Obama calls for trans-Atlantic unity to isolate Russia


“Casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent,” Obama told EU leaders.


Brock Stoneham

BRUSSELS, Belgium — US President Barack Obama made a rallying call Wednesday for countries around the world to defend the international order, which he says has been profoundly challenged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing threat to the rest of Ukraine.

“Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up,” he said in a speech that was the main focus of his visit to Europe this week.

“So long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force,” he insisted.

The address to Brussels’ diplomatic and political elite and selected European youngsters came at the end of a packed day of meetings with leading European Union and NATO officials in which the Ukraine crisis dominated.

Obama offered assurances to Poland, the Baltic states and other worried nations along NATO’s eastern frontiers that the United States and other members of the Atlantic alliance would defend them from any threat of spillover from Ukraine.

He repeatedly underscored the significance of Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which states that all 28 allies will come to the aid of any member under attack.

“What we will do always is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty, to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies,” Obama said. “And in that promise we will never waver. NATO nations never stand alone.”

The alliance is planning to strengthen its eastern borders beyond the extra troops and warplanes already deployed in Poland and the Baltic states, Obama revealed. He did not specify how the eastern allies would be reinforced, but NATO officials said details were being worked out ahead of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers next week.

Obama also called on European allies to reverse a trend of falling defense budgets that has weakened NATO in recent years. The events in Ukraine showed that all allies must “step up” and share the burden of Europe’s collective defense, Obama said. “The situation in Ukraine reminds us our freedom isn’t free,” he told a news conference at EU headquarters ahead of his speech.

The invasion of Crimea and the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern borders has raised tensions in Europe to levels not seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, Obama insisted it is not the start of a new Cold War, not least because Russia lacks the Soviet Union’s global reach.

“After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology,” he said.

In a speech that drew cheers and a standing ovation from a crowd that included Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Matilda, Prime Minister Elio di Rupo and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Obama reached deep into history to recall the ties that bind Europe to the United States.

Earlier on Wednesday, he accompanied the monarch on a visit to the graves of US soldiers who died in World War I, which broke out 100 years ago this year.

Obama said the experience of that war and other 20th-century conflicts show the United States and its allies can’t ignore the Ukraine crisis even though it may seem remote to many Americans and Western Europeans.

“Casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent,” Obama said. “It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”

He refuted Russian accusations of Western hypocrisy over Crimea by denying any similarity to Kosovo’s break from Serbia or the US-led war in Iraq. The United States, the president insisted, has no claims on Ukraine beyond letting its people choose their own future.

Obama’s tough words were echoed by NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who issued a warning against Russia meddling with members of the alliance.

“NATO is a force for peace, but also unmatched militarily,” Fogh Rasmussen said after meeting Obama. “We do not seek confrontation but we will not waiver if challenged.”

Still, Obama ruled out a military response if Russia launches further attacks on Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Instead he said the US and Europe would respond with stinging economic sanctions and insisted that the allies were united on that.

“If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together, we will ensure that this isolation deepens,” a grim-faced Obama told the crowd. “Sanctions will expand and the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as [on] its standing in the world, will only increase."

More from GlobalPost: 7 parts of Russia that other countries could call theirs

However, there are divisions among NATO allies about how far to go in punishing Russia. Some, including the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Italy, are urging caution because of fear of provoking Russia and concerns about the impact sanctions will have on their economies.

Even the EU’s big hitters — Germany, France and Britain — have major economic concerns even though their leaders have taken a more hawkish line as Russian President Vladimir Putin has cranked up military pressure on Ukraine.

Obama and EU leaders said their energy ministers would be meeting next week to discuss weakening Moscow’s economic influence over Europe. Among the topics will be relaxing restrictions on American gas exports to reduce reliance on Russian fuel sales.

Obama said that regardless of Russia’s short-term military gains, the ideas supported by Ukraine’s pro-Western demonstrators would eventually prevail.

“If we hold firm to our principles and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve,” he concluded, “then hope will ultimately overcome fear and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny.”