Obama, in Estonia, Calls Ukraine Crisis a 'Moment of Testing' for NATO

Julie Hirshfeld DavisNew York Times

TALLINN, Estonia -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday called the conflict in Ukraine a “moment of testing” for the United States and Europe, and condemned Russia’s intervention as a “brazen assault” on the nation’s territorial integrity that warrants a unified response.

On a day of conflicting reports of a cease-fire agreement between President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Obama said Moscow had violated the post-World War II international order.

“It is a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent European nation,” Obama said in a speech to more than 1,800 students, young professionals and civic and political leaders at a concert hall here. “It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system - that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; that nations have the right to determine their own future.”

Obama also used the speech to call for military assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces. While he did not say that the United States would be sending weapons - a step that some U.S. lawmakers and even some of his own advisers have urged - Obama said that NATO should help.

“Now, Ukraine needs more than words,” he said. “NATO needs to make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces.”

Rejecting Putin’s frequent denials of intervention in Ukraine and his assertion that the Russian presence there is part of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission, Obama said it was clear Moscow was responsible for the escalation of tensions there.

“It was not the government in Kiev that destabilized eastern Ukraine; it’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia,” he said. “These are the facts. They are provable. They are not subject to dispute.”

Obama spoke before it emerged that Putin had proposed a seven-point plan to end the Ukraine conflict that could take effect Friday -when Obama and his counterparts from NATO would be meeting in Wales to devise a response to Russia’s behavior. Putin’s announcement appeared deliberately timed to blunt that effort.

Earlier Wednesday, at a news conference with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, Obama had reacted cautiously to preliminary reports of a halt to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, saying it was “too early to tell” whether the cease-fire was real, and casting doubt on whether it would last.

By the time he stepped back from the podium at the close of the question-and-answer session, hopes for an agreement were already fading, with the Kremlin saying it could not negotiate a cease-fire because it was not a party to the conflict, and Poroshenko’s aides saying there was no formal pact.

While Obama has said repeatedly that he does not see the Ukraine crisis as the start of a new Cold War, the episode is unleashing old tensions that create echoes among the Baltic nations - particularly in Estonia and others with Russian-speaking populations - of an East-West rivalry playing out uncomfortably close to their borders.

The president’s speech was part of a visit intended to show solidarity with fretful allies and reassure them - particularly newer NATO members and those bordering Russia - that the United States and Europe are serious about defending them from a newly aggressive neighbor. Obama met with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania here on the eve of the NATO summit meeting in Wales, which will be dominated by the question of how the alliance will respond to the crisis in Ukraine.

“The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said Wednesday, invoking the founding principle of collective defense that undergirds NATO. “An attack on one is an attack on all, and so if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, 'Who’ll come to help?' you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America.”

“We’ll be here for Estonia. We’ll be here for Latvia. We’ll be here for Lithuania,” the president said. “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

Also on Wednesday, Obama vowed to punish the Sunni militants whose videotaped beheadings of two American journalists had “repulsed” the world, and said that the United States would lead a regional and international coalition to defeat the terrorists.

“Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States,” Obama said at a news conference here, referring to the militant group known as the Islamic State.

“It’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men,” the president said. “The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision” the group represents.

Obama’s strongly-worded statement came after he drew criticism from allies and opponents last week, when he said that he had not yet developed a strategy for confronting the Islamic State group in Syria. U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, the president said Wednesday, had “borne fruit” by “blunting the momentum” of the militants in that country and averting the humanitarian disasters that they had threatened to incite.

He spoke just hours after the White House said intelligence agencies had analyzed a video showing the beheading by an Islamic State operative of Steven J. Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelance journalist, and deemed it authentic.

“Whatever these murderers think they will achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed,” Obama said in his first comments on Sotloff’s killing since the video was released.

The video put new pressure on the president to order military strikes on the Islamic State in its sanctuary in Syria. Obama said he was not yet ready to order such action, saying he wanted to be sure that the mission would be effective and that allies at home and abroad supported it.

Pressed on whether he was talking about the elimination of the Islamic State, Obama suggested he was seeking instead to limit the group’s reach. He said that if the United States was joined by other nations, “we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

On Fox Business Network, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, retorted: “This is not, in my view, a manageable situation - they want to kill us. The president is the guy who needs to lay before Congress and the American people a strategy to deal with it.”

In Washington on Wednesday, the top U.S. counterterrorism official asserted that the Islamic State “was losing arms, is losing equipment, and is losing territory.”

U.S. airstrikes “have begun to sap ISIL’s momentum and created space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to take the offensive,” Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in remarks at the Brookings Institution.

“As formidable as ISIL is as group, it is not invincible,” Olsen added. “ISIL is not al-Qaida pre-9/11” with cells operating in Europe, Southeast Asia and the United States. Olsen’s sobering but measured assessment of the organization stood in contrast to more pointed descriptions by other U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has said the Islamic State poses an “imminent threat to every interest we have.”

As Obama begins to lobby support from allies to confront the Islamic State, Olsen’s analysis also seemed to reflect an effort by U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials to put the terrorist group into a broader historical context.

Still, Olsen said it would take a comprehensive global strategy to defeat the Islamic State on the battlefield and in the propaganda wars, where it has proved extremely adept.