BRUSSELS -- President Donald Trump kicked off his two-day visit with NATO allies by doing exactly what many of them feared, worsening tensions within the alliance by claiming that Germany, a bulwark of the transatlantic democratic order, "is totally controlled by" and "captive to Russia."
Trump, who often goes on the attack by accusing someone of behavior he has been accused of, irked allies last month by suggesting that Russia should be readmitted to the G-7, and is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. He began a series of meetings with NATO leaders here Wednesday by suggesting during a welcome breakfast that a natural gas pipeline project has made Germany subservient to Russia.
He did not name the project, but appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would transport Russian gas to Germany's Baltic coast and dramatically increase the amount of gas Russia is able to export directly to Germany. The U.S. and some European Union countries oppose the project.
"Germany is totally controlled by Russia," Trump said. "You tell me if that's appropriate because I think it's not."
Trump's posture toward close allies has been remarkably confrontational, especially in comparison to his more conciliatory approach to adversaries, including Russia and North Korea.
In Wednesday's remarks, he called the potential for increased German reliance on Russia's natural gas a "very bad thing for NATO. "I think we have to talk to Germany about it," the president continued.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was to meet with Trump later Wednesday, delivered a preliminary retort upon arriving at the summit. The chancellor, who grew up during the Cold War years in the former East Germany, under the Soviet Union's control, archly stated that she didn't need to be lectured about dealing with authoritarian regimes.
"I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union," she said. "I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions."
At Trump's breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general also pushed back on Trump's claim. "There are sometimes differences and different views" between allies, he said, and this was "one issue where allies disagree."
Attempting to refocus the conversation on the broader importance of NATO, Stoltenberg said that "despite differences," the alliance is an essential pillar of the post-World War II era for democratic countries "to protect and defend each other."