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President Trump welcomes Baltic leaders as Russian tension boils

President Donald Trump is welcoming the heads of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the White House on Tuesday, setting up a likely contentious conversation about Russia as tension between the country and the United States have ratcheted up in recent weeks.

The leaders — Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė — joined Trump for a joint news conference in the White House. Trump has not had a formal, one-on-one press conference for over a year.

White House officials have said that the meeting will focus on strengthening ties between the four countries, particularly on issues of security, business and trade.

“The visit will also highlight the Baltic states’ achievements since their independence, including their economic growth, recent success in meeting NATO’s defense and spending pledges,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said last month.

Russia, and their efforts to consolidate power in the region, will likely be top of mind when the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members speak with Trump.

Trump has been critical of NATO members, like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who do not meet their 2% defense spending benchmark each year, slamming the leaders for not contributing their fair share to the treaty organization and calling the arrangement “not fair” to American taxpayers.

In the face of Russian aggression, especially the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia, the three Baltic states have begun to worry about Russia’s standing and, like other NATO members, have pledged to increase their defense spending.

Russia has loomed large over the Trump administration for much of the President’s time in office as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates the country’s meddling in the 2016 election and any collusion between Trump’s orbit of supporters and Russian operatives.

Tension between the United States and Russia reached a high point under Trump last week when Russia expelled 60 US diplomats and closed the US Consulate in St. Petersburg in response to the United States expelling the same number of Russian diplomats and closing their Seattle consulate. The US decision was made after the U.S. and United Kingdom government blamed Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, on British soil on March 4.

Trump has looked to crack down on what his administration believes is unfair trade practices with foreign countries. Trump announced last month that he would impose a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 15 percent tariff on import aluminum, leading to a tit-for-tat trade skirmish with China, which announced on Sunday that they would impose tariffs on 128 US products, including wine and pork.

Trade between the United States and the Baltic allies are small compared countries like China, Canada and Mexico, but that trade has been an issue on the top of Trump’s mind, making it likely to come up in the meeting of the leaders.