WARSAW, Poland – On the heels of a major speech vowing to preserve U.S. power overseas, President Barack Obama is visiting European capitals this week on a now-familiar mission of reassuring allies that the U.S. has not forgotten its role in guaranteeing their security.
Obama’s four-day trip to Poland, Belgium and France will be packed with diplomacy – and potential drama – as Western leaders rattled by Russia’s meddling in Ukraine navigate an uneasy new relationship with Moscow and look to Washington for support.
The reassurance tour is something like Obama’s swing through Asia last month, when Japan, South Korea and other allies nervous about China’s growing clout sought similar promises from a U.S. president increasingly under pressure for his reluctance to wield U.S. military power in distant conflicts.
Here in Poland, Obama will meet Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko and discuss how to bolster the fragile government as it battles separatists it says are backed by Russia.
He may run into Russian President Vladimir Putin at a long-planned ceremony honoring the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion landings in France. The face-to-face interaction would be their first since Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, sparking an international crisis.
The White House says Obama is focused on expressing support for Poroshenko’s incoming government and on pressuring Putin into dialogue on Ukraine. Recent signs that the Russian leader is interested in easing tensions are welcome but tenuous, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
“We see these separatists in the east and the south, who we believe enjoy the support of the Russian government, continue their efforts to commit acts of violence and to destabilize Ukraine,” Rhodes said. He said Moscow could sway those militias and move toward peace talks.
“That’s the opportunity that is available to Russia,” he said. “Should they not take it, they will continue to face the isolation that they’ve been confronted with.”
As Obama left Washington on Monday, the Ukraine crisis was not easing, however. According to the government in Kiev, the capital, about 500 Russian separatists attacked a base for Ukraine border guards Monday near the eastern city of Luhansk, one of the largest such attacks since the unrest began early this year.
With the situation tenuous, U.S. and European leaders are trying to decide how far they want to go in isolating Putin.
French President Francois Hollande is slated to meet privately with Putin on the eve of the Normandy ceremonies, which will be on Friday. Putin and Obama are not scheduled to meet but White House aides do not rule out an “informal” interaction at the leaders’ lunch.
The days leading up to the gathering at Normandy will be filled with talk of penalties that could be imposed on Russia. Obama and six other leaders from major economic powers will gather in Brussels on Thursday for a Group of Seven summit.
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