In Europe, Vice President Pence says US will hold Russia accountable

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and United States Vice President Mike Pence arrive at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. The annual weekend gathering is known for providing an open and informal platform to meet in close quarters. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

MUNICH (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence vowed Saturday that the United States will “hold Russia accountable” even as President Donald Trump searches for new common ground with Moscow at the start of his presidency.

Pence, in an address to the Munich Security Conference, also offered assurances to European allies that the U.S. “strongly supports” NATO. He said the U.S. would be “unwavering” in its commitment to trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO.

In his first overseas trip as vice president, Pence sought to calm nervous European allies who remain concerned about Russian aggression and have been alarmed by Trump’s positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin. The address to foreign diplomats and security officials also sought to reassure international partners who worry that Trump may pursue isolationist tendencies.

Pence said the U.S. would demand that Russia honor a 2015 peace deal agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, to end violence in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

“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 was meeting afterward with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who addressed the conference just before the vice president. Merkel stressed the need to maintain international alliances and told the audience, with Pence seated a few feet away, that NATO is “in the American interest.”

European countries along Russia’s border were rattled over the prospect of deeper U.S.-Russia ties after Trump suggested sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea could be eased in exchange for a nuclear weapons deal, and after the president referred to NATO as “obsolete” in an interview before his inauguration. Trump has since tempered his language, stressing the importance of the NATO alliance during his telephone conversations with foreign leaders.

Pence also scheduled meetings Saturday with the leaders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — countries dealing with the threat of Russian incursion. Pence also planned to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

The visit, which includes a stop in Brussels on Sunday and Monday, comes amid worries in Europe about Russian aggression, Trump’s relationship with Putin and whether the new president may promote isolationist tendencies through his “America First” mantra.

“The vice president has sent reassuring messages through his own engagement but that hasn’t been enough to dispel the concerns that you see in many parts of Europe,” says Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are such grave challenges that the U.S. and Europe faces that it only heightens the desire for additional clarity from Washington.”

Pence’s stature within the administration was also under scrutiny because of the recent dismissal of Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn was forced to resign Monday following reports he misled Pence about contacts with a Russian diplomat. The vice president learned that he had been misled through media accounts about two weeks after the president was informed.

Pence is also expected to meet with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. is 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 rebuffed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will be meeting with the vice president.

Trump’s immigration and refugee ban has ruffled feathers with a number of Muslim-majority countries affected by the order currently tied up in court, including Iraq — a close ally in the fight against IS.

In Munich, the American allies were searching for clues from Pence as to how the Trump administration plans to deal with Russia in the aftermath of Flynn’s departure, U.S. inquiries into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and Trump’s past praise for Putin.

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 percent 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.

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