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Shaping a response to Russia will be a high-stakes test for Obama

President Obama's trip will be a plunge into American leadership in Europe after years of shifting U.S. policy away from the Old World.

March 23, 2014|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama, at the Andrews Air Force Base golf course in Maryland, will visit Europe this week.
President Obama, at the Andrews Air Force Base golf course in Maryland,… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — Planned as a springtime tour with a modest itinerary — affording time to chat with the pope, admire the Rembrandts and take in the Colosseum — President Obama's weeklong trip to Europe instead has become a high-stakes test of whether he can move the continent's leaders into a tougher response to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Obama will huddle Monday in Amsterdam with other members of the G-7, seeking a strategy against what many see as the most threatening European land grab since World War II. He will have to navigate disagreements among the European nations over how far to go, and the price they are willing to pay, to sanction Russia for seizing the peninsula from Ukraine.

And he will have to reassure Russia's nervous neighbors that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is prepared to uphold its promises to defend them.

It's a retro role for the president, as well as for Western Europe, which has been snapped back into its pivotal place in global geopolitics. And it's not one that Obama — who has spent his presidency talking about shifting U.S. policy away from the Old World — is likely to have anticipated.

Some say he has not prepared for this challenge.

"It's going to require an enormous amount of American leadership in Europe, which we have not seen for the last five years," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "We've got a lot of making up to do."

Much of Europe welcomed the election of Obama after the go-it-alone style of President George W. Bush. But many diplomats since have come to view the U.S. administration as dismissive and disengaged. And that was before a top American official was caught on tape several weeks ago, rudely brushing off the European Union's views on the growing unrest in Ukraine.

On Obama's itinerary Wednesday will be his first visit as president to Brussels, the seat of the 28-member European Union. The EU-U.S. summit there, following a meeting on nuclear security at The Hague earlier in the week, will be the first such get-together since 2011.

The president's role in strategizing with his European counterparts also is complicated by revelations last year of U.S. spying on European heads of state and of bulk collection of phone data. The scandal has touched a nerve, particularly in Germany.

What role past diplomatic snubs and current stress will play in whether the U.S. and Europe can maintain a united front remains to be seen. Administration officials argue that the president has close relationships with key leaders — he has spent hours on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent weeks — and so far has worked in tandem with the EU in crafting the response to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We are already quite closely coordinated with our European partners," national security advisor Susan Rice said, and the meetings will provide an "opportunity to deepen and continue that coordination."

The response to the Kremlin thus far, an incremental ratcheting up of economic sanctions, has come under fire for being insufficient. Putin scoffed at the first round of sanctions on a small group of Russian officials. A second round hit more officials and some billionaires in Putin's inner circle, as well as a bank favored by elite Russian officials. Obama and EU officials also have threatened to cut off whole segments of the Russian economy from trade if Moscow escalates the situation.

But Europe, which is in a better position than the U.S. to put pressure on Russia, will need to be eased into enacting a long-term, potentially costly sanctions regime, experts said. Its closer trade ties and its reliance on Russian oil and gas mean it would experience far more fiscal blow-back from any sweeping sanctions. Disagreements over how to spread the ensuing economic pain will inevitably slow the process.

Obama's challenge is to nudge competitive European nations to act jointly and, as much as possible, mitigate the sacrifices, said Jeremy Shapiro, a former senior advisor on Europe at the State Department and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Shapiro said Obama may offer to express some support for increasing natural gas exports from the United States, a gesture that could encourage Europeans worried about a lengthy energy embargo.

"I think that it has always been a struggle for U.S. presidents to deal with this burden-sharing issue," said Shapiro, who noted that Obama had success in bringing Europe on board with his Afghanistan policy and has found support for his Iran nuclear talks. At the same time, he noted, the president failed to build a coalition behind airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against rebel forces. "I don't think Obama has been the best at it, but I don't think he's been the worst either."

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