Second-term presidents try to burnish their legacies with foreign travel, but President Obama’s trip to Europe this week is likely instead to reinforce his personal history of foreign-policy torment at the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Obama departs Monday night on a four-day trip that will feature more shadow-boxing with Mr. Putin, his longtime antagonist on issues ranging from Ukraine to Syria to fugitive spy-agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama don’t plan to meet this week, although the Russian leader will never be far from Mr. Obama’s thoughts or his movements. The two haven’t met since Russia annexed a portion of Ukraine in March, prompting Mr. Obama to impose sanctions on Russian officials amid sustained criticism that his response was weak.
Mr. Obama will stop first in Warsaw, Poland, to reassure allies in eastern Europe that his administration is committed to defending them against any Russian aggression. He’ll meet with a small contingent of U.S. troops who have been providing extra air cover to Poland since the crisis began, and will give a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland’s solidarity movement breaking away from Russia’s communist influence.
The president also will meet with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko to reaffirm U.S. support for the new government in Kiev, which is trying to subdue pro-Russian separatists in bloody fighting. It will be Mr. Obama’s most visible effort yet to show that his “mobilization of world opinion and institutions,” as he said last week in a speech at West Point, are an effective answer to “Russian propaganda [and] Russian troops on the border.”
“This will be an important first test of the president’s view that Ukraine has been a success for his diplomatic leadership,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in an interview. “Polish officials are extremely concerned that we’re already thinking the crisis is over. They’re very concerned that the instability remains in eastern and southern Ukraine.”
She said eastern Europe is also anxious to see how Mr. Obama will address the region’s need to reduce its reliance on Mr. Putin’s oil and gas supplies.
Then Mr. Obama will travel to Brussels for a meeting of the Group of Seven, which was formerly known as the Group of Eight until it froze out Russia in response to the Ukraine intervention. The conference was originally scheduled to be held in Russia, but the U.S. and other members agreed to move the meeting to Belgium to punish Mr. Putin for his bad behavior.
On Thursday night, Mr. Obama arrives in Paris for a private dinner with French President Francois Hollande. But Mr. Hollande, one of the world’s highest-ranking bachelors, also has a dinner date in Paris Thursday night with Mr. Putin. White House aides said the three men will not be dining together.
“President Hollande may be dining more than once,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Mr. Putin’s dinner with the French president will be his first meeting with a Western leader since the Ukrainian crisis began. White House aides said Mr. Obama is not concerned about a possible fraying in his efforts to isolate Russia, but others aren’t so sure.
“That isolation may not be as ironclad as previously thought,” Ms. Conway said.
On Friday, the president might find it difficult to avoid shaking Mr. Putin’s hand. Both leaders will attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the allied landings in France during World War II.
Asked if Mr. Obama would seek out Mr. Putin, Mr. Rhodes said grudgingly, “Clearly they’ll be in the same place. They’ll certainly have cause to interact.”
At the event at Omaha Beach in Normandy, Mr. Rhodes said the president will give a speech paying tribute to World War II veterans and connecting their sacrifices to those of the 9/11 generation of soldiers. Some observers said it will give Mr. Obama an opportunity to burnish his legacy on what is mostly a trip of symbolism over substance.