do not pay their fair share.