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Obama in Europe: 3 Questions with GlobalPost's Paul Ames


US President Barack Obama addresses a news conference at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25.


Francois Lenoir

BRUSSELS — US President Barack Obama is in Europe this week with a packed schedule dominated by efforts to get Russia to back away from further incursions into Ukraine.

In Brussels, Senior Correspondent Paul Ames gives his two-minute rundown of what’s in store.

Didn't Obama pivot to Asia? Why is he spending so much time in Europe?

This trip was planned well before Russian President Vladimir Putin marched into Crimea, but Ukraine is clearly topping the agenda. Obama is seeking to galvanize European allies behind a robust line on Russia, making sure all are on board with sanctions and ensuring none of them are thinking of backsliding in the hope of getting some cheap Russian gas or attracting big-spending oligarchs. Ukraine has been a wake-up call for those in Washington thinking that old Europe could sit on the back burner while the United States concentrates on exciting new Asian challenges. But even before Ukraine, there were already plenty of things Obama needed to sort out on this side of the pond — working a world conference on nuclear safety in The Hague, talking trade at European Union headquarters in Brussels, paying homage to America's fallen in Flanders Field 100 years after the outbreak of World War I, and meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican.

But Ukraine is dominating, right?

This is Europe's most dangerous crisis of the post-Cold War era. Obama got a lot of what he wanted on Monday when the Group of Seven leading world economies — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and the United States — effectively buried the G8, which included Russia. The G7 also issued a statement in support of Ukraine and declared their united refusal to contemplate recognition of Putin's annexation of Crimea. Obama needs to know that the Europeans will stand alongside America to impose broad economic sanctions on Russia should Putin decide to move deeper into Ukraine, even if that means inflicting some pain on their own economies. On the sidelines of the nuclear summit in The Hague, Obama also huddled with President Xi Jinping in an effort to secure China’s support, or at least constructive neutrality in the standoff with Russia. China’s decision to abstain rather than vote with Russia in the UN Security Council vote condemning the Crimea annexation was seen as a good start.

And beyond Ukraine?

Obama's talks in Brussels on Wednesday will be his first visit to the "capital of Europe" since he first took office in 2009. He has some bridge building to do. Europeans who greeted his election with rapture feel a tad neglected. And they're annoyed about all that NSA eavesdropping. Some even ask if US intelligence resources wouldn't have been better spent watching the Kremlin rather than bugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel and who-knows-how-many ordinary Europeans. Obama is set to make a major speech setting out the importance of the trans-Atlantic link, talk up plans to strengthen NATO and meet with EU bigwigs to push forward a free-trade deal that's supposed to add $250 billion a year to the US and EU economies. The Ukraine crisis should give those talks a boost, underscoring the need to look at the bigger picture of trans-Atlantic unity and shared values, rather than get bogged down over TV show quotas, cheese labeling and the other minutiae of trade negotiations. The Europeans will want to discuss the prospect of buying gas fracked in the USA to reduce their reliance on Russian energy imports. Obama will be hoping Putin has spooked Europe into spending more to bolster NATO's defenses. Underscoring Europe's renewed centrality, Obama has already booked a return trip. He'll be back in Brussels in the summer for a G7 summit to replace a G8 meeting Putin was to have hosted in June.

Follow Paul Ames on Twitter: @p1ames