Obama Heads to Europe With a Distinctly Different Focus

Only a few months ago the trip was planned as a hospitable visit with Putin.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks down the stairs from Air Force One after arriving at Fiumicino Airport on March 26, 2014 in Rome, Italy. Obama is on a week-long trip during which he will meet with Pope Francis and and travel to Saudi Arabia. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 1, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

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.”

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