President Obama this week will travel to countries he didn't expect to visit, to talk to leaders he didn't plan to see, to discuss a topic he didn't want to talk about. It's a presidential overseas trip that looks nothing like what was planned only three months ago. But it's what happens to presidential summits when a preplanned agenda doesn't match a messy world.
The president was supposed to spend Wednesday and Thursday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, accepting the hospitality of Russian President Vladimir Putin, marveling at the facilities built for the Winter Olympics and attending the annual G-8 summit. But then came Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Putin's seizure of Crimea. So, the G-8 reverted back to its Cold War-level of G-7, Putin was disinvited, and the summit was moved to Brussels. And the president was forced to add a pre-summit stop in Poland, another neighbor of Russia left anxious by the Kremlin's moves in Ukraine.
The only part of the schedule unchanged comes at the end of the week when Obama will join other allied leaders on the beaches of Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings that began the liberation of a continent. Perhaps importantly, Putin has been invited to that in recognition of Russia's critical role in the defeat of Hitler and a remembrance that seven decades ago Russia and the West were on the same side.
As Obama's itinerary makes clear, though, they are decidedly on opposing sides in 2014. And Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, said there are no plans for a formal meeting with Putin when both men are in Paris or Normandy. Nothing beyond a handshake is planned at this point. In contrast, the president will hold a formal meeting in Warsaw Wednesday with Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko.
"This trip is going to be completely dominated by Ukraine and Vladimir Putin," said Heather A. Conley, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe in the George W. Bush administration. "It is definitely a different trip than was originally envisioned to Sochi."
That will be evident from the moment Air Force One touches down in Warsaw. There, the president will meet with the leaders of 11 Central and Eastern European countries—Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary. All have painful memories of domination by Moscow and all seek reassurance from Obama that the United States will not tolerate any future Russian incursions in their territory.
"Ninety percent of reassurance is showing up," said Jeremy Shapiro, recalling Woody Allen's famous dictum. Shapiro, a senior adviser on Europe and a member of the State Department's policy planning staff in Obama's first term, added, "The main thing he has to do on the trip is show up in terms of Poland. Essentially, what he's trying to say to Poland and to other Eastern European countries in NATO is that the United States is behind you."
That reassurance is badly needed, according to Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish ambassador to the United States. In particular, he said the Poles want to hear Obama specifically state that any Russian incursion across the border of a NATO country would provoke a response under Article 5 of the NATO charter. Article 5 holds that "an armed attack against one" member of NATO "shall be considered an attack against them all." He acknowledged that Article 5 has been reaffirmed in recent weeks by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"But it is different to publicly hear it from the president in Warsaw," he said. "To hear the words of the U.S. president telling that Article 5 and the mutual commitment of the NATO countries is unbreakable." He acknowledged that Poland has been told the commitment is ironclad. "But," he said, "iron can get rust. It will be an important declaration" to hear it again from Obama.
The White House has said that assurance will come in the president's speech on Wednesday at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
Conley, who is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the leaders in Warsaw also will press Obama to go beyond Article 5. Now that Ukraine's election has been held, she said, they will ask the president, "What is the U.S. policy approach to Ukraine? To Moldova? And Georgia? And Russia? Are you going to stick and focus on this? Where are you? They are going to ask tough questions and they are going to want much, much more sustained U.S. engagement in this region."
On one request, they almost certainly will be denied by Obama. That is the desire by the Poles for the permanent deployment of U.S. combat troops on Polish soil. "They would like a concrete commitment of troops, of permanent stationing," said Shapiro, who is now with the Brookings Institution. But the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed at the time of NATO expansion, stipulated that there would be no such permanent basing, something that Shapiro said "has always been a bitter pill for the Easterners to swallow."
Ambassador Schnepf treated that stipulation almost as a technicality. "Several commitments have been broken in this initial agreement between NATO and Russia. We all know that," he said. "We did trust a short time ago that things like direct invasion and annexation of foreign territory—we thought it impossible. But we were wrong." He stressed, "We are looking for more presence from the United States."
Schnepf said one of Poland's biggest concerns is that memories of Russia's aggression in Ukraine will fade as did Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia. "If things are not met properly, like it happened in Georgia, our experience says it may happen again in another place." He said Georgia "we forgot very easily" and the West too quickly returned to "business as usual." He wants the president to understand that cannot happen again. In contrast to Georgia, he praised the American response to Ukraine, calling it "immediate; it was right, it was strong."
In Brussels, the effects of disinviting Russia may make it "easier to talk about Syria and Libya," Conley said. "In some ways, I honestly think it is a bit of a relief because the seven like-minded can now focus strictly on the issues they want."
The Russians have downplayed their exclusion, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating, "If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format." But Russia fought for years to be included and Shapiro believes the exclusion stings. "They have vehemently denied that and said they don't care. But I think they do care. It is really important to the Russians to be seen as part of the committee that runs the world.… It is actually quite a blow, one that I think will tell over time."
This article appears in the June 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.