How a tiny Baltic nation became a top destination for U.S. officials – ANDREW HANNA 07/29/2017 08:08 AM EDT

Mike Pence’s visit reflects Estonia’s outsized clout amid a growing threat from Russia.

A Russian flag flies over Ivangorod Fortress, which lies on the Russian side of the Narva River, as seen from the western, Estonian, side on March 23. Estonia is a member of the European Union and shares its eastern border with Russia. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation dwarfed by neighboring Russia, isn’t a premier American tourist destination. But when Vice President Mike Pence arrives there on Sunday he’ll be just the latest in a parade of senior Washington officials to visit in recent months.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a congressional delegation to Estonia in December and so did Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in June. America’s top NATO general dropped by in March, followed soon after by House Speaker Paul Ryan in April. President Barack Obama himself gave a September 2014 address in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

Why all the fuss over a nation of just 1.3 million with a landmass roughly half the size of Maine? The short answer is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Situated across a 200-mile long border with Russia, Estonia—invaded by the Soviet Union in World War II and occupied for 70 years—is seen by strategists as a likely target for Russian aggression that could test the NATO alliance. Estonia is home to some 300,000 ethnic Russians whom many fear Putin could incite or take action to “protect.” And a recent RAND study showed a surprise Russian offensive could reach Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The unease is especially high ahead of a massive Russian war game this fall which experts see as a dry run for a possible invasion of the Baltics.

Such fears will be the main focus of Pence’s visit, according to a senior administration official who previewed the vice president’s trip to reporters, which will include a meeting with Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas and an address to Estonian Defense Forces HQ.

“The Vice President’s speech there will underscore… the administration’s commitment to NATO, including Article 5,” the official said Thursday.

Many Estonians believe the only thing keeping Putin at bay is Article 5, the mutual defense guarantee of the NATO treaty, to which Estonia is a signatory. President Donald Trump has questioned Article 5 in the past, though he has more recently affirmed his commitment to defending fellow NATO members.

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