Obama's European Trip Overshadowed By Crimea Crisis

As President Obama begins a week of diplomacy overseas, he faces domestic and international challenges. Steve Inskeep talks to contributor Cokie Roberts and Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Russia's latest moves are likely to dominate the conversation when world leaders meet in the Netherlands. They're gathering for a summit that is officially about nuclear security, a big priority for President Obama, but not the only thing to be discussed. Let's talk through the challenge that Ukraine poses with Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. diplomat and Russia specialist.

Welcome to the program, sir.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: A pleasure, thank you.

INSKEEP: And also joining us is Cokie Roberts, as she does most Mondays. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's start with you, Cokie. The president is supposed to be the most powerful guy in the world. But how much can he really do here?

ROBERTS: Well, that's the real question. And of course he has a lot of critics on this but nobody is quite sure what they should be doing. And Congress hasn't even been able to pass an aid package to Ukraine; now that's likely to happen this week. But the sense is that the president has disengaged. Even his own former ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, has a long op-ed today in The New York Times, talking about a drift in disengagement.

And so he's got a lot of critics, on the Republican side mainly, but also Democrats. His opponent in the last election, Mitt Romney, went on the air yesterday to say that the president should have moved earlier on sanctions. From the time that the demonstrations started in Ukraine, he should've worked with our allies. And I think there is a strong sense of that. One thing that's quite interesting, Steve, is that all these criticisms of President Obama also seem to include criticism of his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

So there seems to be some positioning for the next election going on...

INSKEEP: Imagine that, politicians thinking about 2016.

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned that the president is described, at least by critics, as being disengaged. Let me ask Stephan Sestanovich about that because - is that a reflection of the fact that he can't very well do much? He doesn't want to do as he did on Syria and make a bunch of strong statements and discover later he actually has to back them up?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, the administration is emphasizing that this is a new ballgame in U.S./Russian relations. They are saying there's a fundamental reassessment that is underway, that there are strong measures that are being taken. The president has issued a number of executive orders creating the foundation for a set of new sanctions against Russia that would be, in the words of American officials, severe.

The question is going to be whether - not only whether you can sell that in Congress, but whether you can sell it to American allies in Europe. And that's going to be the agenda item, top agenda item on the president's trip this week.

INSKEEP: Meaning that European nations might not want very strong sanctions against Russia.

SESTANOVICH: Well, sanctions always bite differently in different countries. It depends on what the nature of the sanctions is. If you decide to go for financial sanctions, the Brits object. If you cancel arms sales, the French object. If you cut off energy imports, the Germans and the Italians object. It's the American role to try to find some balance among these perspectives, but you have a strong awareness in Europe that there has to be some actions to show how isolated Putin is and how high the cost will be for Russia.

INSKEEP: Okay. Let's go back to - oh, go ahead, Cokie.

ROBERTS: But Mr. Sestanovich, the American role, I have had conversations with ambassadors from two of our major European allies, one from a liberal government, one from a conservative government lately, and they're very concerned that America's not playing that role, that we've withdrawn so much from the world scene that that is not - that's not what the president's been doing.

Do you think he can reclaim that on this European trip?

SESTANOVICH: That'll be his challenge. He has got to show a different kind of role on this trip. He is trying to herd cats within the alliance. He's got a first day, today, a meeting of the G7, which is, in itself, a policy innovation. He's trying to exercise leadership in that forum, which now excludes the Russians.

INSKEEP: Oh, because it was the G8.

SESTANOVICH: It was the G8. Tomorrow he's got a summit with the European Union, and Ukraine again will be the top item there.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, I want to give you the last word here and just mention this. People do not always in the United States follow the latest foreign policy crisis in great detail, but I was just traveling on the U.S./Mexico border, I mean pretty far from Washington, and people brought up the situation in Ukraine. People are paying attention. What do you think Americans want from their president in a situation like this and do you have any sense that Americans are willing to support strong action of the president takes it?

ROBERTS: I think that people are very concerned about Vladimir Putin seeming to be encroaching on other nations' sovereignty and playing a bad role in the world, whether it's in Syria or in Iran or any - you know, and now, of course, in Ukraine, and that brings up all the Cold War boogeymen and I think that that's very concerning to people.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks as always and thanks also to you, Stephen Sestanovich, former U.S. diplomat. Thanks for coming by. And let me just mention, his new book is "Maximalist: America in the World, From Truman to Obama." Really just a beginning of a discussion here on this Monday morning. There's so much else going on. We'll continue to follow the situation throughout the week. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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