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Russia dominates, but Obama trip broadens outreach

Monday, March 24, 2014
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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, looks at Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, in front of Dutch master Rembrandt's The Night Watch painting during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, March 24, 2014. Obama will attend the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, looks at Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, in front of Dutch master Rembrandt's The Night Watch painting during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, March 24, 2014. Obama will attend the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.

— President Barack Obama begins a week of international travel with Russia's Crimean incursion at the top of his agenda, even as he simultaneously seeks to re-emphasize U.S. influence abroad.

As he arrived in the Netherlands Monday on a sunny and brisk morning, no issue commanded more of Obama's and Europe's attention than Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the fear that Moscow could decide to expand further into Ukraine.

"We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," Obama said after meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

But Obama also is attempting to use his weeklong trip to personally reconnect not only with Europe but Asia and the Middle East, all strategically crucial regions with their own tensions and qualms about the U.S.

Officially, nuclear terrorism is the main topic for world leaders at the summit — the third since Obama launched the series in 2009. It opened with Japan announcing it would turn over to the U.S. more than 700 pounds of weapons great plutonium and a supply of highly-enriched uranium, a victory for Obama's efforts to secure nuclear materials around the world

But in another sign of how the Ukraine crisis was overshadowing diplomacy on other fronts, Putin declined to attend, sending his foreign minister instead.

Rutte said Russia's attempts to annex Crimea are "a flagrant breach" of international law. "The presence of so many international leaders in the Netherlands this week presents an important opportunity for the international community to discuss this subject as well as other pressing issues that affect our common interest," Rutte said, as the two spoke before Rembrandt's massive 17th-century painting "Night Watch" at the recently renovated Rijksmuseum.

Obama remarked that it's the most impressive backdrop he's ever had for a statement to the press. Obama said he and the Dutch leader also discussed trade, climate change, Syria's chemical weapons and other issues.

Obama's also to meet Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit. On Tuesday, Obama has planned a joint meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a session preceded by a sitdown with Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates federation.

The two-day nuclear summit was the long-scheduled draw for Obama's visit to The Netherlands, but the headline event Monday is a Ukraine-focused, hurriedly scheduled meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized economies — the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant published ahead of his arrival in Monday, Obama says his message to European leaders is that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to "understand the economic and political consequences of his actions in Ukraine."

Still, he said he does not view Europe as a battleground between the East and the West. "That's the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War," he said. "On the contrary, it's important that Ukraine have good relations with the United States, Russia, and Europe."

Discussion among Obama and his G-7 counterparts will center on economic aid to Ukraine, while at the same time seeking to segregate Putin from the exclusive group, which Russia usually joins in Group of Eight meetings.

More broadly, the Ukraine crisis will test Obama's ability to forge a unified and forceful stance against Russia from European leaders who are alarmed by Putin's moves but whose economies are dependent on Russian energy and trade.

In the interview, Obama conceded that the sanctions he has threatened against Russian economic sectors could have worldwide impacts.

But, he added: "If Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost."

Still, European sanctions against Russia have not matched those announced by Obama. Michael Geary, who has written two books on the European Union, said expectations for concrete action are not high.

"I suspect that what we will get ... is a lot of harsh rhetoric from the G7 and EU but little in the way of deeper, coordinated sanctions," said Geary, a global fellow with the Wilson Center.

Obama's meeting with China's Xi highlights another tricky front in U.S. international relations and comes just a day after The New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the U.S. National Security Agency had hacked into the servers of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Meanwhile, China has been wary of Obama's efforts to increase U.S. influence in the Asia Pacific region. The U.S. has also called for restraint in China's maritime territorial disputes with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

China, a frequent Russian ally, abstained a week ago from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Crimea's secession referendum illegal. With Russia vetoing the measure and the 13 other council members voting in favor, China's abstention served to isolate Moscow internationally.

Tuesday's meeting with Japan's Abe and South Korea's Park comes after what national security adviser Susan Rice conceded was "a period of tension," a reference to Chinese and South Korean anger at recent Abe gestures that have rekindled memories of Japan's aggression in World War II. It will be the first meeting between the two Asian leaders since they took office more than a year ago.

Tuesday's session with the Abu Dhabi crown prince will also serve as precursor to Obama's end-of-trip visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Saudi King Abdullah to address Arab anxieties over the Syrian civil war and U.S. nuclear talks with Iran, a Saudi Arabia rival in the region.

 

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