Donald Trump has been accused of giving Vladimir Putin the "green light for more war", after commenting that he would "encourage" Russia to attack any Nato country that didn't spend enough on defence.
"Nato was busted until I came along," Trump told a rally in South Carolina on Saturday. "One of the presidents of a big country stood up, and said, 'Well sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia will you protect us?' I said - 'you didn't pay, you're delinquent?' He said 'yes lets say that happened'. No I would not protect you in fact I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay, you gotta pay your bills - and the money came flowing in."
His comments were branded appalling and dangerous by US president Joe Biden, who said Trump had given Putin "a green light for more war and violence".
Trump's message on defence spending came after a Nato military official warned in January that the West should prepare for war with Russia in the next 20 years, and should "expect the unexpected".
Speaking at a meeting in Brussels, the chair of Nato's military committee of national chiefs, Admiral Rob Bauer, said: "We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.
“But the discussion is much wider. It is also the industrial base and also the people that have to understand they play a role... the realisation that not everything is plannable and not everything is going to be hunky dory in the next 20 years.”
He added: “We need to be readier across the whole spectrum. You have to have a system in place to find more people if it comes to war, whether it does or not. Then you talk mobilisation, reservists or conscription.
“You need to be able to fall back on an industrial base that is able to produce weapons and ammunition fast enough to be able to continue a conflict if you are in it.”
Germany’s defence minister Boris Pistorius told news outlet Der Tagesspiegel that the country's experts were looking at a 5-8 year period in which they could see the possibility of Russia attacking a Nato country.
"We hear threats from the Kremlin almost every day... so we have to take into account that Vladimir Putin might even attack a Nato country one day," Pistorius said, stressing that the threat was not expected now. "Our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which this could be possible."
His comments came as the Russia-Ukraine conflict marked its 695th day, and as Russian forces said they had taken control of the Vesele settlement in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine.
"Not only has their counteroffensive failed, but the initiative is entirely in the hands of the Russian Armed Forces," Russia's president Vladimir Putin said this week, despite Ukraine ramping up air strikes in the region.
"If this continues, Ukraine's statehood could be dealt an irreparable, very serious blow,"
Germany warns Putin could launch attack on Nato in less than a decade (The Independent)
What is Nato?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a political and military alliance of 30 countries.
Nato was set up in 1949 to protect members against the Soviet Union, with 12 nations initially signing up to the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington DC.
These countries were the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.
Nato's stated political objectives are to "promote democratic values", "enable members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues", and to "prevent conflict".
The organisation says it "is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes", but if diplomacy fails it will use its military power "to undertake crisis-management operations".
What happens if a Nato country is attacked?
The collective defence clause of Nato's founding treaty – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – is a provision that means an attack against one member is considered an attack against all of them.
This is a fundamental part of Nato and why it says it is a defensive alliance.
Nato says military operations are carried out under Article 5 or a United Nations mandate, alone or in co-operation with other countries and international organisations.
Last month, in direct response to the conflict in Ukraine, Nato said: "Allies are committed to deploying robust and combat-ready forces on the Alliance’s eastern flank. The eight battlegroups demonstrate the strength of the transatlantic bond and the Alliance’s solidarity, determination and ability to respond to any aggression.
"Many activities undertaken by Allies nationally also contribute to increased Allied activity in the eastern part of the Alliance. In response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Allies have sent additional ships, planes and troops to NATO territory in eastern Europe, further reinforcing the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture."
Crucially, Ukraine is not a member of Nato and therefore the alliance is not treaty-bound to defend it, while US president Joe Biden has said he will not send American or allied troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.
However, Kyiv is a close partner and was promised eventual membership of the alliance. The 30-member Nato works with Ukraine to modernise its armed forces.
Sweden has applied to join Nato along with Finland – which shares a border with Russia – with Nato hoping the expansion will boost its eastern Europe defences. However, alliance members Hungary and Turkey are currently blocking the accession.
Which countries are in Nato, and what date did they join?
1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, the US.
1952: Greece, Turkey
1999: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland
2004: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia
2009: Albania, Croatia
2020: North Macedonia
Why does Putin see Nato as a threat?
Since the Cold War ended, Nato has expanded eastwards by taking in 14 new countries, including the states of the former Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic nations that were once in the Soviet Union.
Russia sees this as a threatening encroachment towards its borders and continues to say it was a betrayal of Western promises at the start of the 1990s – something Nato denies.
Ukraine is not a Nato member but has a promise dating from 2008 that it will eventually get to join.
Since toppling a pro-Russian president in 2014, Ukraine has become closer politically to the West, staged joint military exercises with Nato and taken delivery of weapons.
Kyiv and Washington saw these as legitimate moves to bolster Ukraine's defence after Russia seized the Crimea region in 2014 and provided backing to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin believes Ukraine's growing ties with the alliance could make it a launchpad for Nato missiles targeted at Russia.
He said Russia needs to lay down "red lines" to prevent that.
Last year, Putin said Nato troops on the ground fighting the Russian army would be "a very dangerous step that could lead to a global catastrophe".
In a recent address, Putin also said: "In Nato documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike."
But his demands that Ukraine drop its long-term goal of joining the Atlantic military alliance have been repeatedly rebuffed by Kyiv and Nato states.