US President Barack Obama reached back 100 years to reinforce the US-European bond, calling for a recommitment to peace yesterday during a solemn pilgrimage to a World War I cemetery as European tensions run high over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
“This visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never ever take our progress for granted,” Obama said at Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in northwest Belgium.
Obama joined Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and King Phillipe in laying a trio of wreaths at the white stone monument at the center of the cemetery, the site of a significant World War I battle.
The Belgian leaders did not mention Russian President Vladimir Putin by name in remarks afterward, but clearly were referencing his audacious annexation of Crimea as they recalled the lessons of world war.
Obama came to Brussels to shore up commitments he received from allies in The Hague, Netherlands, to reassure Eastern European members of NATO that the alliance will stand by them and to make a larger point about European security a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
He held a working lunch with EU officials and later was to meet with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, embracing the alliance born as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
The US president, stepping up the task of solidifying broad-based support against Russia, dismissed Russia a day earlier as a mere “regional power” that was threatening its neighbors “not out of strength, but out of weakness.”
He later said Russia’s actions were a problem, but did not pose the top national security threat to the US.
“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness,” Obama told journalists after a nuclear security summit in The Hague on Tuesday.
Obama said that while the US also has influence over its neighbors, “we generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them.”
It was the kind of brush-off-your-shoulder language sure to antagonize the nationalistic Putin, but it also belied the time and energy Obama and European leaders have devoted to isolate Russia and fashion a menu of sanctions designed to stop Moscow’s aggression.
Obama planned to conclude his day with his only speech of the weeklong, four-country trip, tying the current Ukraine crisis to his vision of the US and Europe as anchors of democracy and international law.