WASHINGTON -- For the second time this year, President Barack Obama will travel to Russia's backyard to assure nervous nations of his ironclad commitment to their security. But his objectives will be clouded by the West's inability to halt the Russian aggression in Ukraine that has stoked fears in other former Soviet republics.
Fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels continued in eastern Ukraine as Obama prepared to fly to Estonia for meetings with Baltic leaders and to Wales for a NATO summit. The Ukrainian government, NATO and Western nations say Russia has already sent troops, artillery and tanks across Ukraine's southeast border to reinforce the separatists, a claim Russia has denied.
While Obama has warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could face more economic penalties, he also continues to resist calls for the U.S. to provide military support to help Ukrainian forces push back the Russian incursion.
The president's response to the Ukraine crisis is just one element of a broader foreign policy approach that is drawing criticism from both opponents and allies who fear the White House is being too tentative in the face of global threats.
"I think Putin has sized up the West and figured that the most difficult sanctions against Russia and the arms necessary for the Ukrainians to be able to defend themselves are not coming from the West, and we have to prove him wrong," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Still, eastern Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels softened their demand for full independence Monday, saying they would respect Ukraine's sovereignty in exchange for autonomy. That shift appeared to reflect Putin's desire to make a deal that would allow Russia to avoid more punitive Western sanctions while preserving a significant degree of leverage over its neighbor.
Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. intelligence officer for Russia, said the inability of the U.S. and Europe to stop Putin so far is compounding fears in the countries near Russia's borders.
"They see Western responses as insufficient, which adds to their concerns," said Rumer, who now runs the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has raised the stakes for this week's NATO summit. Obama will press member states to increase their defense spending, and the alliance is expected to agree on plans to boost training missions and other military commitments in Central and Eastern European countries.
"We will see persistent rotation, persistent exercises to ensure that Estonia and that other countries in Central and Eastern Europe are provided the reassurance from NATO and the presence of NATO needed to meet their security needs," said Charles Kupchan, the White House senior director for Europe.
NATO leaders this week will be asked to approve creation of a high-readiness force and the stockpiling of military equipment and supplies in Eastern Europe to help protect member nations there against potential Russian aggression, the alliance's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Monday. Analysts said member states near Russia's borders will be particularly concerned about the level of U.S. military involvement in the expanded efforts.
"If there's anything that the Baltics do trust within NATO, it's a U.S. commitment," said Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official who now chairs the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "So they will be pushing hard that that NATO contingent will have a heavy U.S. signal in it."
While Ukraine is not a NATO member, newly elected President Petro Poroshenko was scheduled to attend the summit.
Before arriving in Wales for the NATO meetings, Obama will make a symbolic show of Western support for the Baltics by traveling to Estonia. Officials say he will repeat the assurances he made during a trip to Poland earlier this year, where he reiterated the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that an armed attack against one member state is to be considered an attack on the entire alliance.
The president was scheduled to depart Washington on Tuesday and arrive in the Estonian capital of Tallinn early Wednesday. In addition to his meetings with Baltic leaders, Obama will also speak to U.S. troops who were sent to Estonia earlier this year for military training exercises that were meant to serve as a deterrent to Russia.
The heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine are just one of the pressing foreign policy matters Obama will confront during his three days of talks in Europe.
The president is expected to hold talks with leaders on the sidelines of the NATO summit about the growing threat from the Islamic State group that has taken root in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is launching strikes against the militants in Iraq, and the White House is seeking commitments from some allies to join a broader effort to defeat the group, perhaps by extending the airstrikes into Syria.
Obama and NATO leaders will also discuss their future role in Afghanistan, where the alliance's combat mission is due to end later this year. But a political crisis in Afghanistan has cast a shadow over the drawdown, delaying decisions over how many troops the U.S. and its partners will keep in the country for training and counterterrorism missions.