Obama’s Europe Trip Includes Opportunities to Rile Putin

By Patrick Goodenough | June 3, 2014 | 4:20 AM EDT

President Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., as he begins his three-country trip to Poland, Belgium and France on Monday, June 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama Tuesday began a European trip offering several opportunities to rile President Vladimir Putin, including a top-level summit explicitly excluding Russia, a meeting with Ukraine’s president-elect, and a celebration of a former Moscow ally’s emergence from communism.

This week ought to have marked the apex of Moscow’s diplomacy in 2014. Within days of assuming the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, Putin should have been playing host to leaders of the world’s top industrialized nations for the first time since 2006.

But the long planned G8 summit in Sochi was abruptly canceled after the rest of the group said in March they would not attend, in response to Russia’s destabilizing actions in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.

Instead, Obama and the leaders of the rest of the group – Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy – will hold a G7 summit in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, with Ukraine high on the agenda.

Other items on Obama’s trip itinerary will also likely rattle the Kremlin. Before attending the G7 summit, Obama will join other leaders in Warsaw to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of communism in Poland.

The 1989 transition paved the way for the former Soviet ally to join NATO a decade later. Putin, who has described the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” is an arch-critic of NATO’s eastward expansion.

On his arrival in Poland Tuesday, Obama met with U.S. and Polish airmen involved in a joint training mission that was initiated in March as one of several steps aimed at reassuring NATO allies near Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Russia’s threatening behavior will again be the subtext when Obama delivers a speech in Warsaw. According to deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, the president will use it “to reaffirm America’s unwavering commitment to secure democracy and to the security of our Eastern European allies.”

And in a further schedule item that will resonate in Moscow, Obama will meet with Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian businessman who will be sworn in on Saturday as successor to pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted in February.

Although the May 25 election went off mostly peacefully, tensions between the government and pro-Russian separatists in the east continue, with Moscow and Kiev blaming each other.

As Russia on Monday took up the Security Council presidency in New York for this month, it quickly circulated a resolution demanding a halt to violence in eastern Ukraine and humanitarian access to the area.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki in response accused Moscow of hypocrisy for calling for an end to violence while doing nothing to prevent weapons and armed irregular forces from entering Ukraine from Russia, or to stop Russian-backed separatists from carrying out attacks in eastern Ukraine.

“So if they are going to call for, or would support, a reduction in tensions and a de-escalation, it would be more effective for them to end those activities,” she said.

After the draft resolution was discussed by the Security Council Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters that while some members responded positively “some others – the usual suspects – were inclined in their comments to condone the military operation in south-east of Ukraine.”

Invited to react to Psaki’s accusation of hypocrisy, Churkin said, “Some statements I don’t even want to respond to because they are so odious.”

Although the Ukraine situation has taken its toll on U.S.-Russia relations, there may yet be the opportunity for an informal encounter between Obama and Putin on the last day of Obama’s trip, when both will attend events in France marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied Normandy landings during World War II.

Rhodes told an earlier briefing that although there were no plans for a formal meeting with Putin, “clearly, they will be in the same place, attending the leaders lunch and then the ceremony, so they will certainly have cause to interact in that context.”

While in France Putin is scheduled to meet separately with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, the first meetings between Russian and Western leaders since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Hollande was criticized earlier for not rescinding the invitation to Putin given the dispute over Ukraine, but pointed to the scale of Russian sacrifices during World War II. Hollande also made a late addition to the guest list for the Normandy celebrations – Ukrainian President-elect Poroshenko.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow