Obama’s Europe trip shifts focus to Ukraine

obama & ukraine

President Barack Obama’s European tour – originally focused on nuclear security and a first-time meeting with the new Pope – has taken on new urgency as international allies seek ways to punish Russia for its incursion into Ukraine.

Obama’s four-day continental excursion still features some Old World flair at the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and a tour of the Colosseum in Rome. But amid the Vermeers and ancient ruins, the President must try to rally European leaders around a tougher response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s movement into the Crimean Peninsula.

A stop Friday in Saudi Arabia is also meant to bolster a key U.S. ally at a moment of strained relations between the two countries.

“If there’s a common theme to this trip, it’s the fundamental strength and importance of our alliances and partnerships,” said Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice on Friday. “The strategic importance of this effort really can’t be overstated. From Europe to Asia to the Middle East, our ability to lead strong coalitions is essential to making progress.”

Obama departs for the Netherlands on Sunday evening having already announced multiple rounds of sanctions on Russia, targeting top aides to Putin and, perhaps more importantly, key industries – all in the hope of hitting Russia’s economy after appeals to abide by international law failed.

Europe has been behind him, so far, but further cooperation with countries like Germany and the United Kingdom will be essential if economic sanctions can work in the Ukraine crisis. A soft economy and dependence on energy resources from Russia will make it all the more difficult for Obama to convince European leaders to do more.

“The economy of the United States is vastly greater. We’re not very exposed to Russia. Europe’s economies are much more exposed, and that’s why the Europeans have chosen thus far not to go after the oligarchs, not to go after a Russian bank,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

“The European response has been a little softer than the American response. Believe me, Putin is very aware of that,” he said.

A quickly arranged meeting of G7 nations on Monday will give Obama an opportunity to gauge the willingness of his European counterparts for further action against Russia, as will a summit with European Union leaders later in the week in Brussels, Belgium. The White House hopes a unified stance can prevent Russian troops from moving deeper into Ukraine.

“What will be clear for the entire world to see is that Russia is increasingly isolated and that the United States is leading the international community in supporting the government of Ukraine and the people of Ukraine, and in imposing costs on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine,” Rice said.

The primary reason for Obama’s stop in the Netherlands – a nuclear security summit – will provide the President a chance to meet with the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan ahead of a trip to Asia in April. Obama has spent much of his presidency attempting to refocus foreign policy on Asia, though crises in the Middle East and now Europe have occupied the bulk of his attention.

After delivering a speech in Brussels on Wednesday, Obama heads south to Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis, whom the President has praised in the past for his public stances on issues like poverty and income inequality.

Obama’s presidency has been marked by some high-profile clashes with the Catholic Church, on topics including abortion and contraception. But Francis’ approach to world economic issues is widely seen as closer to Obama’s own approach than that of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down last year.

Later in the week, Obama jumps from assessing one group of allies in Europe to reassuring another partner in the Middle East. His stop in Saudi Arabia, added earlier this year, comes amid worries in the Gulf kingdom over the interim deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program – an accord that Saudis say was brokered without their input.

The potential for an empowered Shiite regime in Tehran has fueled concerns within the Sunni government in Riyadh, which regards Iran as a regional rival. Also stirring worries is the cautious U.S. approach in Syria, where rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad have made few gains and security is deteriorating.

A recent spat among the Gulf States – essential to U.S. security interests and major suppliers of oil — only further complicated U.S. ties to the region. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain abruptly withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar earlier this month over the country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose candidate, Mohamed Morsy, was president of Egypt until he was ousted in a coup last year.

Rice said Friday that a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council – made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – was considered for Obama’s stop in Riyadh, but that the “complex” situation among the countries prevented the planning from going forward.

“We didn’t think that from their point of view that the time was optimal for a collective meeting,” she said.

By Kevin Liptak

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