WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump defended his embrace of Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, saying good relations were important but claiming no one had been tougher on Russia.
"If we got along with Russia, that would be a good thing not a bad thing," Trump said, days after congratulating the veteran Russian leader on his controversial re-election and suggesting they meet at the White House.
"Just about everybody agrees with that, except very stupid people," he said, adding "probably nobody's been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump."
Trump's renewed a long-standing call for better relations with Moscow despite a series of conflagrations and crises, including Russian meddling in the US election and the poisoning of a Russian double agent on British soil.
His comments Tuesday came as he hosted leaders from the three Baltic states — which have had a torrid history with their larger neighbour Russia.
Standing side-by-side with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, Trump doubled down on his courtship of Moscow.
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"I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin," Trump said. "It's a real possibility that I could have a good relationship."
"It's possible I won't," he added.
Trump has faced criticism at home for his attitude to Putin, particularly by non-Republicans who suspect his campaign was aided by Moscow.
A Dutch lawyer with direct knowledge of contacts between Russian intelligence and a top official in Trump's campaign became the first person sentenced in special prosecutor Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation Tuesday.
The trio of Baltic leaders came to the White House with what officials described as a series of concrete suggestions to deter Russian aggression.
A senior Lithuanian official who asked not to be named said they would ask the US to send Patriot long-range anti-aircraft missiles more frequently for war games.
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They also want to become a part of NATO's larger European anti-missile shield.
Trump has spooked many in states that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by cozying up to Putin and by questioning American commitment to NATO.
But the later stance won approval from Grybauskaite, who, after Trump's prompting, suggested his stance had been instrumental in getting allies to play more for common defence.
"We need leadership, sometimes, for decision-making — even unpredictable leadership," she said. "We're seeing this kind of leadership in President Trump."
Trump has repeatedly suggested that NATO allies are not paying enough into the bloc's coffers.
In reality there is no common NATO budget, but member states are encouraged to spend two per cent of their own GDP on defence.
"Since I came in, many, many billions of dollars additional have been paid by countries that weren't paying, and now they're paying," Trump said. "And they will have to pay more, frankly. They're going to have to pay more."
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