TALLINN, Estonia – President Barack Obama on Wednesday harshly condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine as a threat to peace in Europe and pledged that NATO will protect allies who fear they will be Moscow’s next target. Standing on Russia’s doorstep, Obama declared “this is a moment of testing” for the Western alliance to stand up to the Kremlin.
At the same time, the Pentagon announced that 200 U.S. soldiers would participate in an exercise in western Ukraine starting next week. Though largely a symbolic move, distant from the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, it would mark the first presence of American ground troops in Ukraine since the crisis began.
Obama’s tough words set the stage for a pivotal summit of the 28-nation NATO alliance beginning Thursday in Wales. For years, Moscow seethed as NATO expanded its membership and pushed its reach to Russia’s borders, encompassing former republics of the Soviet Union. The backlash from Moscow was a long time coming, but now Vladimir Putin seems determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power.
Obama offered no new prescriptions for solving the central conflict that has put Eastern Europe on edge: Russia’s months-long incursion in Ukraine. Multiple rounds of U.S. and European economic sanctions have done little to shift Putin’s tactics, and Obama remains staunchly opposed to U.S. military intervention. Unlike the Baltics and other Eastern European nations, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning the U.S. and other allies have no treaty obligation to come to its defense.
A new prospect of a cease-fire emerged shortly after Obama arrived in Tallinn. But any potential agreement quickly fizzled when pro-Moscow separatists rejected the move and Russia – which has denied affiliation with the rebels – said it was not in a position to agree to the cease-fire because it was not a party to the conflict.
The West’s inability to stem the crisis has compounded fears in Eastern Europe that Putin could feel emboldened to make moves in other former Soviet territories. White House officials said Obama’s visit to Tallinn was meant to both reassure Baltic leaders that the U.S. would defend their sovereignty if that happened and to warn Putin that he would be risking a confrontation with the American military should he move in that direction.
“We will defend our NATO allies – every ally,” Obama said in a speech to young people as well as political and civil leaders. “In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no senior partners or junior partners – there are just allies, pure and simple. And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single one.”