- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Although he’s resisted bipartisan calls to send arms to Ukraine, President Obama urged NATO Wednesday to help strengthen the Ukrainian military amid conflicting reports of a tentative cease-fire plan in Kiev’s five-month-old fight against Russian forces.

Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn before heading to a NATO summit, Mr. Obama, who has resisted using the word “invasion” to describe Russia’s actions, stopped short of proposing that Ukraine join the military bloc, a suggestion that would infuriate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At its summit beginning Thursday in Wales, NATO is expected to approve a rapid-response force of 4,000 troops in Eastern Europe, including equipment pre-positioned in countries near the Russian border, to show Moscow the alliance is serious about defending its member states.

In Estonia Mr. Obama called Russia’s actions “a brazen assault” on Ukraine and said the alliance must leave the door open to new members to counter Russian aggression.

Russia’s move “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,” Mr. Obama told 1,800 students and young professionals at a concert hall. “NATO must make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces.”

His comments came as Ukraine said it reached a tentative cease-fire deal with Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office released a statement saying that “mutual understanding was reached regarding the steps that will contribute to the establishment of peace” with neighboring Russia. But no formal pact was announced.

In a move seemingly calculated to blunt NATO, Mr. Putin proposed a seven-point plan to end the conflict in Ukraine that could take effect on Friday — the day when Mr. Obama and other NATO members will meet in Wales to consider the expanded force.

After speaking to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko by phone, Mr. Putin said he believed Kiev and pro-Russian separatists could reach agreement at planned talks in Minsk on Friday.

“Our views on the way to resolve the conflict, as it seemed to me, are very close,” Mr. Putin told reporters during a visit to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, describing the seven steps he had put forward to secure a resolution to the crisis.

But Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk dismissed the plan as a “deception” on the eve of a NATO summit that will discuss Ukraine, adding in a harshly worded statement: “The real plan of Putin is to destroy Ukraine and to restore the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Obama said it was “too early to tell” whether the cease-fire was legitimate. The Kremlin said later that it could not negotiate a cease-fire because Moscow was not a party to the conflict.

Referring to Soviet control of the Baltic states and much of Europe during the Cold War, Mr. Obama promised the nations on Russia’s border that their freedom is a guarantee under NATO.

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

In June Mr. Obama proposed a $1 billion plan to position more American equipment in the Baltic states in preparation for an attack and more U.S. troops to have rotating deployments through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The president announced Wednesday that the initiative, which must be approved by Congress, would include additional aircraft and personnel for training exercises in the region.

While Mr. Putin has indicated he wants to find a way out of the ongoing crisis, Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine have brushed aside previous cease-fire deals and continued to clash with Ukrainian troops.

Mr. Obama said it will be up to Russia, and pro-Russian separatist forces wreaking havoc in eastern Ukraine, to determine whether the latest deal is a permanent one.

“No realistic political settlement can be achieved if effectively Russia says we are going to continue to send tanks and troops and arms and advisers under the guise of separatists, who are not homegrown, and the only possible settlement is if Ukraine cedes its territory or its sovereignty,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama called for NATO member countries to increase their contributions to the required 2 percent of their GDP to help rebuild the capacity of the alliance. The U.S. provides more than 70 percent of NATO’s budget.

“This week’s summit is the moment for every NATO nation to step up and commit to meeting its responsibilities to our alliance,” Mr. Obama said. “Estonia does it; every ally must do it.”

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Europeans “face a completely new security situation” due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“We expect the summit to adopt the readiness action plan that will guide Allied nations for years to come through a set of practical steps and measures of reassurance and deterrence,” he said.

Mr. Obama said Russia’s “outdated thinking” and distorted view of the world merely proves that Russia is losing influence and is unable to deliver for its own citizens.

“Many Russians have become convinced that the actions taken by their government are strengthening Russia,” he said. “But reaching back to the days of the czars, trying to reclaim lands lost in the 19th century is surely not the way to secure Russia’s greatness in the 21st century. It only shows that unrestrained nationalism is the last refuge of those who cannot or will not deliver real progress for their people at home.”

Mr. Obama also directly addressed young Estonians, saying they must hold fast to their free and fair democracy, even as Russia clings to the days of the old Soviet empire and promotes violence and unrest in Ukraine.

“In the face of violence that seems intractable and suffering that is so senseless, it is easy to grow cynical and, I think, tempting to give into the notion that peace and security may be beyond our grasp,” he said. “But I say to all of you here today, especially the young people, do not give in to that cynicism. Do not lose the idealism and optimism that is the root of all great change.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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