Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday conveyed a message to jittery partners that the Trump administration will "hold Russia accountable" and maintain steadfast support for NATO, a military alliance the American commander in chief once dismissed as "obsolete."
In his overseas debut as vice president, Pence told the audience at the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. would be "unwavering" in its commitment to NATO and that President Trump would "stand with Europe." Pence pointed to their shared "noble ideals — freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law."
Addressing the violence in Ukraine, Pence said the U.S. would demand that Russia honor a 2015 deal to end violence in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists. He did not mention findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in last year's presidential election to help Trump win the White House.
"Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.
Pence's address and a series of one-on-one meetings with world leaders on the sidelines here sought to calm nervous European allies who remain concerned about Russian aggression, including its annexation of Crimea. Many have been alarmed by Trump's positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pence's speech aimed to reassure international partners who worry that Trump may pursue isolationist policies.
After his speech, Pence met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called for the maintenance of international alliances and told the audience, with Pence seated nearby, that NATO is "in the American interest."
Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, told the conference after Pence's speech that Moscow wanted "pragmatic relations" with the U.S. He said he hoped that "responsible leaders" would choose to create a "just world order; if you want, you can call it a post-West world order."
European countries along Russia's border are rattled by the prospect of closer U.S.-Russia ties after Trump suggested — contrary to the opinions of Merkel and other world leaders — that sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Crimea could be eased in exchange for a nuclear weapons deal. The president referred to NATO as "obsolete" in an interview before his inauguration, but has since tempered his language and has emphasized the importance of the alliance during telephone conversations with foreign leaders.
But, mindful that the new U.S. president often lashes out on Twitter, some attendees remained skeptical that Pence's speech represented Trump's thinking and said the president's foreign policy moves would be closely watched.
"We are waiting for actions," said Polish President Andrzej Duda. "We only know what the media has reported and the statements that we've got. Now we are waiting for actions of the new government of Donald Trump."
Wrote U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Twitter: "Looks like we have 2 governments. @VP just gave speech about shared values btwn US and Europe as @POTUS openly wages war on those values."
Michael Chertoff, a former Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, noted that Pence's comments about NATO and Europe echoed assurances given by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. "They've all been consistent about the fact that there is a strong, deep and enduring commitment to Europe and to NATO, and I think that message has been received," Chertoff said.
In his remarks, Pence also reinforced the Trump administration's message that NATO members must spend more on defense.
NATO's 28-member countries committed in 2014 to spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense within a decade. But only the U.S. and four other members of the post-World War II military coalition are meeting the standard, Pence said.
Failure to meet the commitment, he said, "erodes the very foundation of our alliance."
"Let me be clear on this point: The president of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, to fulfill this commitment and, for most, that means the time has come to do more," Pence said.
In a day of meetings and photo ops, Pence was sitting down with the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and separately with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — whose countries are all dealing with the threat of Russian incursion. The vice president also scheduled a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
The former Indiana governor's stature within the administration was also under scrutiny after the recent dismissal of Trump's national security advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign Monday following reports that he misled Pence about contacts with a Russian diplomat. The vice president learned that he was not told the truth through media accounts about two weeks after the president was informed.
Pence also met with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains embroiled in two separate wars. Trump has made clear his intention to defeat the Islamic State group. But he also said the U.S. may get a second chance to take Iraqi oil as compensation for its efforts in the war-torn country, a notion that has been rebuffed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
Trump's immigration and refugee ban has ruffled feathers with a number of Muslim-majority countries affected by the order, which is currently tied up in court, including Iraq, a close ally in the fight against Islamic State. Trump has promised to issue a revised order, possibly as soon as next week.