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Globe editorial: Trump opens a new line of attack on NATO but his end game is unclear

As far as anyone knows, there is no current law-enforcement investigation into collusion between the government of Germany and the Russian state. Nor has there lately been any suggestion of an unexplained affection on the part of a German leader for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And yet there was United States President Donald Trump, himself very much the subject of both above-mentioned embroilments, accusing Germany on Wednesday of being “totally controlled by” and “captive to” Russia.

This sort of bizarro-world behaviour by Mr. Trump is not new. He sees his own reflection in everything he looks at. But this particular outburst, which took place at the start of the two-day NATO summit in Brussels, has raised the stakes in his long-standing attacks on a critical alliance.

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Mr. Trump’s new beef with Germany is that it buys billions of dollars worth of oil and gas from Russia, making it energy-dependent on that country. Or, in Trumpian terms, “totally controlled by Russia.”

It is debatable who is more dependent on what: Germany on Russian fossil fuels, or Russia on the German euros that flow in the opposite direction.

But for Mr. Trump, the larger point is that Germany is being hypocritical by insisting on one hand on the importance of maintaining the expensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance to keep Russian aggression in check, and on the other that Germany can dependably rely on the same rogue state to supply it with a critical source of gas and oil.

“We’re supposed to protect Germany but they’re getting their energy from Russia,” he said. “Explain that. And it can’t be explained.”

He has a point, even if he doesn’t quite know it. The real issue for critics of the German-Russian deal is not the question of energy dependence, but that the fuel is delivered in a pipeline under the Baltic Sea, bypassing countries in-between. Many fear this means Russia will be able to squeeze supply to smaller Eastern European nations while still keeping its lucrative line open to Germany.

Supporters of Mr. Trump are playing this as an unforgivable breach of NATO unity, one that a Republican congressman described as a “nakedly selfish policy” on the part of Germany.

As devoted believers in the President’s selfless “America First” policy, those same supporters also buy into Mr. Trump’s torqued claim that NATO members, Canada included, aren’t paying their fair share of the cost of the alliance.

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In fact, the 29 members each pay a portion of NATO’s annual US$3-billion operating budget based on the size of their economies. They also agreed in 2014 to each raise their defence spending to 2 per cent of their GDP by 2024.

Most aren’t there, at least not yet. Canada sits at about 1.4 per cent, for instance, in spite of new commitments in Latvia and Iraq announced this week.

Mr. Trump plays this as if other NATO countries are “delinquent” and owe money to the United States, which simply isn’t true; or as if his country is being unfairly treated, also false. He has used those misleading claims to buttress his repeated threat to pull out of NATO.

And now he has a new dubious claim: that Russia can’t really be a threat if Germany is willing to rely on it for a critical supply of energy.

What is Mr. Trump’s endgame? His strangely warm embrace of Mr. Putin has caused some critics to accuse him of undermining Europe, through his support of Brexit and his attacks on NATO, to the benefit of Russia.

He has heard that accusation and, in typical form, turned it around on Germany, one of NATO’s biggest and most important members, which now stands charged by him with undermining the NATO alliance and being “captive” to Russia.

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Mr. Trump finished the day on Wednesday by calling on NATO countries to double their annual military spending from 2 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent, something he knows will never happen.

Next week, he will be in Finland for a one-on-one summit with Mr. Putin, for whom he has had far kinder words than his NATO allies lately.

Based on his performance on the first day of the NATO summit, he can expect to be warmly greeted by the Russian President.

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