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After Trump's remarks, NATO tries to prepare for a future without the U.S.


European leaders are meeting at a big international security conference in Munich this weekend, and countering Russia seems to be at the top of their minds. In a statement tonight, Ukraine's top military commander said he would withdraw troops from Avdiivka, a key stronghold for Ukraine, to avoid being encircled by Russian troops. It is Russia's first big gain since May. Meanwhile, additional U.S. aid to Ukraine is hung up in the House of Representatives. And comments by former and possible future President Donald Trump are still reverberating. Trump invited Russia to attack NATO members who, in his view, do not spend enough on their defense. As Teri Schultz reports, it's that last item that has European leaders talking more about moving beyond their military reliance on the U.S.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Donald Trump's comments favoring the Kremlin over low-spending NATO allies may have been more of a shock than a surprise, given the former president's frequent criticism of the alliance and some of the countries in it. Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush and Trump's envoy for Ukraine, says the remarks are dangerous.

KURT VOLKER: NATO's purpose - it is to prevent war. And what Trump is suggesting is encouraging one of our adversaries to create a war and attack a NATO ally. That is completely outrageous and unacceptable. Somebody like Vladimir Putin is delighted to see that there are these kinds of divisions and disagreements and pressures going on with inside the alliance.

SCHULTZ: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored that point several times over the last week in a sharp, immediate response to Trump and in meetings with NATO defense ministers.


JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO continues to ensure there is no room for miscalculation in Moscow about our readiness to protect all allies.

SCHULTZ: NATO's readiness to protect is what convinced its newest member, Finland, to join in light of Russia's aggression in the neighborhood. I checked out how Trump's Russia comments were playing in Helsinki with Minna Alander from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. She said Finns are feeling great concern.

MINNA ALANDER: Finland was somewhat late to the party to join NATO. And now you sort of get the feeling like, are we missing the whole party, actually, if Trump is now sort of just wrecking NATO entirely with his kind of understanding of the whole alliance as some sort of a criminal racket or something?

SCHULTZ: Alander is referring to what's often called Trump's pay-to-play approach to collective security. The more he perceives NATO members paying - that is spending on their own militaries - the more willing he would be to expend U.S. resources to protect them. Actually, the countries along NATO's eastern flank, including Finland, are among the biggest investors in their own defense in terms of GDP. Poland, for example, even outspends the U.S. when measured against the size of its economy. But allies still couldn't protect themselves without the U.S. at this point. And Minna Alander says they should have thought about that earlier.

ALANDER: European countries should have considered this contingency more seriously, immediately, two years ago, and started working harder immediately on replenishing own stocks and making sure that we have some sort of capability in Europe on our own.

SCHULTZ: Camille Grand was NATO's top official overseeing defense investment during the Trump presidency. Grand just co-wrote an article about whether Europe could Trump-proof itself. Here are his main recommendations.

CAMILLE GRAND: Keep calm and carry on. Do the job. Think through what are the gaps that you might have in your military apparatus. Invest and invest faster in your defense. Doing this is good for - in case Trump is reelected. It would mitigate the consequences of his election, might even convince him that, you know, by the way, you haven't noticed, but, yes, the Europeans have been stepping up.

SCHULTZ: Secretary-General Stoltenberg is doing his best to make sure Trump does notice. At multiple press conferences this week, he highlighted how many more billions of dollars NATO countries are spending now compared to the last time they were targets of Trump's ire.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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