President Obama meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on March 26 in Brussels, Belgium. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
BRUSSELS — The United States plans to join with other NATO nations in increasing ground and naval forces in Eastern Europe as part of the military alliance’s response to Russia’s incursion in Ukraine, the White House said Wednesday.
The specifics of the NATO plan were still being finalized, including the size of the force increase. Rather than significantly boosting U.S. military presence in the region, the move seemed aimed instead at showing symbolic support for NATO members near Russia’s borders.
President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said NATO was aiming to provide “a continuous presence to reassure our allies.” While he would not detail specific countries where the additional resources would be sent, he noted that the U.S. was particularly focused on efforts to bolster Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
Rhodes briefed reporters as Obama traveled to Rome from Brussels, where he met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as well as European Union leaders. In a speech from the heart of Europe, Obama declared the crisis in Ukraine a global “moment of testing.”
Obama appealed to Europeans to retrench behind the war-won ideals of freedom and human dignity, declaring that people voicing those values will ultimately triumph in Ukraine. Painting a historical arc across the major global clashes of the last century and beyond, he said young people born today come into a world more devoid of conflict and replete with freedom than at any time in history, even if that providence isn’t fully appreciated.
The president also urged the 28-nation NATO alliance to make good on its commitment to the collective security that has fostered prosperity in the decades since the Cold War concluded.
“We must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom,” Obama said, adding that the Ukraine crisis has neither easy answers nor a military solution. “But at this moment, we must meet the challenge to our ideals, to our very international order with strength and conviction.”
Calm in Europe has been upended by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray into the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Defying the global community, Moscow annexed that peninsula this month, stoking fears among Russia’s other neighbors as Europe was plunged back into an East-West mentality that many had thought was left behind at the end of the last century.
In response to the crisis, the U.S. already has taken some steps to bolster cooperation with NATO, including stepping up joint aviation training with Polish forces. The Pentagon also has increased American participation in NATO’s air policing mission in its Baltic countries.
Obama came to Europe intent on shoring up commitments from allies, but also to make a larger point about European security a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In a nod to the U.S. perception that America has borne too much of the burden for NATO members’ security, Obama said he wanted to see every NATO partner “chip in” for mutual defense. He said members should examine their defense plans to make sure they reflect current threats.
“I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending by some of our partners in NATO,” Obama said. “The situation in Ukraine reminds us that our freedom isn’t free.”
Despite the focus on NATO resources, Obama and other alliance leaders have said they do not intend for the dispute with Russia to turn into a military conflict.
Drawing on modern struggles, like gay rights, as well as the ethnic cleansing and world wars of a bygone era, Obama sought to draw a connection between the U.S. experiment in democracy and the blood spilled by Europeans seeking to solidify their own right to self-determination.
“I come here today to say we must never take for granted the progress than has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world,” Obama said.
Obama’s remarks came midway through a weeklong trip to Europe and Saudi Arabia that has been dominated by efforts to coordinate the European and American response to Putin and his government’s actions in Ukraine. In Italy, where he arrived late Wednesday, he planned to meet with Pope Francis and Italian political leaders.
Another reminder of the cost of freedom came earlier Wednesday during a solemn pilgrimage to a World War I cemetery where hundreds of fallen U.S. troops are buried. Followed by the stirring sound of a bugler playing taps, Obama joined Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and King Phillipe to lay wreaths at the memorial at Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in northwest Belgium.
“To all who sleep here, we can say we caught the torch, we kept the faith,” Obama said, invoking language from “In Flanders Fields,” the famous war poem.
Pace reported from Rome.