White House

From Syria to Ukraine, crises fill the Obama-NATO agenda

President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he boards Air Force One to return to Washington, July 24, 2014 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he boards Air Force One to return to Washington, July 24, 2014 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo) AP

President Barack Obama heads to Europe Tuesday, looking to assure nervous allies of the United States’ commitment to the region, as NATO prepares to beef up forces amid fears that Russia will step up its provocations beyond Ukraine.

Obama arrives in Estonia late Tuesday, where he’ll meet with the presidents of the three Baltic states, along with U.S. and Estonian troops. He’ll also travel to Wales to meet with world leaders at a NATO summit, as the group that was created in 1949 to bolster security against the Soviet Union finds itself gearing up to respond to a new type of Russian aggression.

“The two stops are essentially part of the same effort to send a message to the Russians that their behavior is unacceptable,” said Charles Kupchan, senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council.

Estonia, which has a sizable Russian population, is a member of NATO and will be assured that the membership “constitutes an ironclad guarantee” of its security, Kupchan said.

To Russian President Vladimir Putin, the message will be, “Russia, don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine,” Kupchan said.

The trip comes as the terror threat level facing the host country of Wales in the United Kingdom has been raised from “substantial” to “severe,” suggesting an attack is highly likely and as the administration hopes to build a coalition of allies to fight the Islamic State.

The summit comes as NATO and the U.S. are preparing to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and the Russian intervention has given the organization a new sense of purpose, analysts said.

“People now see, in Moscow, a threat, a concern that wasn’t there just a year ago,” said Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko will attend the summit and the White House says it expects a NATO-Ukraine Commission at the summit to look at ways the organization and individual members can aid Ukraine militarily, as well as economically.

NATO also plans to detail what NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called a “readiness action plan” that would allow NATO to respond more rapidly to security threats in Europe, as well as rotate troops through states that border Russia.

But Olga Oliker, an associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center and a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said it was “difficult to see how any plausible NATO or European Union actions, including more sanctions, will cause the Russian government to back down in Ukraine, particularly in the near term.”

Obama will be accompanied at the summit by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He hopes to engage in what has been a perennial - and unsuccessful - NATO debate: convincing member countries to increase their contributions to a shared defense. NATO members are expected to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but only four currently do: the U.S., the United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia.

Obama in June said that he and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that Wales would be an “opportunity for every ally to make sure they’re carrying their share and investing in the capabilities our alliance needs for the future.”

The plea for increased spending will be hard sell, analysts said, given the stagnating European economies.

“There is no domestic constituency in Western Europe for increasing defense spending relative to health care or education,” said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy.

But the threat of a Russian intervention gives the discussion “added urgency,” Kupchan said, adding that NATO leaders may have “greater latitude” on defense spending, “because they are now in democracies where their publics are much more attuned to possible threats that are emerging from Russia.”

The trip comes as Obama faces criticism for not being assertive enough in confronting terrorism and other threats abroad, with at least one poll showing Americans don’t think he’s tough enough on national security and foreign policy.

The Pew Research Center and USA Today poll found 54 percent say the administration’s foreign policy is “not tough enough”, compared to the 36 percent that say Obama has it about right.

But the domestic perception will matter little with world leaders at NATO, analysts said. The U.S. accounts for 75 percent of all NATO spending and the American president is widely viewed as the leader of the coalition.

The U.S. has pressed Europe to adopt increasingly punitive economic sanctions against Russia in hopes of convincing Putin to back down and analysts say many European leaders, especially those that rely on Russian oil and gas exports, don’t agree that Obama has been too soft on Russia.

“The view has been, if anything, the opposite, that he’s been very forward leaning, maybe doing a little too much for certain European capitals,” Brookings’ Wright said. “In general, the U.S. has been very much to the forefront of pushing a strong response and trying to drag Europe along.”

The summit was to have been focused on the last year in Afghanistan for the U.S. and NATO, but the situation there is unresolved, given the unsettled Afghan presidential election and the inability, as of yet, to secure a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan to allow a residual troop presence in the country after combat operations end by the close of the year.

The administration does not yet know who will represent Afghanistan in Wales.

“It is becoming quite a crisis, if you will, of who will come and represent the Afghan government. Will it be the two potential next presidents?” said Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon adviser and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think making sure someone from the Afghan government comes will be an important signal for NATO that it is continuing its commitment to Afghanistan and it’s not a rearview mirror issue.”

James Rosen contributed.