Obama to Europe: If Russia continues to escalate, we need to impose more costs

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 24, 2014 

Netherlands Nuclear Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement in front of Dutch master Rembrandt's The Night Watch painting during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, March 24, 2014.


— As he opens up a visit to Europe likely to be dominated by the crisis in Ukraine, President Barack Obama is warning that if Russia continues to escalate its intervention into Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe “need to be prepared to impose a greater cost.”

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, ahead of arriving today in The Netherlands, Obama defended his foreign policy approach that emphasizes diplomacy, but said the U.S. and Europe can not allow Russia to annex Crimea without consequence.

“In all my discussions with European leaders, my message will be that Russia needs to understand the economic and political consequences of its actions in Ukraine,” said Obama, who meets today with leaders of the seven largest industrialized countries to discuss the situation in Ukraine. “We simply cannot have countries violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations. We cannot have countries purporting to annex parts of independent nations. The international law and principles at the heart of our international system have to mean something.”

The U.S. last week ratcheted up a series of economic sanctions against allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Obama is under pressure on the trip to convince European allies to step up. Many are leery, given Europe’s trade and energy reliance on Russia -- a fact highlighted by the newspaper, which said Obama would be meeting with Dutch prime-minister, Mark Rutte, whom the reporter noted is “reluctant to impose harsh actions” on Russia.

But Obama said there needs to be a cost to Russia. He called the sanctions imposed last week by the European Union an “important step” and acknowledged the economic sanctions could affect the global economy.

“These aren’t easy choices,” Obama said. “We would have preferred it not come to this. But Russia’s actions are simply unacceptable. There have to be consequences. And if Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost.”

After his meeting with Obama, Rutte and said the two condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea, calling it a "flagrant breech of international law."

And Obama declared “Europe and America are united in support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people," adding “we’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”

Obama thanked Rutte for the country’s assistance in helping destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, and said the two leaders also talked about climate change, focusing on rising sea levels, a particular concern of the Dutch. The two countries released a joint statement after the meeting, say they agreed on the importance of reaching a global climate change agreement by the United Nations climate conference in 2015 that can attract “broad and ambitious participation.”

And the Netherlands said it would join the United States, the United Kingdom, and others in agreeing to end support for public financing of new coal-fired power plants abroad “except in rare circumstances.” Rutte said the move is aimed at stopping the international public funding of new coal-fired power plants by entities including multilateral development banks.

“We want to achieve an international level playing field to ensure that private and public parties invest in green growth wherever possible,” he said.

In the interview, Obama defended his penchant to give priority to diplomacy as the reporter asked him what his “Plan B” was if the U.S. and Russia were on a “collision course” over Ukraine.

“Many of today’s security challenges don’t have a military solution,” Obama said. “More often, strong and principled diplomacy can give us the best opportunity for achieving lasting solutions that advance our interests and our values. And our diplomacy has to be in concert with other nations because the most pressing international challenges cannot be met by any one nation alone.”

The newspaper, according to a translation by Google, says it asked for an interview with Obama when it learned he’d be traveling to The Netherlands for the Nuclear Security Summit. It said a National Security Council spokeswoman last week said Obama would answer written questions. The newspaper says it submitted eight questions and got responses to five.

It says, according to a Google translation, that its “unanswered questions” were: “How do you fight that America withdraws from the perception world and no longer feared by his opponents - Sanctions are a drug that slowly or perhaps not at all. How do you keep Putin in the meantime in check? - Is it still possible to become a NATO member countries like Ukraine and Georgia? How likely is it that we return to a situation of limited sovereignty for the immediate neighbors of Russia?”

Obama -- whose trip is likely to be dominated by the situation in Ukraine -- arrived in Amsterdam just before 9 a.m. local time after an overnight flight from Washington and headed to the Rijksmuseum, the Museum of the Netherlands, where he met with Rutte and Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan. Obama signed the museum’s guest book, the White House pool report says, with just his name, no message.

He and hosts managed a little tourism, slipping into an adjacent Hall of Honors for a tour, that included a look at Night Watch, Rembrandt's large oil depiction of a group of 17th century militiamen.

Obama approached the painting, arms across chest, as the museum guide explained it to him, the pool report says. He put his finger to his chin, pointed to several parts of the painting, and asked several questions before posing for some pictures with his hosts ahead of the meeting with Rutte.

Later, standing by the picture, Obama said he was thrilled to be near “some of the Dutch masters who I studied in school” and called the setting “easily the most impressive backdrop that I’ve had to a press conference.”

The presidential visit merited a note on the museum’s website, alerting visitors that “In the morning of Monday 24 March, U.S. President Obama will visit the Rijksmuseum. The museum will then be closed for the public. From 1 pm the museum will reopen to the public until the regular closing time (5 pm)”

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