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Biden meets Baltic leaders, pledges support

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses to media after meeting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in Warsaw March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Kacpe
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses to media after meeting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski in Warsaw March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Kacpe

By Roberta Rampton

VILNIUS (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with leaders of Lithuania and Latvia on Wednesday, part of a quick trip to reassure Baltic allies worried about what an emboldened, aggressive Russia might mean for their nations.

The nations have condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for moving to annex Ukraine's Crimea, and the White House has said it is preparing a fresh round of sanctions in response.

Biden's visit is intended to reassure nations like Poland and the Baltics that the United States will live up to its NATO pledge to protect allies under attack. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are all members of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - unlike Ukraine.

Biden told Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves on Monday that the United States may rotate U.S. forces into the region to conduct ground and naval exercises and training missions. Washington also has added more fighter jets to help patrol airspace over the Baltics.

On Tuesday, Biden was holding talks with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Latvian President Andris Berzins at Lithuania's presidential palace. The leaders are slated to speak to reporters at 1:20 p.m. local time, 11:20 GMT.

Grybauskaite called Biden's visit "symbolic."

"The situation is alarming," she told him at the start of their meeting.

Grybauskaite's chief foreign advisor said the talks would be wide-ranging. "We will talk about what measures must be taken to ensure security in the region. We mean not only national security or military measures, but also energy, cyber security, which we must take care of together", Jovita Neliupsiene told LRT television.

The Baltics are worried not just about Russia's intentions but also about the economic impact of rising tensions if Russia retaliates through trade bans or by withholding natural gas. Last week, Russia suspended food imports through Lithuania's major port, Klaipeda, a move local businesses saw as Moscow's way of exerting political pressure.

Latvia's finance minister said on Monday that the EU should compensate any countries hurt by its sanctions against Russia.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Larry King)

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