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Can Obama successfully defend Ukraine as unity wanes in Europe?

June 4, 2014 at 8:40 PM EDT
Despite President Obama’s urging of NATO countries to reaffirm commitment to defend democracy in Ukraine, France says it will fulfill a multi-billion dollar contract with Russia. Gwen Ifill joins to Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and David Kramer of Freedom House to discuss how Mr. Obama can sustain a unified effort amid divided interests in Europe.

GWEN IFILL: So, is Putin isolated? Is Europe united? And how well is President Obama walking that tightrope?

For more on that, we turn to David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, an organization that monitors democracy movements around the world, and Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So, hovering over all of this is Vladimir Putin, and whether he’s present or whether he’s absent. Does it matter? Does it cast a cloud, Heather Conley?

HEATHER CONLEY, Center for Strategic and International Studies: It does.

In fact, this trip for the president, just like his trip to Europe in March, has been shadowed by Putin and what he’s done in Ukraine. And the end of the trip in Normandy, where President Putin will be meeting with German Chancellor Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and David Cameron, it seems like the isolation policy has come to an end, and it looks as if European leaders are unwilling to take more difficult steps like tougher sanctions.

Even though they’re talking tough, taking that next step of harming European companies and European business just seems like a stretch too far, so the president has an enormous task on his hands in Brussels at the G7 and then in Normandy to keep European solidarity against Russian actions in Ukraine together. It’s going to be very difficult.

GWEN IFILL: David Kramer, how do you see it?

DAVID KRAMER, Freedom House: Putin is in the headlines. So, this is the story now.

And the president of the United States, last week, at his West Point speech was talking about the U.S. has led on isolating Russia. Well, as Heather said, that isolation has come to an end.

I do think a finger has to be pointed at the French leadership for inviting Putin to participate in the Normandy exercises as sanctions have been imposed against his regime, to have Russian forces in France this week to train to how to use those amphibious ships that France is going to go ahead and sell and to continue to say that they are going to sell them.

It also doesn’t help for the president of the United States to talk about, if Russia shows more responsible behavior, we might be able to restore trust. Russia has annexed Crimea. It has forces in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The top military commander of NATO confirmed that today.

We’re not seeing a de-escalation. We’re seeing an escalation and I think there need to be consequences for that.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that separately, just the part about what our allies are doing and whether we’re speaking with one voice.

An administration official traveling with the press today briefed on this and said something like, well, you know, we all have different things we have to do in order to deal with Russia. We still have American companies, which are doing business with Russia, so it’s not a complete shutoff. And France needs to do what it needs to do. Germany needs to do what it needs to do. And we will all just do our part.

You’re saying, that’s not enough?

DAVID KRAMER: I think this is the time for U.S. leadership.

We should forget trying to have U.S. and E.U. steps together. They are not going to happen. We are letting — a nice goal. I would like to see the U.S. and E.U. move forward with more sanctions against Russia. The E.U., in my view, is not going to do it. The E.U. is badly divided. And we have talked about Germany and France.

Eastern and Central Europe is badly divided over this issue. The U.S. has to lead. It’s easier for the U.S. to do it and it should.

GWEN IFILL: Heather Conley, let me put it this way. A couple of weeks ago, I guess it was, when Angela Merkel was here and they came out and they drew a new line in the sand. They said it is no longer about whether they’re going to annex further territory that would bring on the sectoral sanctions.


GWEN IFILL: It’s now about whether they will have stepped back, pulled the troops back from the border in time for the election, and by all indications, they did. So, why wasn’t that — why isn’t this just an outcome of that kind of line in the sand?

HEATHER CONLEY: Part of the challenge has been, the strategy was to get to the May 25 Ukrainian election.


HEATHER CONLEY: And in some ways, we have been too transparent in signaling to Putin what exactly we expect.

So we wanted him to acknowledge and recognize and respect the legitimacy of Poroshenko’s election. We wanted him to remove Russian troops from the Ukrainian border and to — and stop destabilizing the situation.

So President Putin knows what he needs to do just enough to keep this Europe deeply divided, as David said. We’re signaling, already, about where our sanctions threshold is for the next section. We have to stop doing that. We know that Russian weapons, Russian troops are going across the border. This is how these pro-Russian separatists are so incredibly armed and they’re being led by Russians.

They’re not taking any steps. So, in some ways, Ukraine is more unstable than it was before May 25. We haven’t achieved those objectives.

GWEN IFILL: Which is the opposite of what the administration says. I talked to John Kerry last week, and his response was, listen, we have succeeded in stopping Russia stepping forward.

You don’t see that?

HEATHER CONLEY: I see it’s the West that wants the off-ramp. It’s the West that wants to de-escalate this, because this is going to take an enormous amount of attention by European leaders and the United States to engage in this.

This is going to be years of instability. This is going to require NATO to have a much more robust presence. That’s why the president announced yesterday in Warsaw a billion dollars for a European reassurance initiative. We are going to be in this region. We’re going to be engaged in…

GWEN IFILL: Isn’t that good news?

HEATHER CONLEY: It is good news because we need U.S. leadership in Europe, absolutely.

Unfortunately, for many leaders that have strong domestic challenges — in the European Parliament elections last week, we know there’s incredible fragility in Europe. We have other things we want to focus on, Asia and elsewhere. I hope we’re ready for the long haul here, because this instability is not going away. It’s just deepening.

GWEN IFILL: The president, David Kramer, is going to be in the same room with Vladimir Putin twice tomorrow at this meeting.

Is that significant? Apparently, they’re not going to speak. Or at least they’re not telling us they’re going to speak.

DAVID KRAMER: There’s no scheduled meeting between the two.


DAVID KRAMER: I expect, since it won’t be a huge gathering, that they will have some exchange of some sort.

Putin today denied that Russia is playing any role in Eastern Ukraine. You had the top NATO military commander saying Russia is continuing to destabilize Ukraine. Russian irregular forces are there. Russian back forces are there, contradicting what Secretary Kerry told you last week.

The NATO military commander thinks Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine. I don’t know what quite we are going to talk about with President Putin. He continues to violate international norms, international agreements, OSCE commitments, Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

GWEN IFILL: But Moscow’s not happy about this new money being spent to beef up Europe’s military alliance.

HEATHER CONLEY: Moscow is not happy about anything.

It always blames the West for the problems. NATO enlargement has provided Russia with its most secure, stable borders. NATO enlargement is not a threat to Russia, and yet Russia in its military doctrine in 2010 cited NATO enlargement as the greatest danger to Russia, which is absolute nonsense.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

HEATHER CONLEY: Yes, make no mistake.

Russia will respond to NATO as it continues to strengthen its eastern border. It has to. It has Article 5 obligations. An attack against one is an attack against all. We need to continue to provide reassurance to the Baltic states, to Poland and others that NATO is real and it will respond when an ally is threatened.

But Russia will respond, so Russia is going to, in anticipation, build those forces. So, again, as I mentioned, the tension, the instability, it’s not de-escalating. We’re going to be in this period for quite some time, and I — as I said, I hope the White House is fully prepared for this. The president’s speech in Warsaw today was very strong. It was powerful.

Now we need to see the follow-up, the implementation and the policy focus to fulfill that speech.

GWEN IFILL: Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and David Kramer of Freedom House, thank you both very much.