A top NATO general who criticized Donald Trump's dismissal of the Western military alliance in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential vote now says the president-elect's comments may merely be campaign hyperbole and he's waiting for clearer direction from the incoming U.S. administration.
Back in June, General Petr Pavel denounced Mr. Trump for characterizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as "obsolete," calling the comments "a grave mistake" that "played to the cards of our opponents" and would please Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Like all America's allies today, Gen. Pavel is now choosing his words carefully about a Trump administration and expressing interest in seeing more detailed ideas from the president-elect. The NATO alliance, formed to counter Soviet expansionism and prevent a revival of militarism, has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for nearly seven decades.
"We witness different kind of statements during election periods [that] are not materialized after," Gen. Pavel, chair of NATO's military committee, said in an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of 70 countries on foreign affairs and defence matters.
"We all understand we have to distinguish pre-election period from post-election," the Czech army officer said.
"In that sense, we are eagerly waiting, in NATO, for the first contact from the president-elect – and of course his team.
"Once the [Trump] team is in place, once the policies are identified and well-articulated, only then can we start talking about some concerns – if there are any."
Mr. Trump's numerous and sometimes contradictory comments about NATO have left Western allies nervous about his commitment to the military alliance, particularly given his stated admiration for Mr. Putin. "It's possible that we're going to have to let NATO go," he said in April. "When we're paying and nobody else is really paying, a couple of other countries are but nobody else is really paying, you feel like the jerk."
The Baltic states, still nervous about Russian expansionism in the wake of Mr. Putin's illegal takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014, don't see NATO as obsolete.
Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation Friday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius warned that Russia may test NATO in the weeks before Mr. Trump becomes U.S. president – not only in the Baltics but also in Syria – particularly because the president-elect may not see Russia as a threat.
"Russia is not a superpower, it's a super problem," Mr. Linkevicius said.
NATO's Gen. Pavel said the Baltic countries are justified in their concerns about Russian expansionism given their location, but he does not foresee Mr. Putin testing the alliance over the next couple of months.
"I personally wouldn't believe that Russia would go that far – trying to test NATO' s cohesion and solidarity in this period because it wouldn't serve Russian objectives and purposes."
However, he said one source of "serious concern" for NATO is Russia's recent move to place cutting-edge Iskander missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, adjoining Lithuania and Poland. These missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and hitting targets of up to 500 kilometres away.
British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon, in Halifax Friday for the forum, played down concerns over Mr. Trump's ascension to the White House.
He also warned against isolationism. "This is no time for any of us to turn inward. Instead, democratic nations have to work closely together and there is no better example of that than the NATO alliance."
Mr. Fallon said Mr. Trump is right to ask Europe to take greater responsibility for its own defence. "NATO members must pay their way."
Mr. Fallon predicted the Trump administration will come around. "There is always uncertainty in the change of American administration – there's nothing new in that – but I'm sure the new administration will appreciate the importance of the international organizations and alliances that we have [such as] the NATO alliance in helping to keep the peace in Europe, but also working internationally in Afghanistan [and] the counter-Daesh [also known as Islamic State] coalition."