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US vice president Pence starts Baltic tour in Estonia
By Polina KALANTAR
Tallinn (AFP) July 30, 2017


In Russia's shadow, Georgia and US launch major drills
Vaziani, Georgia (AFP) July 30, 2017 - Georgia and the United States on Sunday launched their biggest ever joint military exercises in the latest show of support for the tiny Caucasus nation that has squared off against Russia.

The start of the drills comes a day ahead of a two-day visit to Tbilisi by US Vice President Mike Pence during which he is expected to reiterate Washington's backing for Georgia's wish to join NATO.

Some 800 Georgian and 1600 US troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills -- the largest ever in the Caucasus nation since it fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

Georgia's Defence Minister Levan Izoria called the scale of exercises "unprecedented", insisting they will "make clear the support for Georgia by the NATO member states, especially the US."

The US has sent some of its M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea for the drills, which will last until August 12.

The exercises will also include 400 servicemen from Armenia, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Georgia's bid to join NATO has angered its Soviet-era master Russia and the confrontation culminated in a brief war over the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia.

After the war that saw Georgia's small military routed in just five days, Moscow recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway province Abkhazia as independent states and moved in thousands of troops.

At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders made a formal pledge that Georgia "will become a NATO member" but, wary of alienating an increasingly assertive Russia, have so far refused to put the country on a formal membership path.

US Vice President Mike Pence started a tour Sunday of three Baltic members of NATO, arriving in Estonia for talks about military support which could include a possible anti-aircraft defence deal.

The trip comes as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seek US assurances after years of Russian military expansionism.

Pence is to continue the eastern European tour by heading to Georgia and Montenegro.

Relations between Moscow and Tallinn have been fraught since Estonia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, joining both the EU and NATO in 2004.

Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said on public radio that the subject of Patriot air defence systems had been raised in his first talks with Pence, but he did not give any details.

"First stop in Estonia was meeting with Prime Minister Juri Ratas, who walked me through the historic Stenbock House in Tallinn. #VPinEurope," the US vice president tweeted.

Possible use of Patriot systems was expected to be central to the trip.

An Estonian military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deployment of Patriot batteries on Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian soil could be the three nations' aim.

Such a battery was recently used during an exercise in Lithuania.

"The contribution of the US to the security of the Baltic states and also the whole of Europe is vital, and I certainly wish to thank the vice president," Ratas said before Pence's arrival.

"Besides that, we plan to speak about the Estonian digital solutions that are of interest to the US, and developing cooperation in cyber defence at our meeting.

- 'Spooked by Russia' -

"Another important topic... is the cooperation between the EU and the US," he added.

Estonia and fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania have been spooked by Russia's frequent military exercises near the region and its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

As Pence arrived, Georgia and the United States launched their biggest ever joint military exercises in the latest show of support for the tiny Caucasus nation that has squared off against Russia.

Some 800 Georgian and 1,600 US troops are taking part in the Noble Partner 2017 drills -- the largest ever in Georgia since it fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

In Tallinn, Pence will meet Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and her Lithuanian and Latvian counterparts, Dalia Grybauskaite and Raimonds Vejonis.

He will then visit troops from the Enhanced Forward Presence programme, under which NATO has deployed four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland to bolster the western defence alliance's eastern flank.

Local analysts expect Pence to offer Estonians what they want to hear, including that "the US is a good loyal ally and that they appreciate Baltic sacrifices including their two percent of GDP spending on defence and their participation in military operations in Afghanistan," according to Tallinn University international relations specialist Matthew Crandall, as quoted by public television ERR.

Pence is to head to Montenegro, which joined NATO last month, on Monday.

SUPERPOWERS
China is 'landlord' to Hong Kong says justice chief
Hong Kong (AFP) July 27, 2017
Controversy over a new cross-border rail link which will see mainland laws enforced in a Hong Kong train station escalated Thursday after the justice chief likened China to the city's "landlord". It comes at a time when fears are worsening that Hong Kong's freedoms are under threat from an increasingly assertive Beijing. There are already concerns that Chinese operatives are working un ... read more

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