US vice president reassures Baltic states after Russian leader Vladimir Putin said 755 American diplomatic staff would be sent home
Russia expulsions won't deter US commitment to allies: Pence
Moscow's demand that the United States cut 755 diplomatic staff in Russia will not lessen Washington's commitment to its allies, US vice president Mike Pence said on Monday.
"We hope for better days, for better relations with Russia but recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow will not deter the commitment of the United States of America to our security, the security of our allies and the security of freedom loving nations around the world," Mr Pence said in Estonia after meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states.
At a news conference, Mr Pence said he had passed on a "simple message" from US president Donald Trump to the three countries who regained their independence following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union: "We are with you."
Russian president Vladimir Putin on Sunday said Washington would have to make the diplomatic staff cuts and warned of a prolonged gridlock in ties after the US Congress backed new sanctions against the Kremlin over alleged meddling in the 2016 US election and in Ukraine.
Estonia, where Mr Pence on Sunday raised the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system and which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, is the first stop of a European tour also taking him to Georgia and Montenegro as he seeks to reassure allies fearing Russian expansionism.
"We stand with the people and nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and we always will," Mr Pence said, stressing Washington's strong bond with the region.
A "strong and united Nato" was important, as Russia continued "trying to redraw borders", he said.
"The US will check any attempt to use force."
The vice president added that the US government hoped for a better relationship with Russia, but stood by the Nato treaty's article 5 on collective defence. "An attack on one of us is an attack on us all," he said.
In a prepared text stressing the importance of Nato, which Mr Trump initially called "obsolete" on taking office in January, Mr Pence observed that "no threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the spectre of aggression from your unpredictable neighbour to the east."
Mr Pence also said that exports of US liquid natural gas to the Baltic states, which have already started, "will contribute to prosperity and security" in the three countries which are still heavily dependent on Russian gas.
Back in Washington on Monday, Mr Trump insisted there was "no chaos" in his White House as he swore in retired Marine General John Kelly as his new chief of staff.
In an Oval Office ceremony, the president predicted that Mr Kelly, who previously served as homeland security chief, would do a "spectacular job". And he chose to highlight the rising stock market and positive jobs outlook rather than talk about how things might need to change in his White House under the retired general.
Mr Trump on Friday ousted Reince Priebus as chief of staff and turned to Mr Kelly, who he hopes will bring military discipline to an administration weighed down by a stalled legislative agenda, infighting among West Wing aides and a stack of investigations.
* Additional reporting by Associated Press