WARSAW: President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled a $1-billion US security plan for eastern Europe aimed at allaying fears over a resurgent Kremlin and the escalating pro-Russian uprising in ex-Soviet Ukraine.
Obama launched a major tour of Europe in Warsaw where he will attend celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first free elections that put both the country and the rest of eastern Europe on a path out of Moscow’s orbit, and toward democracy and growing prosperity.
But the poignant ceremony has been haunted by those very countries’ fears of the Kremlin reasserting its Cold War-era grip over a large swathe of Europe, following its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March.
“Our commitment to Poland’s security as well as the security of our allies in central and eastern Europe is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct,” Obama said after inspecting a joint unit of US and Polish F-16 pilots.
The US president then proposed an initiative of up to $1 billion to finance extra US troop and military deployments to “new allies” in eastern Europe.
The “European Reassurance Initiative”—an historic plan that must be approved by Congress—would also build the capacity of non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states such as Ukraine and Georgia, to work with the United States and the Western alliance and build their own defenses.
Obama’s first pivotal encounter will come on Wednesday when he meets Ukraine’s embattled president-elect Petro Poroshenko with his country threatened by civil war and its new pro-Western leadership grasping for protection from Washington.
The seven-week pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern rust belt grew only more violent after Poroshenko swept to power in a May 25 presidential ballot, on a promise to quickly end fighting and save the nation of 46 million from economic collapse.
Hundreds of separatist gunmen staged one of their biggest offensives to date on Monday by attacking a Ukrainian border guard service camp in the Russian border region of Lugansk.
Ukraine’s military reported suffering no fatalities and killing five rebels in a day-long battle that saw insurgents pelt the camp with mortar fire and deploy snipers on rooftops surrounding the base.
But Lugansk’s self-declared “prime minister” Vasyl Nikitin told Agence France-Presse that at least three civilians and the separatist administration’s top health official had died in the violence.
Ukraine’s interior minister urged civilians across parts of the neighboring coal mining region of Donetsk to stay indoors on Tuesday “in order to avoid risking their lives.”
A spokesman for Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation in the east said one federal soldier was killed and another 13 wounded on Tuesday morning in fighting near the Donetsk region rebel stronghold of Lugansk.
Washington’s commitment to Ukraine will be reinforced when US Vice President Joe Biden travels to Kiev on Saturday to attend Poroshenko’s swearing in as the fifth post-Soviet president of Ukraine.
The visit is meant to underscore the US position that the people of Ukrain—and not Moscow—should decide their destiny and overcome the cultural differences now tearing apart the vast country’s Russified east and more nationalist west.
Kiev has not yet invited any Moscow official to the inauguration and Russian President Vladimir Putin is yet to formally recognize the result of an election that saw rebels disrupt voting across swathes of the east.
Ukraine and its eastern European allies such as Poland have been pushing Washington and European Union leaders to unleash painful economic sanctions against entire sectors of Russia’s economy for the Kremlin’s perceived support of the rebels.
Obama’s tour takes in the Group of Seven summit in Brussels on Thursday that symbolically replaces a Group of Eight meeting that Putin was due to host in Sochi but which world leaders decided to boycott.