Trump told NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg that Germany was wrong to support a new $11billion (about R148bn) Baltic Sea pipeline to import Russian gas while being slow to meet targets for NATO spending to protect against 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 Belgium.
Trump, who later arrived in his presidential limousine at NATO’s new billion-dollar headquarters, appeared to substantially overstate German reliance on Russian energy and to imply the German government was funding the pipeline, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel says is a commercial venture.
She hit back at Trump’s remark that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia” through gas imports by contrasting her own experience of growing up in Soviet-controlled East Germany with the sovereign, united Germany now playing a major role in NATO.
Trump and Merkel later held what seemed business-like talks on the sidelines. Trump said he had a “very, very good relationship” with Merkel, who described the two as “good partners”.
With tensions in the Western alliance smouldering over Trump’s trade tariffs on European steel and his demands for more contributions to ease the burden on US taxpayers, his latest remarks fuelled concerns among allies for the US role in keeping the peace that has reigned since World War II.
Baltic leaders fearful of any repeat of Russia’s annexation of Crimea called for unity as they arrived at the summit, while Slovak President Andre Kiska said his country was “one of the good guys” because he was increasing defence spending.
Those comments underscored the risks to Trump’s strategy by dividing allies between those who spend more on defence and those who do not, such as Belgium, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg, but who contribute with troops to NATO missions.
Trump, who allies hope will sign off on a summit deal to step up the West’s deterrence of Russia, will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
NATO’s Stoltenberg later told reporters that Trump had used “very direct language” but that all NATO allies agreed that the cost of defence spending must be spread around and that last year had seen the biggest increase in a generation.
After joking that his breakfast with Trump had been paid for by the US, the NATO chief was frank about the impact of Trump’s criticism on the Western allies at a broader level.
“There are disagreements on trade. This is serious. My task is to try to minimise the negative impact on NATO,” he said.
“So far it 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.”
By slapping higher tariffs on EU metals exports and threatening more on cars, Trump has shown his anger at the US trade deficit with the EU.
Trump said that 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.
“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,” he said. “I think that’s very inappropriate.”
Merkel has given political backing to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite criticism from other EU governments.
Trump said: “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.”
However, his comment that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they are getting 60% to 70% of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline” seemed to misstate German energy use - about 20% of which is accounted for by oil and gas imports from Russia.