Obama flew out of Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday night after a weekend during which Russian troops seized more Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea, Ukraine’s government warned of a growing likelihood of war with Russia amid a continued buildup of troops on its border, and NATO’s top commander expressed concern that Russia may have its eye on another pro-Moscow separatist region in its former backyard, Trans-Dniester in Moldova.
Obama will participate Monday and Tuesday in the Nuclear Security Summit, a gathering of 53 countries in The Hague, where he will separately meet with America’s partners in the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries for emergency talks on the Ukraine situation.
On Wednesday the president will meet with European Union (E.U.) and NATO leaders in Brussels. The rest of the trip comprises bilateral meetings with various world leaders, an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, and a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said Sunday Kiev was deeply concerned about the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Russia-Ukraine border, and warned that the chances of war were “growing.”
“We don’t know what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has in his mind and what would be his decision, that’s why the situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago,” Andriy Deshchytsya told ABC’s This Week.
Claims of the size of the Russian troop buildup range from 20,000 to 60,000. The Pentagon says Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu assured Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a phone conversation Thursday spoke by phone to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu about the buildup of Russian troops that they were there for military exercises.
But national security adviser Susan Rice responded warily, telling reporters at a Friday briefing that “given their past practice and the gap between what they have said and what they have done, we are watching it with skepticism.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Sunday that the buildup along the border “creates the potential for incidents, for instability.”
“It’s likely that what they are trying to do is intimidate the Ukrainians,” he told CNN’s State of the Union. “It’s possible that they are preparing to move in.”
Against that backdrop, Obama will meet with the leaders of the other G7 nations – Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy – on the sidelines of the nuclear talks to discuss further options in response to Russia’s actions.
Russia holds the rotating presidency of the G8 and was to have hosted a summit in Sochi in June. Options available to the other seven governments include boycotting the summit – or kicking Russia out of the group altogether.
(By some measures Russia does not belong in the grouping at all. It is neither politically nor economically fully free as required by the 1975 founding declaration, and nor is it one of the world’s leading economies in per capita GDP terms. At President Clinton’s instigation, Russia was invited in the mid-1990s to attend G7 meetings. At a summit in 2002 it was offered full membership, and the “G7 plus Russia” became the G8.)
In the first of his Brussels meetings, Obama will meet with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and the president of the E.U.’s executive Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, the White House said.
The E.U. lies at the heart of the Ukraine crisis, which began when then-President Viktor Yanukovich abruptly reversed course last November on an association agreement with the E.U. in favor of closer ties with Russia, triggering massive street protests.
After a deadly crackdown on protestors, Yanukovich was ousted by parliament, a move Moscow called an illegal coup. Russia then moved troops into Ukraine’s ethnic Russian-majority Crimea region, backed a referendum there that massively supported joining the Russian Federation, and then annexed it.
Throughout those developments, the E.U. – Russia’s biggest trading partner – has been less enthusiastic than the U.S. in supporting sanctions first against the Yanukovich government and more recently against Russia, although in recent days it has shown signs of a willingness to take tougher action.
There are still areas of inconsistency, however. France has not indicated finally whether it will pull the plug on a lucrative contract to build Mistral assault warships for the Russian Navy. The deal signed in 2011 was the biggest ever military contract between Russia and a NATO member. The first vessel carried out sea trials earlier this month.
NATO response mulled
After his E.U. talks Obama will meet with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who last week called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War.”
NATO is gearing up for an important summit in Britain next September. While the alliance’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan is expected to be the main focus, the insecurity felt by members in eastern Europe over Putin’s actions has swung attention back to NATO’s original mission – safeguarding the North Atlantic region against the Russian threat.
In a move aimed at reassuring NATO allies near Russia, the Pentagon earlier this month stepped up U.S. participation in a NATO air policing mission over the Baltic states and joint aviation training with forces in Poland.
In a letter to Obama on Friday organized by the non-profit Foreign Policy Initiative, 50 former government officials and foreign policy experts called for measures to enhance NATO’s deterrent posture beyond the steps already taken.
The signatories said the U.S. should consider “the deployment of additional ground forces, missile defenses, or other assets to former Warsaw Pact members of NATO.”
It should also press NATO allies to agree to put Georgia on the path to NATO membership, they said, and to support other European security partners, including Ukraine, if they seek NATO membership.
Moscow strongly opposes any further expansion of NATO in its former sphere of influence. Georgia and Ukraine were both keen to get onto the membership path but despite support from Washington they were denied “membership action plans” in 2008, because of European reluctance to antagonize Russia.
After Yanukovich became president of Ukraine in 2010 he shelved Kiev’s NATO’s aspirations. It remains to be seen whether his successors will reverse that move at some point.
Georgia, meanwhile, is still awaiting its membership action plan.
Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said Sunday NATO’s European members have responded particularly weakly to the Ukraine crisis, telling Fox News that the alliance was “on the verge of an existential crisis.”
“If it can sit and watch armed aggression succeed on the continent of Europe, the Europeans really should be asking themselves if they’re prepared to act in their own self-defense,” he said. “Because if they’re not, it would be very difficult in this country to sustain the argument for a strong NATO.”