Recent developments in Ukraine have transformed President Obama's overseas travels this week like no presidential trip since the end of the Cold War, turning his four-nation swing that begins Monday from a routine gathering of world leaders to an emergency meeting of allies trying to find a way to restrain a Russia gone rogue.
Vladimir Putin will not be at the Hague when the third Nuclear Security Summit opens Monday, even though these high-level meetings were inspired by the historic cooperation between Moscow and Washington in safeguarding the Kremlin's Cold War stockpile of nuclear weapons.
But the Russian president will be the topic of most of the conversations of the 53 world leaders who will be in the Netherlands on Monday and Tuesday. Both there and then again at a summit with leaders of the European Union in Brussels, said National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the president will be "mobilizing the international community and some of our most important partners in the world" to follow the American lead in responding to Russia's provocative actions in the Crimean peninsula.
The trip's message to Putin, she told reporters, is "the fundamental strength and importance of our alliances and partnerships."
But when he arrives in Europe, Obama will find most of those allies anxious and many of those partners angry. "There is increasing anger and frustration toward the United States," said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She said many European leaders had planned to use these meetings to vent their unhappiness with American surveillance of their private conversations as well as their frustration over a global economic slowdown in its fifth year.
Now, however, the Russian threat to Ukraine has forced EU leaders to mute that anger and focus on the current crisis gripping the continent. They find themselves looking to Washington for leadership but not all of them are eager to follow Obama's lead down the path of stiff economic sanctions. They fear such sanctions will hurt their own financial interests more than Putin's cronies.
But they want to hear from Obama directly about what comes next in what Conley called "this new and highly combustible context." They will get that chance first in smaller meetings both in the Hague and Brussels and then in what the White House is billing as the major address of the trip. That will be Wednesday at the Palais des Beaux-Arts when he will offer "his vision of trans-Atlantic relations, of European security," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser.
Rhodes told reporters that "the situation in Ukraine will factor heavily into his presentation."
In fact, that situation overshadows everything Obama plans this week, from his visit to the World War I battlefield of Flanders in Belgium to his first meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican to an emergency meeting of the G-7 allies and a session with the leaders of the NATO alliance.
"The Obama trip is going to be dominated by Ukraine," said Michael J. Geary, an assistant professor of modern Europe at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and a European expert at the Wilson Center. He called it critical for the president to push the allies to offer more financial aid to Kiev to stabilize what is left of Ukraine.
"They need the money now because the country's under the verge of bankruptcy," he said.
Jeremy Shapiro, who helped handle European affairs in the State Department in Obama's first term, voiced some frustration that "some pretty important presidential priorities" will be pushed into the shadows by the Ukraine crisis. But he said it is critical that the allies rush aid to Ukraine, which, he said, "needs a lot of short-term money to stave off collapse."
The problem for Obama as he exhorts Europe to do more is that he has failed so far to get his own Congress to approve a U.S. aid package. "I do think that the president has to deliver the United States," acknowledged Shapiro, recalling that when he was at the State Department he sometimes found himself "exhorting people to do things that we weren't doing."
William E. Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center, said the continued standoff on Capitol Hill weakens Obama's hand in Europe.
"If we continue to drag and we don't show up with money at the table here, we will begin to lose credibility," he said, noting the contrast with the Europeans. "If it turns out ... where the EU is investing billions and billions of dollars, upwards of $15 billion, to help Ukraine and somehow we can't even get a lousy billion dollars into this ... then I do think the Europeans will look at the United States and start to ask" questions.
Another challenge for the president is how to get the allies to embrace tough sanctions. But the White House has been encouraged by the latest signals coming from Berlin and London. In Germany alone there are 6,000 companies with vested interests in Russia. But Geary said the environment has shifted in part because of fear of what Putin may do next. He expects the G-7 this week to offer "forceful language" backed by the threat of tougher sanctions.
Already under fire from political foes who contend his response to Putin's provocations has been weak, Obama risks being further weakened if he fails to present a front of allied unity during his trip. While in Belgium, the president also will get a sharp reminder of the costs of past European conflict. As part of the centennial of World War I, he will visit Flanders, site of three lengthy battles with a staggering casualty count of hundreds of thousand deaths.
From Italy, the president is scheduled to go Friday to Riyadh for meetings with Saudi King Abdullah and discussions about the ongoing civil war in Syria and the stalled Middle East peace process.
America and Russia Are 'Tit for Tat'
This article appears in the March 24, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.