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Right back at you on Russia, Donald

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Happier today than yesterday. Source: AP

Chancellor Angela Merkel was more fit than anyone else to spell out to Donald Trump how happy she is not to be living in a vassal state to the Kremlin.

She delivered a fast burn to US President Donald Trump’s charge that Germany is “totally captive of Russia” because of its supposed dependence on Putin’s gas and oil.

Right from the outset of the NATO summit, with verbal attacks peppered by tweets, Trump asked why the United States spends billions on countering Kremlin activity while Berlin buys power from Moscow. Ahead of a dinner yesterday evening, he typed, “What good is Nato if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The US is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.”

Ms. Merkel’s riposte to his morning charge was rare and stark — her usual tactic when provoked is to politely stand by, perhaps rolling her eyes. But drawing on her youth in the Soviet-occupied GDR, she said, “I experienced firsthand that a part of Germany was occupied by the Soviet Union. It is good that we can now make our own decisions”.

Her remarks were swiftly backed up by Heiko Maas, her foreign minister, who said, “We are no captives, neither of Russia nor of the United States.”

Trump’s comments open up a new front in the war of words between the president and Berlin. Now, beyond complaints about the size of the German trade surplus, and the push to up spending on NATO, Germany’s Nord Stream pipeline is a bone of contention.

Nord Stream 2, which would increase the capacity of the pipeline linking Russia and Germany via the Baltic sea, is indeed a problematic project. Bypassing the traditional route through Ukraine, it increases Kiev’s dependence on the Kremlin’s goodwill and will likely undercut the transit fees Ukraine charges Russia.

But it’s hard not to see Trump as a dealmaker playing to his domestic audience, rather than standing up strong against Russia. He seemed to be making a business case for liquid natural gas, a product the United States is eager to export to Europe. This would explain the president’s description of Vladimir Putin as a rival, rather than friend or foe.

I went to Russia two weeks ago, nervous after pre-trip reading of Politkovskaya and Bulgakov as well as a hasty intro to Soviet soccer. But I loved exploring the cities, from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, and the warmth of the people from meeting people from bus conductors eager to chat to IT workers who talked about their lives.

But looking at the chaos of Brexit which has torn my already troubled country in two parts, and watching how Trump is sowing chaos in the US and now in Europe, it’s hard not to hate the confusing ways that Russia is unstitching our societies. My sympathies go to Merkel and all these who suffered in the GDR and from repression throughout eastern Europe under the Soviet system. Nowadays, I wonder how we will find ways to counter new methods for undermining the freedoms and benefits that past generations worked so hard to secure.

Rather than standing up to Russia, Trump seems bent on deepening trans-Atlantic rivalries. He called on NATO members to further beef up their spending to 4 percent of GDP. Such haranguing isn’t likely to help governments persuade the public to approve further increases, were they to even consider it.

And now he’s heading to London for talks with Theresa May, who issued a white paper on Brexit this morning. Her government in tatters, she needs the support of other leaders more than ever, though yesterday, the US was coy about her prospects for a trade deal. With Europe, she’s calling for a free trade area for manufactured goods and agriculture, plus a complex proposal for a customs partnership. Her goal is to square the circle: keep trade in Europe, avoid a hard border in Ireland and pursue an independent trade policy. But Brexit only knows if she’ll still be around to finish the job.

Londoners, anyway, aren’t likely to be feeling chummy after last night’s soccer defeat by Croatia, a fresh newcomer to Europe. Protesters have been preparing for this visit ever since Mr. Trump was elected. The State Department warned Americans to keep a low profile, and there’s a giant baby balloon set to bob above town.

I’m following Trump’s agenda as he wends between tea with the Queen, to a meeting with May, and golf in Scotland. But watching Britain’s agonizing struggle to leave the European Union based on a questionable referendum result, and as Trump eagerly anticipates meeting his friendly rival Mr. Putin, it’s hard not to feel that the joke is on us.

While Merkel speaks of her relief at no longer being subject to Moscow, the chaos that’s roiling Europe and bubbling through Trump’s visit seems to have a new yet Russian flavor.

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