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March 26, 2014

Ukraine, Energy Highlight Obama EU Talks

by Luis Ramirez

President Obama continues his efforts to build support among European allies against Russia's takeover of the Crimea region of Ukraine. At an EU summit - his first in Brussels - the U.S. leader said the Ukraine crisis is highlighting the need for Europe to diversify its energy sources.

Obama’s trip to the heart of Europe comes at a crucial time, when the U.S. is leading efforts to isolate Russia in an attempt to prevent Russian forces from going deeper into Ukraine - or to other nations in the region.

Obama made it a point to show that U.S. ties to Europe run deep.

The president started his day in Belgium with a visit to Flanders Field outside Brussels and laid a wreath at a cemetery where more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers killed in World War One are buried.

It was on to a lunch meeting with European leaders that officials said was aimed at reaffirming the U.S.-European partnership.

They talked about tightening sanctions if Russia encroaches further into Ukraine or other neighbors and about Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas.

At a joint news conference with European Council leaders, Obama said that dependence is a point of vulnerability that European leaders need to examine.

“Energy is obviously a central focus of our efforts and we have to consider very strongly. This entire event, I think, has pointed to the need for Europe to look at how it can further diversify its energy sources,” said Obama.

Also on the agenda Wednesday was a meeting with the head of NATO. Obama said he would reassure NATO allies of what he said is Washington's unwavering support and its intention to abide by its guarantees to defend NATO members.

Obama came to Brussels from a nuclear security summit in The Hague, where Ukraine also overshadowed the agenda. There, the president warned against further Russian advances in the region.  He countered claims that Russia is the U.S.'s number one enemy, calling Moscow a regional power that overran Crimea not as a sign of strength but of weakness.

But there are signs the U.S. leader at the same time is being careful not to escalate tensions with Russia.

When asked about the possibility of expanding NATO membership to Ukraine and others in the region, President Obama said that is not an option for now.

“Russia has at least on background suggested one of the reasons they've been concerned about Ukraine is potential NATO membership. On the other hand, part of the reason that Ukraine hasn't formally applied for membership is because of its complex relationship with Russia. I don't think that’s going to change anytime soon, obviously,” said Obama.

At his stop in The Hague, the president also spoke on a domestic matter: his efforts to end the practice of having the U.S. government store phone records and have telecom firms do it instead. Obama hopes the move will help restore Americans' confidence.

The issue of U.S. phone surveillance is a sensitive one in Europe, following revelations last year of U.S. wiretapping of allied leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been present at meetings with Obama this week.