Warsaw (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a $1 billion U.S. security plan for eastern Europe aimed at allaying fears over a resurgent Kremlin and the escalating pro-Russian uprising in ex-Soviet Ukraine.
Obama launched a major tour of Europe in Warsaw where he will attend celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first free elections that put both the country and the rest of eastern Europe on a path out of Moscow’s orbit and toward democracy and economic prosperity.
But the poignant ceremony has been haunted by those very countries’ fears of the Kremlin reasserting its Cold War-era grip over a large swathe of Europe following its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March.
“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,” Obama said after inspecting a joint unit of U.S. and Polish F-16 pilots.
Obama proposed an initiative of up to $1 billion to finance extra U.S. troop and military deployments to “new allies” in eastern Europe.
The “European Reassurance Initiative” — a historic plan that must be approved by Congress — would also build the capacity of non-NATO states such as Ukraine and Georgia to work with the United States and the Western alliance and build their own defenses.
Obama’s first pivotal encounter will come Wednesday when he meets Ukraine’s embattled president-elect Petro Poroshenko, with his country threatened by civil war and its new pro-Western leadership grasping for protection from Washington.
The seven-week pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern rust belt grew only more violent after Poroshenko swept to power in a May 25 presidential ballot on a promise to quickly end fighting and save the nation of 46 million from economic collapse.
Hundreds of separatist gunmen staged one of their biggest offensives to date on Monday by attacking a Ukrainian border guard service camp in the region of Lugansk on the border with Russia.
Ukraine’s military reported suffering no fatalities and killing five rebels in a day-long battle that saw insurgents pelt the camp with mortar fire and deploy snipers on rooftops surrounding the base.
But Lugansk’s self-declared “prime minister” Vasyl Nikitin told AFP that at least three civilians and the separatist administration’s top health official had died in the violence.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” in the east said one federal soldier was killed and another 13 wounded Tuesday in a new bout of fighting in the neighboring coal mining province of Donetsk.
Washington’s commitment to Ukraine will be reinforced when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden travels to Kiev on Saturday to attend Poroshenko’s swearing in as the country’s fifth post-Soviet president.