Obama urges Russia’s Putin to make choice over Ukraine on Europe visit

Posted at 10:56 AM, Jun 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-03 10:56:55-04

WARSAW, Poland (CNN) — President Barack Obama wants his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to take steps to rebuild the trust shattered by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Obama’s comment came as he visited Poland Tuesday, the first stop on his three-country European trip which is intended, in part, to reassure allies in Eastern Europe unnerved by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Putin “has a choice to make” on Ukraine, Obama said during a news conference in Warsaw, calling on the Russian President to continue to pull back Russian troops from the border with Ukraine, persuade pro-Russia separatists to stand down and back Ukraine’s recent presidential election.

If the United States sees “responsible behavior” from Russia, Obama said, “I think it is possible for us to try to rebuild some of the trust that has been shattered.” But he warned that it will take “quite some time.”

Kiev and the West have said the separatists in Ukraine are coordinated and supplied by Russia, a claim that Moscow denies.

Obama, speaking alongside Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, said he had always had a “business-like relationship” with his Russian counterpart and that he had conveyed the same messages to him in private conversations as were made in public.

He said Washington wanted good relations with Russia and was not interested in threatening it — but said that sanctions imposed over its Crimea annexation would be maintained and that more have been drawn up in case of further destabilization in the east.

Obama added that he was “sure” he would cross paths with Putin while both leaders are in France at the end of the week for events to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The U.S. President said he was looking forward to meeting with Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday, adding that his election last month “gives us some momentum to build on as we move forward.”

He also stressed the need for Ukraine to pursue economic as well as political reform, including taking steps to reduce its reliance on natural gas from Russia.

Obama calls for $1 billion fund

At the same news conference, Obama announced that he is asking Congress for a fund of up to $1 billion to allow for a “European Reassurance Initiative” to bolster the security of NATO allies in Europe.

This would help the United States undertake increased training exercises in Europe, explore the pre-positioning of military equipment, and build the capacity of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to partner with the United States and NATO. More U.S. Air Force and Army personnel will be rotated through allied countries in central and eastern Europe, Obama said.

The U.S. President urged all NATO nations to live up to their commitment to the organization when member nations are threatened, and commended Poland for its contribution.

Obama also held talks with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Tuesday and will meet with the leaders of central and eastern European countries while in Warsaw.

At a joint news conference with Obama, Tusk thanked the United States for its support of Poland and praised “the very speedy and also very effective reaction of the United States to the Ukrainian crisis.”

Obama’s announcement of the planned $1 billion fund is welcome, Tusk said, adding that “we will continue to talk about the ever-more intense cooperation and presence … of NATO in (this part) of Europe.”

As he was greeted by Komorowski earlier, Obama hailed Poland as “one of our great friends and one of our strongest allies in the world.”

He added, “I’m starting the visit here because our commitment to Poland’s security as well as the security of our allies in Central and Eastern Europe is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.”

Bergdahl questions

As he undertakes his third overseas trip in less than three months, Obama finds himself once again peppered with questions about his foreign policy, even as he attempts to cement his own legacy on the world stage.

His latest trip comes as Republicans have unleashed a new line of attack questioning his judgment in exchanging five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the return of a former prisoner of war, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Speaking in Warsaw, Obama defended the decision, saying, “We don’t leave men and women in uniform behind.”

His administration had previously consulted with Congress on the possibility of a prisoner exchange for Bergdahl, Obama said, but had to move quickly because of concerns over Bergdahl’s health and to not miss a window of opportunity.

He said he was confident that the exchange of Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl would not endanger U.S. national security because the Qataris, who helped broker the deal, would be keeping a close eye on the ex-Guantanamo detainees.

Several GOP lawmakers argued over whether Obama violated U.S. law in seeking the secret prisoner swap without consulting Congress, while placing U.S. soldiers in jeopardy in Afghanistan.

“We have now set a price,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We have a changing footprint in Afghanistan, which would put our soldiers at risk for this notion that ‘if I get one, I can get five Taliban released.’ ”

Walesa: Superpower not ‘up to the job’

For Obama, the itinerary of foreign travel has changed, but the conversation will sound familiar. During his last two foreign trips, he fielded questions about his approach to the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the territorial disputes in Asia between China and its neighbors.

In Manila, Obama responded that his second-term strategy is to avoid “errors.”

But away from the cameras, he has simplified his doctrine as “don’t do stupid stuff,” administration officials say privately.

However, Obama’s critics, both at home and abroad, contend that approach is at best uninspiring, and potentially dangerous.

Lech Walesa, the former Polish President whose democratic Solidarity movement helped usher in freedom in Poland during the fall of the Soviet Union, has warned that U.S. influence has declined under Obama’s watch.

“The superpower has not been up to the job,” Walesa said in a recent interview with the TVN24 television network. “Therefore, the world is at a dangerous point and maybe it really is the case that lots of bad things are happening in the world because there is no leadership,” added Walesa, who endorsed Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 presidential election.

Obama has billed his recent decisions against any form of military action in Syria and Ukraine as successes because they rallied multilateral responses to global challenges, without messy prolonged commitments for U.S. armed forces.

“Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions; Europe and the G7 joined us to impose sanctions,” Obama said about the crisis in Ukraine in his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week.

But during this trip to Europe, which includes his stop in Poland as well as a G7 summit in Belgium and a visit to the beaches of Normandy, France, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Obama will repeatedly stress that the U.S. commitment to NATO security remains sacred.

Obama, Putin cross paths

The main focus of Obama’s Poland visit comes Wednesday, when he will give a speech as part of events to mark 25 years since the nation’s historic elections of June 4, 1989.

Obama said as he arrived that it was a “special honor” to help the Polish people celebrate “the 25th anniversary of the rebirth of Polish democracy.”

In France, Obama will have several opportunities to cross paths with Putin, who will also travel to Paris and Normandy to commemorate the triumph over Germany.

Obama and the Russian President are scheduled to dine with French President Francois Hollande on Thursday in Paris, though in separate meetings.

The German government’s press office confirmed Tuesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will speak with Putin on Friday in Normandy, when the two will discuss the situation in Ukraine.

The talks on the sidelines of the D-Day commemorations will continue a telephone conversation the two leaders held Tuesday and focus on measures to aid the stabilization of Ukraine, it said.

Obama led the international effort to suspend Russia’s participation in the world group of economic powers. That suspension resulted in the relocation of this year’s G7 summit from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels, Belgium.

Recent moves by Russia to withdraw some of its forces from its border with Ukraine has the potential to ease tensions between Moscow and Washington. But administration officials caution a new detente is a long way off.

“We have not yet seen Russia take the steps that are necessary to reduce those tensions,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, suggesting the U.S. and its allies may not impose another round of sanctions against Moscow, absent a new provocation.

“There have been some indications from the Russian leadership of a willingness to engage in dialogue. That is welcome,” Rhodes said.

CNN’s Jim Acosta wrote and reported from Warsaw and Laura Smith-Spark from London. CNN’s Laura Bernardini, Chloe Sommers, Stephanie Halasz and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.