Donald Trump once again wreaked havoc on a top international meeting, shaking the mid-week Nato summit in Brussels, as he attacked Germany for being “captive of Russia,” forced an emergency meeting of the alliance’s leaders over defence expenditure, and offered worrisomely vague answers about Russia and his meeting next week with Vladimir Putin.
By Thursday afternoon, the storm had receded somewhat, as Trump headed to London, another stop of his much anticipated – though mostly with concern rather than hope – European tour.
But there were still plenty of questions left unanswered for Nato and the EU in the wake of the summit.
Trump began his visit by bashing Germany for being too dependent on Russian gas, a swipe at one of the most divisive issues besetting the EU: Nord Stream 2.
Although the US president met German Chancellor Angela Merkel later on, claiming the two had a great relationship, his assertion that Germany was a “captive of Russia” because it relies on Russian gas would most likely reinvigorate a similar view held in the eastern part of the EU.
Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states are all fiercely opposed to Nord Stream 2, which they see as Moscow’s solution to the problem of applying pressure on former satellites without troubling Germany.
Once Nord Stream 2 is operational, Warsaw and its backers insist, Russia could manipulate gas supplies to countries it is feared of planning to subjugate. Falling prey to Russia is an especially lively concern in the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Poland has been working to become independent of the Russian gas by 2022. Warsaw has recently signed agreements with US companies on supplies of LNG to the Polish LNG terminal. Warsaw’s anti-monopoly and competition protection office also opened proceedings against Gazprom over Nord Stream 2.
Lithuania, in turn, is hoping that its own LNG terminal will become a gas hub for neighbouring Latvia and Estonia and thus eliminate or at least diminish Russia’s role as a supplier.
But where Trump appeared to have sided – more or less directly – with countries of the EU’s eastern flank, he was quick to deliver some worrisome messages as well.
Early into the second day of the summit, there appeared conflicting reports on Trump’s threatening to “go it alone” – pull out of Nato – if other allies kept missing the alliance’s target defence expenditure of at least 2% of their respective GDPs.
That triggered an emergency meeting of the alliance’s leaders that – according to Trump’s own words at a presser he held afterwards – resulted in additional “$33bn maybe $40bn” in defence expenditure pledges.
But other allies, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, denied tabling any extra commitments outside of the existing pledge of 2% of GDP, agreed in 2014.
The continued discord over expenditure spending has the eastern members of Nato worried that should geopolitical tensions escalate, they would be left to face the much larger Russian military alone.
Of Nato’s 27 members, only four met the target in 2017, according to the alliance’s estimate carried out in March. These are the US, Greece, the UK, and Estonia. Another five – Poland, Romania, France, Lithuania, and Latvia – are within a few percentage points of the target. Poland and the Baltic states have upped their defence spending in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
If the eastern frontline members of the alliance expected Trump to say anything firm on Russia, however, they must have been disappointed.
At his presser, Trump offered an impression that he would be happy not to step on Russia’s toes too much. Trump called Vladimir Putin – who he is meeting on July 16 in Helsinki – a “competitor.”
“I think we’ll get along well. But ultimately he’s a competitor. He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So in a sense, we’re competitors, not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy,” Trump said.
“Hopefully someday, maybe, he’ll be a friend. It could happen but I don’t know him very well,” he added.
Asked about Crimea, Trump said the annexation took place on “Obama’s watch, not on Trump’s watch,” before going on to say that Russians have made big investments in Crimea, such as the Kerch Strait bridge linking the Russian mainland to the annexed peninsula.
That gave an impression of the US president conceding the events in Crimea have already gone too far for Trump to be able to react and raised fears of the US president – whose 2016 campaign is under scrutiny for alleged Russian meddling – is more willing to accommodate Moscow than being a Nato leader loyal to other allied countries.