BRUSSELS — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebuked Russia on Friday for what he called aggression beyond its borders, and vowed to restore relevance to a badly demoralized State Department in his new role as the top American diplomat.
Attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels less than 24 hours after being sworn in, Pompeo criticized Russia for threatening the alliance’s friends and partners in Georgia and Ukraine as well as for “an aggressive campaign to undermine Western democratic institutions.”
Among other Russian misdeeds, Pompeo said, are the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in Britain last month and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Syria is accused of launching a chemical weapons attack that led three NATO members — Britain, France and the U.S. — to launch airstrikes on Syrian targets.
Syria has denied responsibility.
“In light of Russia’s unacceptable actions, NATO is more indispensable than ever,” the former CIA chief told reporters as he wrapped up the first stop on his first overseas trip as secretary of state. “NATO should not return to business as usual with Russia until Moscow shows a clear change in its actions and complies with international law.”
Pompeo said that among the allies there was “enormous consensus of the risk that it poses to the West (and) a real commitment to work together to mitigate to those risks and to deter them.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed. “We are in a situation where we’ve not been before,” he said. “We’re not in the old Cold War, but we’re neither in the strategic partnership we were trying to build after the Cold War. So this is something new.”
Friday’s meetings set the stage for a summit of NATO leaders in July at which they are expected to outline more specifics about their response to Russia.
Because of NATO’s central role in pushing back against Russia, Pompeo said it was even more important that the allies, particularly Germany, the largest and wealthiest European member, meet their commitments to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
The commitment was made in 2014 and thus far only six of the 28 countries that made the pledge meet the goal. Nine have produced realistic plans for reaching it by 2024, but the rest, including Germany, have not.
“No,” Pompeo replied bluntly when asked if Germany’s efforts to increase defense spending have been satisfactory. “They should meet the goals that they agreed to,” he said as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump were meeting at the White House.
Pompeo arrived in Brussels about 12 hours after he was sworn in as secretary of state to replace Rex Tillerson, fired by Trump last month. His participation in the meeting so soon after taking office was noted by Stoltenberg and others who said it was a sign of U.S. commitment to NATO and its allies.
His arrival also appeared to have heartened some U.S. diplomats who had been discouraged by Tillerson’s embrace of budget and staffing cuts and a perceived desire to reduce America’s diplomatic footprint. Pompeo is known to be close to Trump while Tillerson and the president sparred frequently.
Pompeo alluded to the change.
“They may have been demoralized but they seemed in good spirits,” he said of a group of U.S. diplomats he met at NATO. “They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came on board at the State Department to do.”
“That’s my mission set: to build that esprit and get that team on the field,” Pompeo said.
One of Pompeo’s other goals in Brussels was to convince Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a separate meeting to refocus on coordination in northern Syria, where Turkey has been attacking Kurdish rebels supported by the U.S.
That coordination was started by Tillerson but had languished in the absence of a new secretary of state.
Pompeo also renewed calls for the release of a jailed American pastor accused by Turkey of espionage, and encouraged Turkey not to pursue the purchase of an advanced air-defense system from Russia.
But as he walked into the meeting, Cavusoglu signaled that Turkey would not back down on the purchase, which the U.S. and other NATO members oppose.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that the production and delivery of the S-400 system is being accelerated and Cavusoglu told reporters on Friday that “Russia is speeding up the process.”
From Brussels, Pompeo will travel on to the Middle East, visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan, where the future of the Iran nuclear deal and the conflict in Syria will be significant agenda items. Pompeo, repeating Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the deal unless it is significantly strengthened, said the U.S. was “unlikely” to stay in if that was not done.
Pompeo arrives in Riyadh on Saturday ahead of a series of events that could potentially plunge the region into deeper disarray, including Trump’s decision by May 12 on the Iran deal, and the scheduled opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem two days later.
The embassy move is deeply opposed by the Palestinians, who on May 15 will mark the anniversary of what they term the “nabka,” or catastrophe, when they fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 Palestine war.
Looming over Pompeo’s trip is uncertainty over Trump’s policy on Syria, which has shifted between a speedy all-out withdrawal of American forces from the country and leaving a lasting footprint to deter Iran from completing a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.
Associated Press writer Lorne Cook contributed to this report.
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