US President Donald Trump, second right, listens to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, during their bilateral breakfast, July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)
BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON – 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, Trump told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was wrong to support a new US$11-billion Baltic Sea pipeline to import Russian gas while being slow to meet targets for contributing to NATO defense spending that was 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.
We have a lot of issues with Russia without any doubt. On the other hand, you should keep the communication line between countries or alliances and opponents without any question.
Ursula von der Leyen, Defense Minister, Germany
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen hit back almost immediately: "We have a lot of issues with Russia without any doubt," she told reporters in English. "On the other hand, you should keep the communication line between countries or alliances and opponents without any question."
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.
"The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (US has a US$151 billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn't work!" Trump tweeted on Tuesday evening.
"Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2 percent (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the US?" he wrote in another tweet earlier in the evening.
After the two-day summit in Brussels, Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
The US president noted that Germany had shut down coal and nuclear power plants on environmental grounds, increasing dependence, like much of the rest of Europe, on Russian gas.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who meets Trump at the summit, has given political backing to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to import more gas, despite criticism from other EU governments. However, Berlin insists it is a privately funded commercial project with no input of public money.
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."
"If you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia. They got rid of their coal plants, they got rid of their nuclear, they're getting so much of their oil and gas from Russia. I think it is something NATO has to look at. It is very inappropriate."
German official data shows that 35.3 percent of imports of oil and gas comes from Russia.
Trump also renewed his call for other NATO allies, including Germany, to "step it up" and pay in more to the Western alliance after years in which US taxpayers have, he said, borne an "unfair" share of military spending.
Ties between Washington and Moscow slumped into a new low over Russia's alleged meddling in the US 2016 elections, Syria and Ukraine issues and their diplomatic disputes.
While leaving the White House for his Europe trip Tuesday, Trump said he regarded Russian President Vladimir Putin as "a competitor."
Asked by reporters if Putin is a "friend or foe," he replied: "I really can't say right now."
"As far as I'm concerned, a competitor."