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Obama Flies to a Europe Shaken by Putin's Bold Strategy

Putin has forced the United States and Europe to refocus on the origins of the modern transatlantic alliance -- the 1949 NATO defense partnership designed to prevent a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
Image: US President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks on the situation in Ukraine on the South Lawn of the White House on March 20, 2014. Obama delivered his statement before boarding Marine One and departing for Florida.\MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama flies Sunday to a Europe shaken by Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea and his threats against eastern parts of Ukraine.

At a summit conference at The Hague on preventing nuclear terrorism – scheduled long before the Ukraine crisis – Obama will confer with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders. On Monday afternoon Obama will meet with President Xi Jinping of China, Russia’s neighbor and sometime rival.

Putin has forced the United States and Europe to refocus on the origins of the modern transatlantic alliance -- the 1949 NATO defense partnership designed to prevent a Russian invasion of Western Europe.

“We live in a different world than we did less than a month ago,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told an audience in Washington last week. Russia's aggression is “a wake-up call for the Euro-Atlantic community, for NATO, and for all those committed to a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”

Russian brute force is a jarring diversion from Obama’s second-term agenda of combatting climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and his “health care bracketology”— a headline used on the White House website to spur people to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

So far Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been cautious. After he announced another set of targeted asset freezes on individuals close to Putin, a senior Obama administration official said the United States will “calibrate our pressure on the Russians.”

So far, the carefully calibrated steps by Obama and European governments haven’t matched the drama of Putin’s audacious military moves.

Josef Joffe, the publisher and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, said Putin “knows an opportunity when he sees one. And it was hard to resist this opportunity” in seizing Crimea since it involved “minimal force, maximum gain and, even better, the man has gained what we call ‘street cred.’”

Joffe explained, “Once you’ve established the reputation for the willingness and the ability to use force and to be ruthless about it, you don’t have to use force and conquer next time – you’ve established the reputation as a nasty bastard.”

The crisis comes as Europe is still stuck with feeble or no economic growth and with painfully high unemployment rates -- 12 percent throughout the euro area – and youth unemployment rates of as high as 55 percent in Spain.

An escalation of economic sanctions against Russia “is where the rubber is going to meet the road for Europe because it will produce immediate economic pain in a fragile situation. (Europeans) will try to do everything not to go down that path,” said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

And there’s some distrust between Obama and the Europeans as they try to join forces against Putin.

Previous American presidents had occasional quarrels with European leaders, “but never were we faced with a kind of indifference that Obama seems to exude,” Joffe said. “That indifference, of course, became more concrete in these shibboleths like ‘rebalancing’ and ‘pivot’ and ‘we have to play the next power game in Asia.’”

Conley said an immediate agenda item for Obama and his European counterparts this week is “What does NATO need to do to provide stability and security to our eastern NATO members who are right now feeling extremely anxious?” She said this will mean moving some military assets to the NATO member nations close to the Ukraine action: Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states.

Obama said Thursday that “America’s support for our NATO allies is unwavering. We’re bound together by our profound Article 5 commitment (under the 1949 NATO treaty) to defend one another.”

But Ukraine isn’t a NATO member – and therefore not sheltered by the Article 5 defense shield. And it’s not clear how far Obama and European leaders are willing to go to build Ukraine’s forces so they can defend their country and deter a Russian attack.

“We are going to have to think very hard in Europe and in the United States about how we are going to respond to the Ukrainian government’s legitimate requests to have the wherewithal to defend itself,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former French Foreign Ministry official who is now chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London and Washington.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, an Obama administration official sounded quite non-committal on arming the Ukrainians.

“We don't want to take steps to add to a momentum of further militarizing the situation,” the official said. The official would say only that “we will consider on an ongoing basis these requests from the Ukrainian military.” But equipping the Ukrainians to engage in a conflict with Russia is “just simply not the preferred outcome here.”

In the longer term, the geostrategic balance between Europe and Russia hinges on energy. The European Union depends on Russia for about 30 percent of its natural gas.

Heisbourg said, “You have on the table in the United States the issue of: Are you going to export hydrocarbons or not? And the Europeans have on their table: are we going to stop our silliness about shutting down existing sources of production of energy – nuclear energy in Germany -- and preventing ourselves from exploring new sources of energy like unconventional (shale) gas. This, I understand, will be a significant element of the EU-US summit” in Brussels this week which will follow The Hague meetings.

“This is truly of the essence if, over the next two years, we want to un-build the strategic dependency of Europe on Russian gas,” Heisbourg said.