President Barack Obama will stand shoulder to shoulder with Baltic leaders Wednesday in a show of solidarity with NATO allies who fear they could be the next target of Russia's aggression.
After arriving early Wednesday in Estonia's port capital of Tallinn, Obama was greeted at Kadriorg Palace by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves on a crisp and sunny morning. Obama placed his hand over his heart as the U.S. national anthem played, then inspected Estonian troops with Ilves and shook hands with groups of flag-waving schoolchildren.
As the two leaders opened their bilateral meeting, Ilves said Obama's visit was crucial "especially in the current context."
The U.S. and Estonia are two of the four NATO countries that fulfil their pledges to contribute 2 per cent of their gross domestic product to defence spending. Ilves said Obama's visit would help Estonians understand the importance of being part of the alliance, "especially all these years fighting for two per cent and doing it, and people mumbling and grumbling, 'Why do you have to do all that, look at them, they're not doing anything."'
Obama becomes the second sitting American president to visit Estonia, following President George W. Bush, who travelled here in 2006. Entering the palace earlier, Obama wrote in a guest book that it was an honour to visit "a nation that shows what free people can achieve together."
"May we strengthen our friendship for future generations," Obama wrote.
Obama and Ilves were to take questions from reporters later Wednesday before holding broader security talks that include the leaders of Latvia and Lithuania.
Obama's daylong trip to Estonia comes ahead of a NATO summit this week at which allies will commit to a more robust response to Russia's incursion in Ukraine. Moscow's moves have sparked fears among member states on NATO's eastern flank that they could be Russian President Vladimir Putin's next target.
White House officials say Obama will reassure the Baltics that the U.S. would come to their defence it they were attacked. Under the NATO charter, an attack on one member is considered an attack on the entire alliance.
During the NATO summit in Wales starting Thursday, the alliance will also agree on a more robust rapid response force that will involve positioning more troops and equipment in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It's unclear whether the plan will satisfy the concerns of the Baltic nations, who have been pressing NATO for permanent bases in the region.
Even before the Ukraine crisis, relations between the Baltic countries and Russia were chilly. Moscow routinely accuses them of discriminating against their Russian-speaking minorities.
About a third of Estonia's 1.3 million residents have Russian as their mother tongue. Many of them feel detached from Estonian society and get their news from Kremlin-controlled Russian TV stations.
The Baltics were invaded by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II. After the Soviet Union crumbled, the Baltic countries turned to the West and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, much to the chagrin of Russia.
Obama will depart Tallinn late Wednesday for Wales, which is hosting the two-day NATO summit.