The Associated Press

Obama's Chance to Ensure a Free Europe

The president has an unexpected opportunity to cement a free and open Europe.

The Associated Press

Obama has an opportunity to recommit to NATO and European allies in the midst of Ukraine's crisis.

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The crisis in Ukraine opened an unparalleled window of opportunity for President Obama to advance a Europe “whole and free” in a more profound way than any of his predecessors. Against the backdrop of the secession referendum in Crimea and reports of Russian forces advancing further inside the Ukraine’s territory, President Obama should take firm steps to embed Ukraine into the West, much like his predecessors who anchored the desires of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is highly ironic that President Obama, who created mistrust in the region due to the botched missile defense announcement of 2009 and his pivot to Asia, could now become the next in the line of presidents who advanced Europe’s freedom and security.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

Surely, the historic achievements of the past 25 years can hardly be replicated. Since the end of Cold War, NATO and the EU expanded toward the East, and what seemed to have been inconceivable in the early 1990s became a reality when former Soviet satellites became fully integrated in the Euro-Atlantic structures in 1999 and 2004, respectively.

But unlike during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, when the project to complete Europe was seen as a natural evolution after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Obama now faces a real threat that requires full resolve.

President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia of the 1990s was coming out of the Cold War weak, disjointed and unclear of its future direction. Much has changed over the last 15 years. President Vladimir Putin, determined to regain his empire’s former glory, is challenging the post-Cold War community of liberal democracies with potentially dangerous consequences.

[Read more from blogger Lamont Colucci on Russia's annexing of Crimea.]

The Obama administration has shown great diplomacy and ability to mobilize the international community in support of the Ukraine’s people and its interim government. But in light of the unconstitutional referendum in Crimea and the provocations of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine, a time has come to act.

In the near term, the U.S. administration should work with its European allies to fully implement its decision on visa bans, economic sanctions and to boycott the G8 summit in Sochi. It should also go beyond providing economic assistance to Ukraine and start to think of innovative ways to advance the country’s conventional and non-conventional military capabilities. Russian troops don’t seem to be retreating and it would be foolish not to prepare for an eventuality of not only shots being fired, but perhaps even more dangerous incursions into the country’s cyber and energy infrastructure.

In the long term, it is in the U.S. national security interest to protect Europe’s territory from any future territorial intrusion and other non-military means of political and economic intimidation. The United States should continue applying further reassurance measures for its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, including lifting the embargo on liquefied natural gas exports to decrease the dependency of Europe on Russian gas and providing assurances that the announced U.S. defense budget cuts won’t compromise the U.S. commitment to European missile defense.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Similarly, Obama should fully recommit to NATO and use his two upcoming trips to Europe to outline a clear vision for continued American engagement in NATO after the drawdown from Afghanistan, which should include training, exercises and a serious reevaluation of the current capabilities initiatives to increase their efficacy and applicability to both current and future needs. The United States should also come forward to openly support NATO’s continuing enlargement, starting with Montenegro at the 2014 Wales summit. A Membership Action Plan for Georgia, a country itself attacked by Russia in 2008, should be a priority.

Ukraine is aspiring to join the Western community of values and ideals the same way the countries of Central and Eastern Europe did when they saw their own chance to rebuild their societies 25 years ago. The crisis in Ukraine is a defining moment of Obama’s tenure. It’s time for him to recognize this historic opportunity and get behind the greatest U.S. foreign policy legacy of completing Europe whole, free and at peace. If done right, Obama has a chance to become a president who completed Europe. And the United States will be better for it.