Trump specifically pointed to the Baltic states that sit near Russia's borders and often complain of belligerence from Moscow. He said they would be helped only if they had "fulfilled their obligations to us." For some in those in the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — the American businessman's comments provoked confusion and surprise.
"Estonia is of 5 NATO allies in Europe to meet its 2% def expenditures commitment," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote on Twitter, referring to the percentage of gross domestic product that NATO members are expected to spend on defense.
The Estonian president also pointed to his country's role in the war in Afghanistan as proof of the country's commitment, retweeting a message that said Estonia had one of the highest casualty rates per capita in that conflict. “Estonia’s commitment to our NATO obligations is beyond doubt and so should be the commitments by others,” the Estonian Foreign Ministry added in an emailed statement.
“We take our commitments seriously,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in Washington, where he was attending meetings to coordinate military action against the Islamic State. “We hope and expect that all our allies, big and small, take their commitments the same.”
"There is no reason to doubt NATO's commitment to the core function of the Alliance — collective defense," Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis wrote on Twitter.
A more pointed tone was taken by Ojars Eriks Kalnins, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Latvia’s Parliament, who called Trump's remarks "dangerous" in comments also reported by Diena newspaper. Kalnins noted that it was unclear whether Trump was talking about the spending commitments or about generally being helpful to the United States.
"Too bad the NY Times didn't ask Trump if he would defend NATO member Slovenia if attacked," the U.S.-raised Latvian politician wrote on Twitter, referring to the Eastern European state where the Republican nominee's wife, Melania Trump, was born and has family.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite downplayed the comments. "I do not think interpretations of candidate Trump’s remarks are necessary," Grybauskaite said at a news conference on Thursday. "We know that the United States will remain our most important partner." This line was followed in comments made by Linas Linkevicius, the foreign minister of Lithuania, on a local radio show. "We do not have reason to doubt that our allies will fulfill their commitments to the alliance," he said, according to the Baltic News Service.
NATO established its 2 percent defense spending requirement in 2006. Of the three Baltic states, only Estonia currently meets that requirement, although Latvia and Lithuania drastically increased defense spending since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and both hope to meet it by 2018. Baltic states aren't alone in not meeting this requirement; of the 28 member states, only five spent at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense in 2015.
However, even if the Baltic states did increase their spending dramatically, their small size means that their contributions would remain low. According to data from the U.S. Defense Department, all three countries currently contribute less than 0.5 percent of the funding for the NATO Security Investment Program, one of the alliance's three resource pillars. The United States contributes 22.1 percent.
Although the militaries of all three Baltic states are also tiny, they have long committed troops to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo as a way to demonstrate that they are willing to make sacrifices for the common good. One senior Baltic official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss assessments of the U.S. domestic campaign, said many Baltic leaders worry that the Kremlin will interpret Trump’s comments as a weakening of the U.S. commitment to NATO defense, and therefore an invitation to challenge NATO on the territory of the former Soviet republics.
But the same official also noted that many NATO nations, including the United States, just committed earlier this month to deploying about 4,000 troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The deterrent effect of the deployments was likely to stay just as powerful in a Trump presidency, the official said.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all former members of the Soviet Union and have long existed on the periphery of Moscow's influence. After they gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, all three countries sought NATO membership, officially applying in 2002 and joining in 2004. Given their history and tight geography with Russia, there's little doubt they were enticed to join by Article 5, a core principle of NATO's founding treaty that says a military attack against one state should be considered a military attack against all states.
"We are equally committed to all our NATO allies, regardless of who they may be," Estonian President Ilves, who spent much of his early life in the United States, said on Twitter. "That's what makes them allies."
Birnbaum contributed reporting from Riga, Latvia.