BRUSSELS—A tense NATO summit and President Donald Trump’s scheduled meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin are fueling uncertainty among U.S. allies about Washington’s commitment to defend Europe, prompting new efforts in the region to beef up its own security.
European leaders at this week’s meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization recommitted to raise military spending after Mr. Trump hinted that failure to share more of its financial burden could prompt the U.S. to go its own way.
But many officials quietly said Mr. Trump’s mixed signals of support for NATO—an alliance built on a pledge of mutual assistance—combined with his positive words for Mr. Putin, left them feeling less certain about future protection.
Mr. Trump at the NATO summit said he thought the U.S. might “get along with Russia” and that Mr. Putin is “a competitor” rather than an enemy.
The comments reinforced a growing fear in Europe that malign Russian activity, particularly in smaller countries once part of the Soviet Bloc, might not draw defense from Washington.
“There’s a world order where Europe is on its own, more and more,” said former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now a leading EU lawmaker.
European leaders are responding in part by trying to beef up security outside of NATO, including through bilateral deals with Washington. At the summit, Polish President Andrzej Duda met with Mr. Trump to propose posting more U.S. soldiers in Poland, Mr. Duda’s office said. The country, which offered to pay for the increased American presence, sees having U.S. soldiers in harm’s way on its soil as a guaranty of security.
The U.S. said they would discuss the proposal with Poland, according to Mr. Duda’s office.
“Central and East European countries are threatened by the Russian aggressive policy,” said Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz at the summit. “Only the United States can guaranty security for countries like Poland on the Eastern flank.”
But countries near Russia aren’t alone in feeling vulnerable, said a Baltic diplomat. The diplomat brought up the poisoning of a Russian defector and his daughter in Salisbury, England, which Western governments say was a Russian assassination plot.
“We are geographically closest but that is irrelevant in a world of Salisburys, elections that are tampered with and troll factories,” the diplomat said.
In response, European governments are planning a regional defense fund to develop military capabilities and France launched work on a coalition of nations to tackle security challenges on their borders. But progress toward what the European Union calls “strategic autonomy” remains slow.
“We must be ready to prepare our Union for worst-case scenarios,” European Council President Donald Tusk said last month.
Diplomats predict the Helsinki discussions will focus on issues important to Europe, including conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the Iranian nuclear accord. Given Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, diplomats fear an erosion of longstanding Western positions. They worry, for example, Mr. Trump could accept Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, an event that led to Russia’s ouster from the Group of 8 industrialized nations.
One senior diplomat from an east ern European country said his confidence that Mr. Trump will protect European interests when he meets with Mr. Putin was diminishing by the day.
“After the NATO summit the only attitude I can adopt is—wait and see.”
The precedent of Mr. Trump’s talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un last month is worrying, said a diplomat from a former East Bloc nation at the summit. At that meeting in Singapore, Mr. Trump unexpectedly cancelled scheduled military maneuvers with South Korea without telling Seoul, to appease North Korea.
U.S. and other NATO troops hold maneuvers close to Russia in a show of force against their regional rival. Mr. Trump at the summit said he might discuss them with Mr. Putin.
“Putin will be looking at the situation in NATO as an invitation to further split the alliance,” said former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder.
Europe’s anxiety about America’s security umbrella has grown for years. Now, with a U.S.-European trade dispute intensifying and Washington and Brussels clashing repeatedly over Iran, the Middle East peace plan and Mr. Trump’s pledge to warm ties with Russia, some fear a day is approaching when the continent will be left unaided to face security challenges.
Diplomats note that it was under President Barack Obama that the U.S. sought to “pivot” its focus to Asia.
“What is happening in trans-Atlantic relations is broader than the issue of a particular person,” France’s ambassador to the U.S., Gérard Araud, said earlier his week. “It’s a fundamental and irreversible evolution, already under way under Obama.”
Further complicating Europe’s defense is divergent views of Russia across the Continent. Hungary has good relations with Russia and Italy’s new government wants closer ties. At a dinner during the summit, when most leaders warned of the threat from Russia, leaders from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic called for more openness, according to a NATO official present.
Germany, meanwhile, has sparked anger from Mr. Trump and European capitals such as Warsaw for buying natural gas from Russia, even as it advocates military preparedness.
“The threat perception in Poland and the Baltic states is different than in Germany,” said Mr. Czaputowicz of Poland.