BRUSSELS — President Trump has agreed to meet the leaders of NATO at a summit in late May, the alliance said Monday — an apparent first step in his efforts to push it to focus more on counterterrorism and for members to spend more on their militaries.
The announcement came amid doubts about Trump’s commitment to NATO, an alliance he called “obsolete” days before his inauguration. Leaders of NATO’s 27 other nations have been eager to speak to Trump to push for a robust and unambiguous backing at a time when those along the border with Russia are feeling increasingly vulnerable.
Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had a phone conversation Sunday evening “where they reconfirmed the importance of the alliance in troubled times,” NATO said in a statement. The date of the summit is not yet set, but a NATO official said it will most likely take place either immediately before or after a summit of leaders of the Group of Seven world powers May 26 and 27 in Italy.
NATO began training Iraqi forces in their fight against the Islamic State on Sunday, a step alliance officials said would help prove their bona fides in the effort to fight terrorism. They also point out that the major focus of the alliance in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was a military operation in Afghanistan dedicated toward rooting out al-Qaeda.
More recently, the defense alliance has returned to its Cold War roots by focusing on Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and subsequent fueling of a war in eastern Ukraine.
But Trump has sought friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a break from bipartisan caution about the Kremlin that comes after U.S. intelligence assessments that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. elections to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
Trump on Sunday declined to condemn Putin’s track record of violence against his opponents, telling Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly, “you think our country is so innocent?”
Violence has surged in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks after an extended period of relative quiet. It remains unclear what, if any, response the Trump administration will take.
NATO said Monday that the conversation had included a discussion of “the uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine, and prospects for a peaceful settlement.”
The White House said only that the two leaders “discussed the potential for a peaceful resolution of the conflict along the Ukrainian border.”