Vice President Pence is completing a trip to U.S. allies along the eastern edge of Europe. In Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro, he told local governments that Washington would support them — even after President Trump's many calls for improving ties between the U.S. and Russia.
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If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he'd be in a better place with the U.S. after interfering in the election last year, he's not. And there was more evidence of that today. President Trump is supposed to sign tough new sanctions on Russia into law any day now, and American troops continue deploying to Eastern Europe for military exercises. Vice President Mike Pence is in Eastern Europe now on a tour designed to assure American allies that the U.S. has their backs if Russia tries anything. NPR's Tamara Keith covers the White House. She joins us now to talk more about this. Welcome to the studio.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So talk about where Mike Pence has traveled to. And what specifically has he been saying to world leaders there?
KEITH: So he has been to Estonia and Georgia, and now he's in Montenegro. These are all countries formerly in the Soviet sphere and also countries that are all looking over their shoulders at Russia right now. Estonia is a member of NATO. Georgia is not. But Pence said that he would welcome their addition to the alliance. And he also condemned Russia's incursion into Georgian territory, which continues as we speak. And today Pence is in tiny Montenegro. It's NATO's newest member. And he delivered this message.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: America's honored to celebrate our relationship with the strong and free people of Montenegro. And let me assure you, I am here as a testament to the fact that America has no small allies, only strong allies. And I hope my presence here today affirms that.
KEITH: And that's very similar to what he said in all of these countries - that the U.S. is with you and standing against Russian aggression.
CORNISH: Now, this sounds like the sort of comment that for many years would upset Russian leadership - right? - what Moscow views as American meddling in its front yard. What happened to President Trump's desire to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia?
KEITH: That desire is still there, but it's not in a great place, though President Trump does continue to call for better relations. While in Georgia, Vice President Pence said that he hoped for better days and improved relations, but he really emphasized that what Russia has been doing is not OK. He said that the recent move by Russia telling the U.S. that it has to reduce its staff in Russia by 755 people wouldn't help things.
You know, interestingly, this is something that President Trump himself has not weighed in on yet. But now both Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have both talked about this. And the White House says that sometime soon, President Trump will sign a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia. But also, that same bill limits his ability to lift those sanctions on his own.
CORNISH: Talk about Russia's response to all this because I know we've been hearing a lot about the expulsion of American diplomats, for example.
KEITH: Russia has about a hundred thousand troops, its own troops, deployed doing these massive military exercises. And even today, there was another close encounter over Estonian air space where Spanish and Finnish planes had to intercept Russian military aircraft because Russia's not supposed to be there.
CORNISH: But today we're hearing this message from Mike Pence - right? - the vice president. Given past comments by Trump, how much reassurance can Pence deliver?
KEITH: I spoke to a couple of Europe analysts who have been talking to their friends in Europe who say that they're hearing from people that they aren't sure. Pence comes, and he says, I'm here on behalf of the president of the United States, but they just aren't sure that they can believe that he really is speaking for the president of the United States.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Thank you for your reporting.
KEITH: You're welcome.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, Montenegro is included among countries said to have been within the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. It was not. As part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro was outside the Soviet sphere. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.