Pence: US will hold Russia accountable

Vice President Pence said the US will hold Russia accountable for its actions even as it works to look for areas of cooperation at the Munich Security Conference.

MUNICH, Germany (CNN) — Aiming to calm European fears about US-Russia ties, Vice President Mike Pence told world leaders Saturday that the United States will stand firm against Moscow while also seeking avenues for cooperation.

Pence’s posture was met in kind by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said at the same conference that the West’s dominance of world affairs is ending.

The dueling messages came during a security summit in Germany, where leaders are eagerly looking for clues about how the new US administration will broach Russia’s persistent challenges to international law.

“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 during remarks at the Munich Security Conference, the first major foreign policy address of the Trump administration.

Pence’s speech, which was closely watched in foreign policy circles for its signals about US strategy moving forward, sought to ease concerns in Europe about President Donald Trump, who has offered brash dismissals of long-established transatlantic institutions but few specifics about his intentions.

Trump has also expressed a desire to draw Russian President Vladimir Putin closer, hoping to develop a strategy on combating ISIS. Russia’s top diplomat praised that approach Saturday, at the same time arguing for a “post-West” world order.

“The US cannot be the only power,” Lavrov said. “We need to set up constructive US-Russia relations, economic and political cooperation. We don’t want Russia to be seen as less important. We want mutual respect to recognize the global needs.”

Pence arrived at a moment of uncertainty for the White House national security apparatus, which is without a clear leader since Trump fired Gen. Michael Flynn after he misled Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The incident dismayed the vice president while also raising questions about his stature within the administration.

Pence did not offer any detailed policy proposals during his remarks, instead expressing in broad terms the US commitment to fighting radical Islamist terrorism and to the NATO alliance, which Trump lambasted as “obsolete” during last year’s presidential campaign.

“Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance,” Pence said. “The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance.”

Pence sought to underscore a history of common endeavors and said Trump would maintain deep ties to Europe while also significantly increasing military spending in the United States. Trump has committed to attend a NATO leaders meeting in May, as well as a Group of 7 summit that month.

“As you keep faith with us, under President Trump we will always keep faith with you,” Pence said. “The fates of the United States and Europe are intertwined. Your struggles are our struggles. Your success is our success. And ultimately, we walk into the future together.”

Pence’s goal in his remarks was to reassure US allies in Europe of the new administration’s continued commitment to regional security, his aides said before the speech. Many Western leaders have eyed Trump with deep skepticism, given his campaign trail dismissals of NATO and the European Union.

VP skeptical of Iran deal

Pence didn’t mention the EU during his remarks, and he cast deep skepticism on the Iran nuclear deal, which the European bloc helped broker along with President Barack Obama’s administration.

Pence said that loosening sanctions on Iran as part of the agreement had helped Tehran finance terrorists, a line that was met with silence inside the ornate Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the annual security conference is held.

More enthusiastic was the response to Pence’s insistence that Russia adhere to a ceasefire agreement in Ukraine, which was established in 2014 but routinely broken since.

“We must hold Russia accountable and demand that they honor the Minsk Agreements, beginning by de-escalating the violence in eastern Ukraine,” Pence said.

While he offered firm backing for NATO, Pence echoed previous calls for member nations to scale up their military spending, meeting the collective’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on defense.

“The President of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, fulfill this commitment, and for most that means the time has come to do more,” he said.

Since taking office, European apprehension on Trump has not waned. US and European officials who have met with members of the administration describe receiving mixed signals about American intentions moving forward, particularly on the future of US sanctions on Moscow for its incursion into Ukraine and its cyber-meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Pence did not offer a specific vow on sanctions Saturday, suggesting only that the US would maintain pressure on Russia even as it seeks places to cooperate.

Merkel defends journalists

The topic was expected to arise Saturday in Pence’s talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke ahead of the US vice president during the security forum.

With Pence seated in the front row, Merkel urged against protectionist politics, insisting countries look ahead instead of backward. She also defended journalists, affirming that freedom of the press is a “pillar of democracy,” a tacit rejection of Trump’s tirade against the media.

In speaking at the Munich forum weeks after taking office, Pence mimicked his predecessor, Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in 2009. Then, like now, the vice president offered a sweeping first glimpse of the new administration’s foreign policy prescriptions. Biden called for a reset of ties with Russia and insisted that US partnerships around the globe be improved when he spoke in 2009.

Pence is on his first trip abroad since taking office. He’s also due in Brussels on Monday for talks with European leaders and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.