By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
AMSTERDAM — The fight over control and influence in Ukraine should not be seen as a Cold War-style battle, President Barack Obama said in an interview released Monday as he opened a European trip certain to be dominated by discussion of the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
“The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game,” Obama told the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in an interview published as he landed in Amsterdam. “That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War. The Ukrainian people do not have to choose between East and West.”
As Marine One landed in a grassy plaza in the center of this capital city, Russian forces consolidated their hold on military sites in the Crimean peninsula. Obama and dozens of other foreign leaders were arriving for a summit on nuclear security at The Hague, but containing Russia and bolstering the Ukrainian government were expected to dominate the conversations.
Obama will spend much of the week meeting with European leaders divided over whether to impose painful economic penalties on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. He signaled he would push them to prepare to ratchet up economic sanctions in what may be a long and slow push to isolate Moscow.
“We would have preferred it not come to this. But Russia’s actions are simply unacceptable. There have to be consequences,” Obama told the newspaper. “And if Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost.”
Obama planned a meeting on Monday of the G-7 industrialized nations, noticeably leaving out Russia, which is part of the Group of 8 countries. The meeting itself was intended as a snub to Moscow, which is slated to host the G-8 summit in Sochi later this year. Leaders were likely to discuss penalties against Russia as well as a financial aid package that could help stabilize the new, pro-Western government in Kiev.
Obama’s overseas trip — which includes stops in Brussels, Vatican City, Rome and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — will include other diplomatic challenges. He will continue to have to explain controversial U.S. spying tactics that have angered leaders in Europe and elsewhere. Obama planned to meet Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, just two days after the latest reports, based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, showed U.S. intelligence agencies had breached a Chinese telecommunications firm’s networks.
Obama also came prepared with initiatives to tout. The White House said Monday that the U.S. and Japan had pledged to remove all highly-enriched uranium and separated plutonium from an aging Japanese nuclear facility. The agreement would arrange for hundreds of kilograms of potentially dangerous material to be secured and transported to the U.S. for disposal. Obama has made locking down loose nuclear material a high priority since taking office.
The White House also announced that the U.S. and Netherlands had agreed to end support for public financing of coal-fired power plants abroad “except for rare exceptions.”
Obama and Prime Minister Mark Rutte made the announcement Monday following a briefing meeting and a tour of the Rijksmuseum, a newly renovated home containing some of the most famous works of the Dutch Old Masters. Obama and Rutte stood in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” a massive oil masterpiece depicting a militia rallying to fight. Obama joked that the painting was “easily the most impressive backdrop I’ve had for a press conference.”
The leaders expressed their unity on climate change, trade and support for the Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was a “flagrant breach of international law,” said Rutte.
“We’re united on imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” Obama said.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb