By: Harry C. Blaney, III
President Obama’s trip to Europe in the wake of unrest in Eastern Ukraine, invasion in Crimea, and use of Russian military forces to promote rebellion has highlighted again the new European security situation. It also comes in the wake of the European Parliament elections in which the far right made significant gains, but did not take a majority of seats. Further, the impact of the long lasting recession on the European economy still remains the most significant force against real European progress on many fronts, including security.
The reluctance of European leaders, the EU, and NATO to make significant reform and to deal with the new (and not-so-new) challenges remains a major hindrance. It has blocked total global economic recovery, and has paralyzed efforts to address the new security landscape after Crimea and the Ukraine crisis.
On this trip President Obama has three essential tasks. First, he must assuage Eastern Europe’s security concerns. He must get NATO to unite and take appropriate action to deal with Russian aggressiveness in a responsible but firm way. Third, he needs to reaffirm American commitment to NATO member states. One of the complexities of this trip, though, is that some NATO members seem more interested in getting back to business as usual. The French, for instance, will continue with their controversial contract to supply Russia with two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, despite the Crimea invasion. Another issue that needs to be addressed is Europe’s need to rely less on Russian energy exports, and Ukraine’s need to immediately secure supplies of oil and gas to fend off any potential Russian leverage of such supplies.
But the core issue is this: Obama and his European counterparts need to determine if there is a way to effectively deter future Russian aggression and, at the same time, reach out to Russians and encourage their constructive participation with other democratic states.
One significant event was Wednesday’s meeting with Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko. Obama’s statements of support for Poroshenko’s government were key here. According to press reports, Obama’s aim was to show American commitment to Ukraine’s integrity and to express hope for its budding democracy. According to reports, the leaders discussed reducing Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia, restoring peace in the east of the country, and rescuing Ukraine’s collapsing economy. Obama said: “The United States is absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people not just in the coming days, weeks, but in the coming years.” And, later: “We will never accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
On Tuesday, as a preview of the debate in the NATO Council and one-on-one meetings in Europe, Obama also said that “further Russian provocation will be met with further costs for Russia including, if necessary, additional sanctions.” At the same time, President Putin shot back and accused America of extending its military worldwide. He also called America the most aggressive nation in the world. Yet, the killings by Russian-led armed thugs bearing Russian weapons continues unabated in eastern Ukraine and, earlier, Putin and other Russian leaders had started making more conciliatory statements. The contradictory public statements and actions seem to be a standard tactical operations stratagem going back to the old Soviet days.
Obama’s goals to seek a balance between overreach and ineffective action are correct. Of most concern, and what we need to watch closely, is whether the Europeans fully understand their interests and risks. One danger, perhaps greater than Russian aggression and authoritarian rule at home, is disunity within the NATO and within the EU. The question of moving forward and healing Europe on the economic and strategic fronts has become a testy topic. So far, there has been little evidence of a serious address of either of these two vital problems.
In the meantime, there is a larger set of challenges beyond Europe that must be considered. Unsettling and macro trends threaten the entire global system, as well as the possibility of peace and security beyond Europe. Syria, Middle East peace, terrorism, climate change, poverty and inequality, and nuclear proliferation remain constant threats to all nations. As these global problems grow it becomes necessary to hold a debate on both their significance and possible solutions.
Over the next few days we shall be able to see if Europe and the West at large has heard Obama’s call for unity and strength in light of recent events. Thanks to leaks and statements following the G-7 meeting, it will be possible to determine whether Europe remains – like it did before the last two great wars – indifferent and lethargic towards the new realities and opportunities to shoulder a larger responsibility.
Symbolically, though, the next major event will be ceremonies in Normandy this weekend on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Above the bluffs of the Allied landing areas, with the background of the all-too-numerous tombstones of real sacrifice, we will be able to see whether any sign of a larger purpose and sense of unity can reemerge.
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