President Barack Obama is using Vladimir Putin’s audacious annexation of Crimea to make the delicate argument that Russia is no world power but that its actions threaten Europe’s order and demand a punishing international response.
The president, stepping up the task of solidifying broad-based support against Russia, was in Brussels Wednesday, a day after dismissing Russia as a mere “regional power” that was threatening its neighbors “not out of strength, but out of weakness.” He said that as president, he worried more about a nuclear device in Manhattan than he did about Russia.
It was the kind of brush-off-your-shoulder language sure to antagonize the nationalistic Putin, but it also belied the time and energy Obama and European leaders have devoted to isolate Russia and fashion a menu of sanctions designed to stop Moscow’s aggression.
Obama comes to Brussels to shore up commitments he received from allies in The Hague, Netherlands, to reassure Eastern European members of NATO that the alliance will stand by them and to make a larger point about European security a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Obama will blend heavy symbolism with diplomacy Wednesday and conclude with his only speech of the weeklong, four-country trip, tying the current Ukraine crisis to his vision of the United States and Europe as anchors of democracy and international law.
In a way, Obama’s day Wednesday will be a traipse through history, beginning with a pilgrimage with Belgian King Philippe and Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to Flanders Field, the World War I cemetery, where he will lay a wreath in honor of Americans who died in a century-old struggle to save Europe.
He then will attend a summit with leaders of the European Union, which dates its beginnings to the post-World War II “European project” that hoped to secure a lasting peace. After that he will meet with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, embracing the alliance born as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
He will cap the day with his speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, where aides say he will link Europe’s history to the current Ukraine crisis to make larger points about European security and about the importance of a continent that is free and at peace.
Obama’s stewardship of U.S.-European relations has been hurt by revelations of communications prying by the U.S. National Security Agency. At the same time, the U.S. has been working with European trade officials on an ambitious trans-Atlantic trade partnership. The deal has a Ukraine connection because, once concluded, it could provide a counterweight to Russian trade and energy leverage in Europe.
His stop in the Belgian capital comes a day after he acknowledged that Russia is unlikely to give up control of the Black Sea peninsula that it annexed from Ukraine, even as he insisted that the international community would never recognize Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
But he and European leaders who gathered in the Netherlands for a two-day nuclear summit said a military response against Moscow was unlikely. Instead, they focused on how to keep Russia from expanding into eastern Ukraine and from having designs on other neighboring territories. By Obama’s account, the effort was already working.
“Russia is far more isolated in this instance than it was five years ago with respect to Georgia, and more isolated than it was certainly during most of the 20th century, when it was part of the Soviet Union,” he said Tuesday in a press conference at The Hague after wrapping up the nuclear security summit.
But even as he rallied allies and privately sat down with occasional Russian partners like China and Kazakhstan, Obama also played down Russia’s muscle.
“The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” he said. “Russia’s actions are a problem. (But) They don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States.”