Fresh from the Pentagon, Germany’s Defense Minister said that she has been reassured that President Donald Trump’s administration is committed to that North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and insisted that Russia has nothing to fear from NATO exercises in Eastern Europe.
“There were very clear and reassuring statements from Secretary Mattis,” Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview with NBC News after meeting with Matting, the U.S. Defense Secretary, at the Pentagon. “You could sense that he is completely convinced that NATO is a very strong alliance, that both of us benefit from.”
During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump called NATO “obsolete” and routinely questioned the alliance’s utility. Allies are looking to Mattis, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO.
Von der Leyen’s vote of confidence comes ahead of a planned NATO summit for defense ministers in Brussels next week and as NATO troops conduct exercises in Poland and the Baltic states, close to Russia’s boarder.
Russia’s deputy defense minister has called those NATO exercises a “threat.”
But Von der Leyen disputed that characterization and deemed the NATO troop movements, which involve a U.S. Armored Combat Brigade, “appropriate.”
“Russia knows that it is a reaction for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine,” she told NBC News. “Therefore it was important for us to make sure that our Baltic friends know their borders are secure”
Von der Leyen is the first defense minister hosted by Mattis at the Pentagon and their meeting lasted for about an hour, twice as long as scheduled.
Their conversation ranged from Syria to Ukraine, and also touched upon European defense spending levels. She said it was a “fair question” for President Trump to ask why so many NATO countries do not spend the targeted 2 percent of GDP on their military budgets.
“In an alliance there needs to be a fair share of the burden,” she said. “We recognize that we need to raise the budget, because we need it in the Armed forces. We need to modernize the armed forces.”
The German defense minister also suggested that Europe needs to consider establishing an EU army, to conduct missions that aren’t core to NATO’s mission.
“We need as Europeans to address problems where for example we do not see NATO,” she said, “We have to bring over stability for example to Mali and Niger.”
Ahead of Germany’s planned election in September, she called on the press to help dismantle “fake news” stories, while suggesting that Russia may attempt to meddle in their democratic process.
“The Kremlin has no interest in having a too stable and too strong Europe, she said. “The free press is the strongest sword you have within these complex situations.”