President Barack Obama’s European trip this week is tailored to get the attention of Vladimir Putin, who’s done more in recent months to unsettle the continent than anyone since the end of the Cold War.
Obama will use his speeches and meetings with allies to emphasize the Russian president’s choice between further economic isolation, if Russia continues to seek more control in Ukraine and other former Soviet areas, or an easing of sanctions if he changes course.
Starting tomorrow in Warsaw, then in Brussels and Paris, the U.S. president will promote economic cooperation, energy security, and solidarity among NATO and Group of Seven nations. He’ll meet with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, newly elected to become president, and underscore the benefits for Russia if it leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own path.
Putin, who will cross paths with Obama at the June 6 ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, will be making his own priorities known.
“Unless the president is able to coax a more forceful, more unified response from the international community, then Putin will continue to feel he is in the driver’s seat,” said David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and chief executive officer and editor of the FP Group.
The trip follows months of tensions surrounding the February ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Russia’s move since then to annex Crimea and back pro-Russian separatist movements in Ukraine triggered sanctions against members of Putin’s inner circle by the U.S. and Europe.
Russia’s acceptance of the May 25 election of Poroshenko has made the threat of more punitive sanctions against Russia’s economy -- and a deeper freeze in U.S.-Russia relations -- recede for now.
Obama’s options for increasing pressure on Putin are limited. The economies of U.S. allies such as France and Germany are tied more deeply to doing business with Russia and a wave of parliamentary election victories this year by nationalist candidates may make it more difficult to build a unified U.S.- European approach.
The U.S. has its own strategic imperatives.
“The United States needs Russia to achieve what it wants to do with Iran, it is going to need Russia to get anything done in Syria,” Rothkopf said. “They have to find ways forward and Putin has known that all along.”
One of the most intriguing unknowns is if -- and how -- Obama and Putin will interact. While the White House says there are no plans for a formal meeting between the two men, they are almost sure to encounter each other in a group setting during the D-Day ceremonies in France.
There is precedent for an ad hoc meeting: during the Group of 20 summit last year in St. Petersburg, at a time when the U.S. and Russia were at odds over Syria, Obama and Putin pulled up chairs away from a larger meeting to confer even after the U.S. canceled a planned bilateral meeting.
Michael McFaul, who left the post as U.S. ambassador to Russia in February, said an informal meeting has the potential to be important even if nothing is settled as a result.
“It’s unlikely that there would be some breakthrough for a conversation,” McFaul said. “But if by having the conversation you might be able to de-escalate the violence in Eastern Ukraine, then it’s worth trying even if the probability of the outcome is very low.”
French President Francois Hollande also plans for two separate dinners with Obama and Putin on the same night, presenting the possibility of some gourmet shuttle diplomacy.
The timing of the trip lends poignancy to the current tensions.
It is taking place over the 25th anniversary, on June 4, of the election win by the Solidarity movement in Poland that brought the first non-Communist leader to power in the Eastern Bloc, and the 70th anniversary, on June 6, of D-Day, the pivotal Allied invasion of then-German-occupied Normandy, France.
“In the context of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine’s territory, it’s a very powerful moment to both look back at the history of how Polish democracy was won, but also look at the current moment and the need for the United States and Europe to stand together on behalf of the security of Eastern Europe, and to stand in support of democratic values,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “In Normandy, similarly, there’s a chance to look back at the ultimate manifestation of the allies working together on behalf of freedom.”
Obama’s stops in Poland also will include a meeting with U.S. and Polish airmen at Lask Air Force Base supporting a mission the U.S. added in response to the situation in Ukraine, with F-16s and an aviation detachment.
The G-7 meeting in Brussels originally was to have been a G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia. To protest Putin’s moves in Ukraine, Obama and the rest of the major economies in the group -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. -- suspended Russia’s participation and relocated the forum.
McFaul said it’s crucial for the meetings to result in a united front, especially when it comes to the NATO alliance affirming its defense of member states on the front line with Russia.
“The biggest disaster in the world would be something that would tempt Putin to test our article 5 commitments,” McFaul said, referring to the section of the NATO treaty that declares an attack on any member is regarded as an attack on all. “This is a moment for showing unity, reaffirming the NATO commitments and praising not just what we are doing for the new members but also especially in Poland it’s a great opportunity to say what the new members bring to the security in all of Europe.”
The U.S. and European Union have imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies, mostly in Russia. The tensions and the threat of further sanctions have sparked capital outflow and hurt the ruble, putting Russia’s $2 trillion economy on the verge of recession.
At the same time, the Obama administration has used the crisis in Ukraine to promote the merits of a proposed trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, between the U.S. and 28-nation European Union.
Discussions in Brussels and throughout the trip should focus more on what the U.S. and Europe can do to help Ukraine, said Andy Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute in Washington.
“I think the administration here probably spends too much time thinking about how to punish Russia rather than how to help Ukraine,” he said. “It has to be both. The crux of the problem is Ukrainian independence and sovereignty, and if we can be successful there that is the ultimate punishment for Russia.”