Trump's tough NATO talk plays well on eastern flank

While President Donald Trump's hectoring at the NATO summit alarmed many in the West, his message was mostly embraced Thursday along the alliance's eastern flank — the region that feels most threatened by an assertive Russia.

From Poland and the tiny Baltic states down to Romania, eastern leaders welcomed Trump's push for members of the 29-nation alliance to spend more on their militaries, something they have sought following Russian incursions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

After all, they had been under Moscow's thumb for decades after World War II.

On the first day of the summit, Trump lambasted his partners for not spending their fair share on defense and asked on Twitter: "What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?"

But by the time the summit concluded Thursday he was praising NATO as "very unified, very strong."

"He came, he saw, he conquered," declared Poland's state-run broadcaster TVP in an opinion piece. "Contrary to criticism and fears, Trump's brutally sincere behavior has not broken NATO's unity but has mobilized its members to further action that strengthened the organization."

Linas Linkevicius, the foreign minister of Lithuania, wrote on Twitter: "?Strength is a choice, not a given. Once again #NATOSummit bring us closer & stronger. We are resolute, committed to mutual defense, fair burden sharing."

NATO member Estonia noted that a Russian military aircraft even violated its airspace Thursday near the Baltic Sea island of Vaindloo, the second such alleged incident this week and the third in a month.

Many in the region also welcomed Trump's opening salvo when he lashed out at Germany's pursuit of a gas pipeline venture with Russia, which Trump said made Berlin "captive" to Russia.

That message echoed fears that have long been expressed by leaders in the Baltic states and Poland. They fear the gas pipeline will make Europe more dependent on Russian energy, giving Moscow more political leverage over the continent. Poland's prime minister has even called it a "new hybrid weapon."

The countries on the eastern flank also stressed that, despite the divisions, the achievements of the summit in Brussels made them safer. These include opening accession talks with Macedonia and formally signing off on a plan that would improve the alliance's ability to deploy faster in case of an attack. The plan ensures that NATO could deploy 30 land battalions, 30 ships and 30 warplane squadrons at a 30-day notice.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, whose Black Sea nation also feels vulnerable with Russia's resurgence, said he saw "no danger" of NATO breaking up.

"There isn't a conflict," he said. "Trump said things plainly, as is normal between friends and allies."

Still, some worried Trump's combative stance toward allies could ultimately weaken the 69-year-old alliance.

Michal Baranowski of the German Marshall Fund think tank said the substance of Trump's message on Nord Stream 2 was very much in line with what many people in the region and beyond think.

"But raising this as a central issue at the beginning of the summit created the mood of a contentious and divisive summit, and this is not something welcomed by countries on the eastern flank," Baranowski said. "On atmospherics, the whole oxygen was sucked out by tweets and the theatrics of President Trump."

There were also concerns about that a summit Monday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Some fear Trump, who has often voiced admiration for the Russian leader, could make a bargain with the Kremlin that could sacrifice the security needs of the region, such as acknowledging Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda dismissed this fear, telling reporters he and Trump on Wednesday even discussed the U.S. increasing its military presence in Poland.

"It would really be shocking if it turned out that he in any way would withdraw from the strategy of securing this part of the world. And it would be shocking if he made any concessions to Vladimir Putin, especially given what Russia is doing in Ukraine. It is an occupier, an aggressor," Duda said.

Trump said he plans to raise Russian election meddling and arms control issues in his meeting with Putin and that he is "not happy about Crimea."

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters she's comfortable with the Trump-Putin summit, but that it "depends very much on outcomes."  

"These two people are very different, very interestingly different. Hopefully nothing bad happens," she said Thursday.


Alison Mutler reported from Bucharest.

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