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Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon speaks during the official ceremony welcoming the deployment of a multi-national NATO battalion in Tapa, Estonia, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

(reuters_tickers)

By David Mardiste

TAPA, Estonia (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is shifting its stance on Russia and now sees Moscow as a competitor, Britain's defence minister said on Thursday during a trip to the Baltic states designed to underline NATO's new deterrent forces.

In his election campaign last year Trump voiced admiration for President Vladimir Putin, and contacts between his aides and Russia before and after the November vote prompted concerns in Europe that the U.S. leader would seek a deal with Moscow.

But Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Washington was now more cautious about the chances of better relations with the Kremlin.

"The American defence secretary and the American secretary of state are under no illusions of how we have to deal with Russia now as a competitor," Fallon told reporters in Tapa, Estonia, just 150 kilometres (93 miles) from the Russian border.

In his first European interview before taking office, Trump proposed to end U.S. sanctions against Russia in return for a nuclear arms reduction deal with Putin.

That went against the previous U.S. administration's position. The West had argued that economic sanctions on Russia could only be dropped if Russia withdrew from Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and stopped supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"We have to engage with Russia," Fallon said of Europe's biggest energy supplier. "We have to talk with Russia where necessary, but we also have to beware. We are at one in our approach to Russia and the potential threats that Russia embodies," Fallon added.

Fallon was attending a welcoming parade for a new NATO battle group in Estonia, part of a wider alliance strategy to deter Russia from repeating its 2014 annexation of Crimea in the Baltics and Poland.

Russia has condemned the deterrent as part of an aggressive strategy on its frontiers.

(Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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