MUNICH, Germany -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has told European leaders that the United States "is now and will always be your greatest ally," seeking to assuage concerns about Washington's commitment to transatlantic ties under President Donald Trump.
Speaking on February 18 at the Munich Security Conference, Pence said the "enduring bond" between the United States and Europe was built not only on "strength of arms" but on shared values and principles "that we cherish: freedom, democracy, justice, and the rule of law."
He said he brought a message from Trump: "The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering" in its support for the alliance.
At the same time, Pence forcefully repeated Trump's calls for European allies to shoulder their share of the financial burden, saying that only five NATO members had reached a target set in 2014 of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense within a decade, and that several had no clear path to that goal.
"It's time to do more," Pence said.
He said the United States will "hold Russia accountable" for interference in Ukraine even as it seeks "common ground" with Moscow, which he said Trump believed can be found.
Russia must uphold the 2015 Minsk cease-fire and peace deal signed in Belarus, starting by de-escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, Pence said.
Turning to broader issues, Pence said that the United States was committed to ensuring that Iran cannot obtain nuclear weapons, and to fighting "radical Islamic terrorism" as well as threats from "rogue nations" and other "new adversaries" he said had emerged following the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago.
The focus on this year's edition of the prominent annual security conference in Munich has been fears that Trump might loosen U.S. ties to Europe, withdraw or reduce U.S. backing for NATO, and sacrifice the interests of countries from Ukraine to Western Europe in the name of a new "reset" with Russia.
Those worries stem from comments from Trump, who in the past year has expressed enthusiasm for Britain's exit from the European Union, called NATO "obsolete," voiced admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested he might scrap sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.
"Know this: the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.
Lavrov Rejects Blame On Moscow
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the blame placed on Moscow for the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since it erupted in April 2014 -- shortly after Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine.
Lavrov accused Ukraine of failing to meet its commitments under the Minsk agreement and suggested that the remarks of Western officials about the conflict reflected a Cold War mind-set that he said persists in the West.
In a pointedly short statement a few hours after Pence spoke, Lavrov repeated Russian accusations that the enlargement of NATO to include former Soviet republics and satellites has created tension in Europe -- rejecting the alliance's position that it is Russia's aggressive actions that are to blame.
Lavrov said that the "post-Cold War order" had come to an end and that he hoped "responsible leaders" will choose to create a "democratic and just world order -- if you want you can call it a post-West world order."
Lavrov was speaking 10 years after Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Munich Security Conference as the stage for a sriking denunciation of the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was ignoring state borders, violating international law, and "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts."
While repeating Kremlin criticism of the West and its military alliance, Lavrov called for the resumption of military cooperation between Russia and NATO, and said Moscow wanted relations with the United States that are "pragmatic" and marked by mutual respect and acknowledgement of a shared responsibility for global stability.
Lavrov said the badly strained ties that existed now are "unnatural" and the two countries have huge potential for cooperation.
Pence, for his part, did not go into much detail about the prospects for "common ground" between Washington and Moscow.
Focusing on the transatlantic relationship, he painted a powerful picture of what he suggested were the historical affinities between the United States and Europe, using anecdotes about two previous visits to Germany to make his point.
During the Cold War, he crossed from a Western Europe seeking to rebuild after World War II into drab communist East Germany, he said -- then traveled to Germany again after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and saw flowers and other signs of mourning and solidarity.
"Europe stood tall with the United States" at that time, Pence said, adding that "the American people will be forever grateful."
But he warned Europe that "peace only comes through strength" and that "Europe's defense requires your commitment as much as ours."
"The United States will be strong -- stronger than ever before," he said, stressing that Washington plans to spend more on its military.
Merkel Backs Minsk Pact In Ukraine
Pence addressed the conference just after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she was committed to meeting the defense-spending goal set by NATO in 2014, and the two met for talks later in the day.
Merkel said Western states must protect the principle of territorial integrity, calling it a crucial foundation of the post-World War II order, and that NATO needed to strengthen its eastern flank following Russia's interference in Ukraine.
Merkel said that there was "great anxiety" about the situation in eastern Ukraine and that Russia's interference in Ukraine "highlighted" the importance of NATO. Stressing the need to maintain international alliances, Merkel told the audience -- with Pence seated a few meters away -- that NATO was "in the American interest."
Merkel said she was committed to seeking a political solution to the conflict and supported the Minsk agreement, which she called "the only thing we have at the moment to move forward talks and the possibility of solving the problems. When we don't have anything else, I am against throwing something away that may still be useful."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told other leaders at the Munich conference on February 17 that they must not "appease" Russia by lifting sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union for seizing Crimea and stoking conflict in eastern Ukraine.
"It would be a mistake to think that Russia's appetite is limited" to Ukraine.
After talks with Pence in Munich on February 18, Poroshenko said he received a "very strong message supporting Ukraine" in that meeting and in phone calls with Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the last two weeks.
Pence also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the security of the Baltic countries in a meeting with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Pence's office said he noted the Trump administration's support for the collective defense of NATO allies -- a crucial concern for the Baltic states, which are wary of Russia's intentions.
Pence held separate meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Masud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. U.S. officials said he thanked both for committing to fight the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and encouraged close cooperation between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government.
Meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Pence voiced U.S. support for Afghanistan's national unity government, and officials said the two affirmed the importance of continuing what they called the "strategic partnership" between the United States.
And Pence met with Bono, the Irish rock star and social activist.
Also on the sidelines of the security conference, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and mediators Germany and France agreed to press for implementation of the existing and much-violated cease-fire in eastern Ukraine starting on February 20.
"All parties will use their influence to implement the agreement of the trilateral contact group from February 15," referring to a body comprising Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"The aim is to have a cease-fire starting from February 20 and to do what has long been agreed but never implemented: To withdraw the heavy weapons from the region, to secure them and enable the OSCE monitors to control where they are kept," German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters.
Merkel, meanwhile, said she wanted good relations with Russia and believes it is in the common interest of Russia and the West to fight international terrorism.
She also said that Western countries had a "responsibility to bear" in accepting refugees and tackling the root causes leading people to flee their countries.
Merkel called for countries to work together, saying they must do so if they are to be strong. "Will we be able to act in concert, or will we fall back into parochial policies...? Let us stand together and make the world a better place," she said.
Speaking after Pence, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said all allies must contribute their share in funding the alliance and stressed that NATO's "bond remains essential" on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Europe needs North America and North America needs Europe," he said.
"I don't think America First means America alone," Stoltenberg said, referring to a policy Trump set out in his inaugural address on January 20.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa, Interfax, and TASS