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Obama Vows to Boost European Security to Counter Russia

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade attend a welcome ceremony upon their arrival at a Polish Air Force base in Swidwin, Poland, on April 23, 2014. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade attend a welcome ceremony upon their arrival at a Polish Air Force base in Swidwin, Poland, on April 23, 2014. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

June 4 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama stepped up his country’s support for Ukraine, pledging a new round of non-lethal military equipment as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin offered talks on the crisis.

“The United States is absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people and their aspirations,” Obama said after an hour-long meeting with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, in Warsaw today. The two men, who also discussed economic plans and energy, sat side by side, with Obama addressing the Ukrainian leader by his first name.

The new aid for Ukraine came amid signs of a potential rapprochment with Russia. President Putin said in a French radio interview he’s “ready for dialogue” and open to meeting Obama later this week. Yesterday in Warsaw, Obama indicated that the two leaders could speak while they’re both in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day even though no formal meetings are planned.

The U.S. will provide Ukraine with $5 million for more night vision goggles, body armor and communications equipment to help Ukraine retain its sovereignty in the wake of Russia’s incursion in Crimea, Obama said today. The president has now approved more than $23 million of aid since the crisis began in early March, according to the White House. Obama called on the international community to stand “solidly behind” Ukraine and insist that Russia not support separatists working to destabilize eastern parts of the country.

‘Masked Men’

“Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small, or impose their will at the barrel of a gun or with masked men taking over buildings,” Obama said in a speech today. “We will never accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Obama arrived in Poland yesterday to begin a four-day trip to Europe designed to show a unified alliance responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of unrest in eastern Ukraine. He announced that he’ll ask Congress for a $1 billion fund to send military equipment to Europe and rotate more troops into the region. This afternoon he flies to Brussels where he’ll hold a working dinner with other members of the Group of Seven nations before a day of meetings tomorrow.

The G-7 session was originally a G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia. To protest Putin’s moves in Ukraine, Obama and the rest of the group -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. -- suspended Russia’s participation and relocated the forum.

D-Day Anniversary

Still, there are signs that Russia’s withdrawal of troops from Ukraine’s border and the successful election of a new government in Kiev may ease the worst confrontation between NATO and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Leaders of three major U.S. allies in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, are planning separate meetings with Putin while all are in France for ceremonies marking the D-Day anniversary.

“If, in fact, we can see some responsible behavior by the Russians over the next several months, then I think it is possible for us to try to rebuild some of the trust that’s been shattered during this past year,” Obama, who’s not scheduled to formally meet with Putin on the trip, said at a Warsaw news conference yesterday. “But I think it is fair to say that rebuilding that trust will take quite some time.”

Putin’s Choice

Obama’s strategy for his stops in Warsaw, Brussels and Paris this week is to emphasize the decision facing Putin: further economic isolation if Russia continues to seek more control in Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites, or an easing of sanctions if he changes course.

“Mr. Putin has a choice to make,” Obama said at the news conference.

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.

Those meetings also run the risk of 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 toward Russia in the future,” Conley said. “This certainly will allow other international leaders to resume their relationship with President Putin as well.” 

Largest Oil Producer

Obama will have the opportunity to confer with his counterparts tonight and tomorrow before their individual summits with Putin. The Brussels meetings will also include discussions about diversifying European energy supplies to lessen reliance on Russia -- the world’s largest oil producer and the provider of about 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas -- and increasing economic support for Ukraine.

Obama and Putin will cross paths at the June 6 ceremonies in Normandy. While the White House has said no formal talks are 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,” Obama said yesterday. “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.”

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.

Solidarity

“That has to change,” he 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.”

Polish President Bronislaw 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.”

Poland was added to Obama’s itinerary so he could take part in observances of the 25th anniversary of the election win by the Solidarity movement in Poland that brought the first non-Communist leader to power in the Eastern Bloc.

To contact the reporters on this story: Julianna Goldman in Warsaw at jgoldman6@bloomberg.net; Margaret Talev in Warsaw at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net Ben Sills, Alan Crawford

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