BRUSSELS — US President Donald Trump accused Germany of being a “captive” of Russia on Wednesday as Western leaders gathered in Brussels for a NATO summit where Trump wants Europeans to pay up more for their own defense.
In a startling public outburst against the second biggest economy in the US-led alliance, Trump told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was wrong to support a new $11-billion Baltic Sea pipeline to import Russian gas while being slow to meet targets for contributing to NATO defense spending intended to protect Europe from Russia.
“We’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump said in the presence of reporters at a pre-summit meeting at the residence of the US ambassador to Belgium.
But remarks in which he seemed to overstate by a factor of three Berlin’s reliance on Russian energy and said that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia” drew a tart riposte from German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrived later at the summit.
“I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said of her youth in Communist East Germany. “I’m very glad that today we are united in freedom … because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”
She also defended Germany’s contribution to an alliance which Trump says places too much burden on the US taxpayer.
Aside from putting the share of Russian energy at 70 percent of Germany’s consumption when it is in fact about 20 percent, Trump appeared to suggest the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a public project while Merkel insists it is a private commercial venture.
With tensions in the Western defense alliance already running high over Trump’s demands for more contributions to ease the burden on US taxpayers, and a nationalistic stance that has seen trade disputes threaten economic growth in Europe, the latest remarks will fuel concerns among allies over the US role in keeping the peace that has reigned since World War Two.
After the two-day summit in Brussels, Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Stoltenberg later told reporters that Trump had used “very direct language” but that all NATO allies were agreed that the cost of defense spending must be spread around and that last year had seen the biggest increase in a generation.
The NATO chief was frank about the impact of Trump’s criticism on the Western allies at a broader level and he referred to non-NATO issues such as trade, where Trump is angry over the US trade deficit with the European Union.
“There are disagreements on trade. This is serious. My task is to try to minimize the negative impact on NATO,” Stoltenberg told a forum in the margins of the summit.
“So far is hasn’t impacted on NATO that much, I cannot guarantee that that will not be the case in the future. The transatlantic bond is not one, there are many ties, some of them have been weakened.”
Trump said Germany’s closure of coal and nuclear power plants on environmental grounds had increased its dependence, like much of the rest of Europe, on Russian gas.
Trump said: “We’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France, we’re protecting all of these countries. And then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they’re paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia … I think that’s very inappropriate.”