President Barack Obama planned this week’s trip to Europe with a short but important to-do list: Try to squelch the impression that he’s indifferent towards the continent, cement his legacy on nuclear security and pay respects to a new pope.
Then came the crisis in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unimpeded military march into Ukraine’s Crimea region, and how Obama is responding to it, dogged the president at every stop, from Brussels to The Hague to the Vatican. He arrived Friday in Saudi Arabia, the last stop of his trip.
“Mr. Putin turned this trip completely on its head,” said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The nuclear summit in The Hague, you couldn’t hear it because of Ukraine. It turned things totally upside down.”
That might not be a bad thing for Obama.
While the Ukraine situation upended the long-planned stagecraft of the trip, particularly the early meetings with European leaders, it may have helped Obama repair fractured ties in some European capitals and spark a renewed focus on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“What’s happened in Crimea has rejuvenated efforts to rebuild trans-Atlantic relationships,” said Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. who specializes in European and Eurasian security and NATO intervention. “The upside is this should improve trans-Atlantic relations. The downside is there’s a crisis.”
Obama and Europe haven’t been on the best of terms. The continent looked warily at the White House as it turned its international attention toward extracting itself from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatically pivoting toward Asia and hitting the “reset” button on its rocky relationship with Putin’s Russia.
Obama annoyed some European leaders when he skipped a European Union summit in 2010. The trans-Atlantic relationship perhaps reached its lowest point last year, amid revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on the leaders of at least 35 countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Europe’s irritation with Obama – at least for the time being – appears to have waned, some analysts said, replaced by the need to work together to keep the situation in Ukraine from worsening.
Obama, for his part, highlighted the ties that bind the U.S. and Europe in a speech in Belgium.
“Our borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation,” Obama said. “But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century.”
In his speech, Obama laid out the case against Russia, spelled out the stakes if Europe and the world don’t respond, stressed that a military option isn’t viable for prying Russia out of Crimea and noted that NATO’s European allies must step up to the plate and do more to bolster the alliance.
The president stressed throughout his European swing that the United States is doing its share by slapping sanctions on top Russians tied to the Crimea move or to efforts to undermine the fledgling Ukrainian government. He also noted the dispatch of F-15C fighter jets to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighters to Poland.
“I think he did quite well,” said Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council – a research center based in Washington – and a former national security official under President George W. Bush. “More importantly, his speech in Brussels set out principles and strategic guidelines on how to think about Crimea and the challenges to international norms. I think you'll see more policy flowing. I think the speech filled a vacuum.”
Several analysts wondered, though, whether Obama’s tough talk in Europe can – or will be – matched by tough action later on, especially if Russia marches farther into Ukraine.
Americans have mixed views about how Obama is dealing with the Ukraine crisis. Forty-three percent think he’s handling the situation about right, 35 percent say he’s not being tough enough and 5 percent think he’s being too tough, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Ukraine crisis divides along party lines: Fifty-eight percent of Republicans say Obama isn’t being tough enough, while only 27 percent say he’s handling the matter correctly. Among Democrats, 65 percent think he’s handling the situation correctly, while 22 percent say he’s being too tough.
Meanwhile, the world and Capitol Hill are watching, according to Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“He may come away with some pretty substantial bipartisan support for his next steps, because even the most hawkish Republicans don’t want to go to war over Ukraine,” Rojansky said. “So they may talk about tougher measures, but fundamentally the responses are going to be what they have been, which is economic sanctions. And Obama is doing that. He is the king of sanctions.”
Conley wonders whether the White House will remain focused on Ukraine or turn its attention to the Affordable Care Act and other legacy-building domestic agenda items.
“This is a big event that could swallow the entire agenda,” she said. “I think it could change the trajectory of the entire presidency.”
In the end, how successful Obama was in Europe will depend on how much cooperation he gets from European allies, many of which have strong economic and energy ties to Russia, according to Vikram Singh, the vice president for national security and international policy at Washington’s Center for American Progress, a research organization.
“I think he laid the right groundwork, but we’re going to have to see whether that kind of solidarity – a global approach to stand against this kind of aggressive behavior – ultimately takes hold,” Singh said.