TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Spooked by Russia's intervention in Ukraine, Estonia is hoping for a strong signal of support from President Barack Obama when he arrives Wednesday in a country that two decades ago was part of the Soviet Union.
That Obama picked Estonia as his only stop before a NATO summit in Wales is reassuring to Estonia and Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, which, like Ukraine, were ruled by Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
"I always knew that America is our key and trusted ally," said Juozas Kairutis, a 69-year-old retired teacher in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. "Western Europe is too pragmatic. They do not understand what all this means and probably would turn away from Baltic states just like they did in 1940."
During World War II, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany both invaded the Baltic countries. The U.S. and many other Western countries never recognized the nearly five-decade Soviet occupation, during which tens of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were deported to Siberia.
After the Soviet Union crumbled, the Baltic countries turned to the West and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, irritating Russia.
To Baltic leaders, the Ukraine crisis has underscored why they joined the alliance in the first place. They're now calling on NATO to take a more high-profile role in their defense — something they hope Obama's visit will reinforce.
"It is a very strong message to the region that the United States is taking the security of its eastern European NATO allies seriously," Estonia armed forces commander Maj. Gen. Riho Terras told The Associated Press.
Baltic leaders want NATO to establish permanent bases in the region, but some allies have been wary of doing anything that might endanger a 1997 agreement with Moscow under which NATO pledged not to permanently station substantial numbers of soldiers in Eastern Europe.
The issue is likely to come up as Obama meets the Baltic presidents Wednesday in a 18th-century palace in Tallinn.
"The current situation shows that the principle of collective territorial defense hasn't gone away — on the contrary," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Sunday, marking the 20th anniversary of the exit of the last Russian troops from Estonian territory.
The relations between the Baltic countries and Russia were chilly even before the Ukraine crisis. Moscow routinely accuses them of discriminating against their Russian-speaking minorities.
About one-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.
Ruben Airapetyan, a 19-year-old student at a vocational school in Tallinn, said he only speaks Russian and English — not Estonian. He didn't share the enthusiasm that many ethnic Estonians feel over Obama's visit.
"This visit seems a bit strange to me. Such a powerful man arriving in this small country," he said. "I don't have any hatred for Americans. The problem is I don't know what news to believe in."
Liudas Dapkus reported from Vilnius, Lithuania.
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