President Barack Obama said the U.S. will bolster its military presence in Europe through a $1 billion initiative that is in direct response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the stoking of unrest in Ukraine.
The U.S. president unveiled the assistance in Poland, a NATO ally, at the start of a four-day trip meant to reassure military partners and show a unified front in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Obama is using meetings in Poland, Belgium and France to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin of the consequences of further provocations in the region while offering political and economic support for the new Ukrainian government.
The “basic principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty and freedom, the ability for people to make their own determination about their country’s future is the cornerstone of the peace and security that we’ve seen over the last several decades,” Obama said at a news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. “That is threatened by Russian actions in Crimea and now Russian activity in eastern Ukraine.”
The challenges of maintaining allied unity greeted Obama upon his arrival in Warsaw as allied leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, joined with French President Francois Hollande in planning separate meetings with Putin in France on June 6 on the margins of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. Even as Obama said the U.S. will confront any challenge to European allies, he too held out the prospect of talking with the Russian leader.
“We are interested in good relations with Russia; we are not interested in threatening Russia,” Obama said. “We recognize that Russia has legitimate interests in what happens along its borders and has a long historic relationship with Ukraine.”
Obama and Putin will cross paths at the June 6 ceremonies. While the White House has said no formal meeting is planned, the U.S. and Russian leaders are almost certain to encounter each other in a group setting.
“I’m sure I’ll see him. He’s going to be there. It’s important for us to acknowledge the role that Russia played during World War II, and that’s part of what Normandy’s about,” Obama said.
Asked what he would tell Putin, Obama said he would say that if we see “responsible behavior by the Russians over the next several months then” it might be possible to “rebuild some of the trust that has been shattered over this past year.”
“Rebuilding that trust will take quite some time,” he said.
As the crisis in Ukraine has unfolded, the U.S. and NATO have emphasized the alliance’s solidarity on defense. In addition to increasing rotations of U.S. military personnel in the region, Obama said he’ll ask Congress for the money to position more equipment in Europe, expand exercises and training with NATO allies and increase force readiness. The U.S. also will strengthen partnerships with non-NATO allies such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
Obama will ask Congress to approve the $1 billion fund the administration is calling a European Reassurance Initiative. It would pay in the next year for military exercises, training missions and additional rotations of air and ground forces. The U.S. also plans more naval deployments in the Black Sea. The money will be part of the Defense Department’s fiscal 2015 request for contingency operations. The Pentagon’s 2015 budget is about $496 billion, excluding war operations.
Obama, who is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko, urged Russia to “engage constructively” with the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
He said Russia still faces the prospect of new sanctions, and now that Putin has begun to pull back his troops from the border, he needs to use his influence with armed separatists to convince them to stop attacking Ukrainian forces, abandon seized buildings and lay down arms.
Obama also called on Putin to meet with Poroshenko, recognize the legitimacy of the election and facilitate a dialogue that will encourage people to participate in a “legitimate political process.”
Obama said he hopes his European counterparts will relay that same message to Putin when they hold their meetings in France for the D-Day commemoration.
“Mr. Putin has a choice to make,” Obama said.
The meetings between Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Cameron risk undercutting the show of unity that Obama has sought to emphasize since the crisis in Ukraine began, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“This signals the end of Vladimir Putin’s isolation and does call into question exactly what approach Europe and the U.S. will take towards Russia in the future,” Conley said. “This certainly will allow other international leaders to resume their relationship with President Putin as well.”
“The ‘return to normal’ impulse -- after only two months after the annexation of Crimea –- is so much stronger for European leaders than consideration of its own future stability and security,” she said.
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 outflows and hurt the ruble, putting Russia’s $2 trillion economy on the verge of recession.
With European countries having deeper economic ties to Russia than the U.S. does, the imposition of broader sanctions on Russia’s economy, if necessary, has been a more difficult question for the allies.
“We have prepared economic costs on Russia that can escalate if we continue to see Russia actively destabilizing one of its neighbors,” Obama said.
Even as he announced new commitments to Europe’s security, Obama also called on North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to “step up,” given a steady decline of defense spending in the region.
“That has to change,” Obama said. “The United States is proud to bear its share of the defense of the transatlantic alliance; it is the cornerstone of our security, but we can’t do it alone.”
Komorowski said Poland would increase its defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product. He said his discussions with Obama confirm U.S. security guarantees to Poland while “we’re observing with anxiety Ukraine’s crisis.”
The “U.S. decision to increase NATO presence in Eastern Europe is enormously important,” Komorowski said.