U.S. President Barack Obama assured Poland and its eastern European neighbors on Tuesday that the U.S. commitment to their security was sacrosanct at the start of a four-day trip meant to show U.S. resolve after the Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Standing with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Obama said the U.S. plans to send more military equipment and rotate additional U.S. troops into the region. He called on lawmakers in Washington to provide the $1 billion in funding to sustain the effort.
If approved, the funding for the European Reassurance Initiative will be used to increase military exercises and training missions on the continent, as well as rotations of air and ground forces, the White House said.
Officials said Obama was also seeking to ramp up U.S. Navy participation in NATO deployments in the Black and Baltic seas, plus working to boost the military capacity of non-NATO countries that sit on Russia's border, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
NATO praised the U.S. announcement Tuesday, saying that Washington's leadership in the alliance was needed.
"I really appreciate the American leadership in taking reassurance measures. The United States has reacted swiftly after Russia's illegal military actions in Ukraine," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels ahead of a meeting of NATO members' defense ministers.
First stop: Poland
Obama landed in Warsaw on Tuesday, his first stop on a three-nation tour of Europe.
He wasted no time in saying why he came to Poland.
"I'm starting the visit here because 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.
Ukraine and its eastern European allies, including Poland, have been pushing Washington and EU leaders to impose harsher economic sanctions against entire sectors of Russia's economy for the Kremlin's perceived support of pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine.
Obama addressed those calls directly by saying that Russia faced further punitive measures unless it put more pressure on rebels in eastern Ukraine, may of whom are believed to have entered the country from Russia, to halt their insurgency.
“We agree that further Russian provocation will be met with further cost to Russia, including, if necessary, additional sanctions,” he said.
Obama called upon Russia to use its influence to urge militants in eastern Ukraine to support peace, and to help prevent the flow of weapons and fighters into the region.
The president will join the Poles in celebrating on Wednesday the 25th anniversary of the election victory that brought Poland's Solidarity movement power and ended more than four decades of Soviet-imposed communist rule.
At that time, the U.S. supported the Polish people's struggle for freedom from Moscow's influence and now Obama is back, offering reassurances that it stands behind Poland in the face of new Russian aggression in the region.
Obama, who meets Ukraine President-elect Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday, said he wants both the U.S. and Ukraine to have good relations with Russia.
But “the sovereignty of Ukraine should not be sacrificed for that relationship," Obama said.
"Basic principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty and freedom, the ability for a people to make their own determinations about their country’s future is the cornerstone of the peace and security that we have seen in Europe over the last several decades and that is threatened by Russian actions in Crimea and now Russian activity in eastern Ukraine," Obama said.
"We want to make sure that we stand with the people of countries that are simply seeking to choose their own destinies," he added.
NATO allies' defense spending
While he said the European Reassurance Initiative demonstrates America's "unshakeable commitment" to its NATO allies, Obama also called upon those members to "step up" and do their fair share.
He said European allies have a responsibility to boost defense spending in return for U.S. protection amid new instability in Europe.
"We have seen a steady decline in European defense spending, that has to change," Obama said.
"The United States is proud to do its share of the defense of the transatlantic alliance ... but we can't do it alone and we're going to have to make sure that everybody who is a member of NATO has full membership," Obama said.
"They expect full membership when it comes to their defense and that means they also have to make a contribution that is consistent with full membership," he added.
The initiative would also focus on building the military capacities of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Later Tuesday, Obama and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk discussed the need for Ukraine to reform its energy sector, including its supply of natural gas.
Obama also repeated to Tusk the United States' strong commitment to Poland's security.
Visit ends in Normandy
Obama also meets with U.S. allies Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels at a meeting quickly arranged after leaders decided to boycott a Group of Eight meeting Russia was to host this week in Sochi. The boycott was in response to Russia's incursion into Crimea in March.
He will then travel to France for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in World War II.
Both the Kremlin and White House said no one-on-one meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin is being planned while they attend D-Day events.
But senior White House aides have not ruled out an informal encounter - which would be the first for the rivals since Ukraine mushroomed into Europe's worst security crisis in decades.
The Kremlin confirmed that Putin would hold separate talks Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Putin is also to call on French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Thursday -- the three meetings underscoring Europe's continued economic dependence on Russia and refusal to completely ostracise the powerful Kremlin chief.
Obama was asked at the news conference: What would you say to Putin, should the two leaders meet later this week at ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing on Normandy?
“We are interested in good relations with Russia. We are not interested in threatening Russia," he said.
"We recognize that Russia has legitimate interests in what happens along its borders and has a long historic relationship with Ukraine. But we also believe that the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty have to be respected, that Russia has violated them, that we are going to maintain sanctions," Obama added.
Obama said he has "always had a business-like relationship" with Putin and has talked to him throughout the Ukraine crisis.
On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kyiv to attend Poroshenko's swearing in as the fifth post-Soviet president of Ukraine.
VOA's Luis Ramirez contributed to this report from Warsaw. Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.