WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama will press European leaders this week to keep up pressure on Russia over its threatening moves in Ukraine, while seeking to assuage fears from Poland and other NATO allies that the West could slip back into a business-as-usual relationship with Moscow.
Obama's four day trip to Poland, Belgium and France comes against the backdrop of successful national elections in Ukraine and signs that Russia is moving most of its troops off its shared border with the former Soviet republic. Yet violence continues to rage in eastern Ukrainian cities and there remains deep uncertainty about whether Ukraine's new president-elect can stabilize his country.
U.S. officials contend that, even with some signs of progress, Russia has not taken the necessary steps to ease tensions and could still face additional economic sanctions. Obama will look for Western allies to show a united front during a meeting of the Group of Seven major industrial nations that was quickly arranged after leaders decided to boycott a meeting Russia had been scheduled to host this week.
But at least some parts of Obama's visit will challenge the notion that the West has isolated Moscow. Russian President Vladmir Putin is scheduled to join U.S. and European leaders in France Friday for a day of events marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Putin will also hold one-on-one talks with French President Francois Hollande, his first meeting with a Western leader since the Ukraine crisis began.
"Putin may not get to host the G-8 but if he gets to go to Normandy with everybody, it begins to diminish the appearance of isolation," said Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The White House says Obama will not hold a formal bilateral meeting with Putin, though the two leaders are expected to have some contact. Officials also disputed the notion that Putin's presence constituted a return to normal relations, noting that Obama and other leaders have talked with the Russian president throughout the crisis with Ukraine.
Yet those reassurances may be of little solace to NATO allies who sit near the Russian border, particularly Poland, where Obama will open his trip Tuesday. In April, the U.S. moved about 150 troops into Poland to try to ease its security concerns, but Obama is likely to get requests from Polish leaders for additional support.
"He's going to hear a very strong message from Polish officials that the mission has not been accomplished," said Heather Conley, a Europe scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In fact, the work has only begun."
While in Warsaw, Obama will also meet with regional leaders who are in town to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland's first post-communist free elections. Among those leaders will be Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who won Ukraine's May 25 election and will hold his first bilateral meeting with Obama.
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