BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump kicked off his two-day visit with NATO allies by doing exactly what many of them feared, worsening tensions within the alliance by claiming that Germany, a bulwark of the transatlantic democratic order, “is totally controlled by” and “captive to Russia.”
Trump, who often goes on the attack by accusing someone of behavior he has been accused of, irked allies last month by suggesting that Russia should be readmitted to the G-7, and is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. Ahead of his meetings with NATO leaders here Wednesday, Trump suggested during a welcome breakfast that a natural gas pipeline project has made Germany subservient to Russia.
He did not name the project, but appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would transport Russian gas to Germany’s Baltic coast and dramatically increase the amount of gas Russia is able to export directly to Germany. The U.S. and some European Union countries oppose the project.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” Trump said. “You tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not.”
Trump’s posture toward close allies has been remarkably confrontational, especially in comparison to his more conciliatory approach to adversaries, including Russia and North Korea. Even as he flew to Brussels, Trump continued his attacks on NATO allies for not spending more on defense. As word of his latest remarks filtered back to the United States, even some Republicans criticized the president for his slams against Germany.
In Wednesday’s remarks, he called the potential for increased German reliance on Russia’s natural gas a “very bad thing for NATO. “I think we have to talk to Germany about it,” the president continued.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a public retort upon arriving at the summit. The chancellor, who grew up during the Cold War years in the former East Germany, under the Soviet Union’s control, archly stated that she didn’t need to be lectured about dealing with authoritarian regimes.
“I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”
When the two leaders met privately later Wednesday, they spoke about the pipeline as well as other issues, Trump said. But in their brief remarks to reporters he only flattered Merkel, congratulating her on Germany’s economic gains, for example.
French President Emmanuel Macron, asked by a reporter following his short meeting with Trump if he agreed that Germany is captive to Russia, said flatly that he did not, as Trump sat alongside him.
As is often the case with Trump, his criticism of the pipeline project contains a measure of truth within his distortions and misrepresentations.
Germany isn’t “captive” because the pipeline isn’t finished, though U.S. and Eastern European countries have long worried that Germany could become more dependent on it over time. Russia in the past has manipulated its gas supplies to threaten Ukraine.
The Ukrainians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans worry that Western Europe could become less willing to protect them if Russia has a bigger role as an energy supplier. However, defenders of the pipeline have long argued that Russia, whose economy depends heavily on energy sales, will become less confrontational with the West if its prosperity becomes more intertwined with the rest of Europe.
The pipeline has also been backed by German environmentalists because increased use of natural gas has allowed the country to phase out coal and reduce its dependence on nuclear power.
“This pipeline, there are real questions about getting too dependent on Russia — that’s not an illegitimate question to ask,” said Robert Jervis, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, adding that Trump “has this naive instinct that allows him to ask really important questions.”
“The problem is then he doesn’t have the attention span to sit still for the discussion or contemplation of the question itself.”
A commercial element could be at play in Trump’s complaint: If Germany imported less gas from Russia, it might import liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
Merkel has had her own criticisms of the pipeline, although she has not stopped it. The project was pushed ardently by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who had warm relations with Putin and signed the deal in 2005, just days after Merkel’s party beat him in the German election. Schroeder has gone on to have extensive business dealings with Russia, including taking seats on the boards of Russian energy companies.
At the pre-summit breakfast with Trump, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also pushed back on the president’s claim. “There are sometimes differences and different views” between allies, he said, and this was “one issue where allies disagree.”
Attempting to refocus the conversation on the broader importance of NATO, Stoltenberg said that “despite differences,” the alliance is an essential pillar of the post-World War II era for democratic countries “to protect and defend each other.”
Even before Trump’s comments about Germany, leaders of the allied governments arrived in Brussels nervous about the American president’s oft-stated ambivalence toward NATO and his repeated demands that they increase their share of military spending to relieve some of the burden on the U.S.
They weren’t alone. On Tuesday, in advance of the summit, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 97 to 2 in favor of a resolution in support of NATO. On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, criticized Trump’s attacks on Germany and on U.S. allies more broadly.
Trump “can be a little too critical of the other counterparts, and I don’t think he should be critical,” the senator said. He praised Merkel, saying, “She’s really good.”
The president continued to hammer his complaints about NATO countries’ military expenditures at the breakfast, stating that the situation is “not fair” to American taxpayers. “But we will make it fair,” he said.
Trump singled out Germany for complaint, and Merkel, in her comments upon arriving, took issue with that criticism as well.
“Germany does a lot for NATO,” she said. “Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan. In that we also defend the interests of the United States.”
Trump has been pushing NATO members to reach their goal of spending 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product on national defense by 2024 — an agreement reached in 2014, under pressure from the Obama administration. He expressed confidence in his ability to force them to make progress in that direction.
“They will spend more,” he said of the allies. “I have great confidence they’ll be spending more.”