Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, right, and President Obama address US and Polish airmen Tuesday in front of a F-16 fighter jet in a hangar at Warsaw Chopin Airport, Poland. (Janek Skarzynski / Getty Images)
WARSAW — Just as it served as a crossroads of the old Cold War, Poland gave President Obama a chance Tuesday to intensify a new-style standoff with Russia over Ukraine.
In meetings with Polish and Eastern European leaders, Obama unveiled a $1 billion plan to bolster security for NATO allies and warned Russia that further aggression in Ukraine will bring more sanctions.
The package — dubbed the “European Re-Assurance Initiative” by aides — is “a powerful demonstration of America’s unshakeable commitment to our NATO allies,” Obama said after meeting with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
During a day of meetings with various leaders, Obama said European security “is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.”
Under the $1 billion plan, parts of which must be approved by Congress, more US troops would be rotated throughout Europe. There would be more land, sea and air military exercises and training missions throughout the continent. Assistance would also be available for non-NATO nations on Russia’s border, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
Russian activity in Ukraine will also be the major topic when Obama attends the G-7 summit Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels.
The president’s trip wraps up Friday in Normandy, France, with a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The ceremonies feature a number of world leaders — including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has clashed with Obama over Ukraine.
Obama and Putin don’t have a formal meeting scheduled, but Obama said he is sure he will bump into his Russian counterpart.
He called on Putin to encourage violent separatists in eastern Ukraine to “stand down.” The president said that “responsible behavior by the Russians” could held rebuild American-Russian relations that have been “shattered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.”
“But,” Obama added, “I think it is fair to say that rebuilding that trust will take quite some time.”
Obama also said that “further Russian provocation will be met with further costs for Russia, including, if necessary, additional sanctions.”
A domestic political dispute also followed Obama to Poland: criticism over the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity in Afghanistan.
During a news conference in Warsaw, Obama said his team saw an opportunity to win Bergdahl’s release and “we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind.”
Obama is visiting Poland to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the nation’s first free elections as the Soviet Union and the Cold War collapsed — making Poland a perfect place for Obama to talk about national self-determination in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
World War II began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, yet the Poles wound up as Soviet vassals. Poland played a major role in breaking up the Soviet Union after the birth of the Solidarity labor movement led by dock worker Lech Walesa.
Since it gained independence in 1989, Poland has been a particularly popular stop for presidents in the post-Cold War era — though Obama does have his share of local critics.
Walesa himself, a former president of Poland, told a Polish television network last week that Obama has not been robust enough in the Ukraine crisis.
“The superpower has not been up to the job, and therefore the world is at a dangerous point and maybe it really is the case that lots of bad things are happening in the world because there is no leadership,” Walesa said.
Underscoring the nature of a trip designed to reassure allies and warn Russia, Obama first met Tuesday with a group of American and Polish F-16 pilots whose training missions were stepped up after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Obama spoke with the pilots along with President Komorowski, a former journalist who worked in the underground press during the communist years in Poland and was frequently arrested.
The U.S. and Polish presidents also met with a group of leaders from Eastern Europe who have expressed concern about the possible spread of Russian aggression: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
In more symbolism, the meeting took place in the same palace where the Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955, the communist version of NATO.
On Wednesday, Obama meets a regional leader with a vested interest in Russia’s intentions: the incoming president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.
While Russian activity will be a prime topic, Obama said he and Poroshenko will also talk about energy supplies for Ukraine and efforts to rebuild its economy.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time on the economics of Ukraine,” Obama said.
Jackson writes for USA Today.