Vice President Mike Pence told European allies Saturday that the U.S. remains committed to NATO, despite President Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and stated interest in pursuing better relations with Russia.
In a speech during his first overseas trip since taking office, Pence told leaders at the Munich Security Conference in Germany that the U.S. "strongly supports" NATO and that "the United States is now and will always be your greatest ally."
But Pence echoed President Trump's demand for NATO members to spend more on beefing up their military capacity, saying that the promise to "share the burden" has gone "unfulfilled" by almost all of the alliance's 28 member countries. Members of NATO have committed to spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, but Pence said the U.S. and only four other NATO members actually do.
Pence also sought to put distance between the Trump administration and Russia as recent reports have said that Trump campaign staff had contact with Russian intelligence and that former national security adviser Mike Flynn spoke with Russia's ambassador about sanctions.
"The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable" for actions in Ukraine, Pence said, adding that Russia must follow the 2015 Minsk peace agreement. Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and has supported pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The annexation of Crimea has especially made Eastern European Baltic states nervous that the U.S. would not follow through on NATO's Article 5 — that "an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies." As NPR's Lucian Kim noted last year, "the United States has been leading a military buildup in Eastern Europe to ensure the same won't happen to NATO's newest allies."
But Trump has made those countries jittery by calling NATO "obsolete," praising Putin as a strong leader and saying he "would love to be able to get along with Russia." Trump has also praised the U.K.'s "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union.
President Trump's Secretary of Defense James Mattis made some of the same points as Pence when he addressed the conference Friday, saying Trump "has thrown now his full support to NATO," and pressing members to spend more on defense.
Pence is scheduled to meet with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine on Saturday, according to The Associated Press, and has planned a visit to Brussels on Sunday and Monday, where the European Union is headquartered.