Fears that President Obama’s $1bn pledge on European defence could provoke new Cold War

Ahead of the meeting of the G7 leaders (the G8 minus Vladimir Putin after he annexed Crimea), the US President risks further wrath from Moscow

Brussels

President Barack Obama has pledged up to $1bn in new US funding for European defence, reasserting Washington’s role in the region despite warnings from Russia that any military build up near its borders with eastern Europe could provoke a new arms race and a new Cold War.

The announcement at the beginning of Mr Obama’s four-day trip to Europe coincided with heavy fighting in Ukraine, where government forces launched a fresh offensive against the pro-Russian separatists who have taken over swathes of the eastern regions.

Ukraine’s elections late last month passed relatively smoothly, raising hopes of a diplomatic solution to a crisis which erupted in February when protesters ousted the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, but the new president, Petro Poroshenko, is struggling to maintain control in the east, and on Wednesday leaders of the G7 group of industrialised nations will gather to discuss whether Russia has done enough to quell the insurgency – or if further economic sanctions are needed.

The meeting was meant to be hosted by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in the resort town of Sochi, but his annexation of Crimea in March sparked international outcry and an indefinite suspension of the G8 group as the West sought to reassess its relations with the Kremlin.

Eastern European nations are also seeking reassurances the US will protect them should Russia threaten their borders, and Mr Obama referred to this new geopolitical landscape as he flew into Warsaw. Speaking in front of four F-16 fighter jets, he said America’s commitment was particularly important now. “The security of our allies in central and eastern Europe is a cornerstone of our own security, and it is sacrosanct,” Mr Obama said.

He will ask Congress to approve $1bn in new funding, which is earmarked for training and exercises for Nato forces, military equipment, naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas, and an increase in the deployment of US planners and advisers in eastern Europe.

The US has already sent 150 troops to Poland and more to the Baltic states, but Mr Obama was clear that they were not trying to provoke military confrontation with Russia. “We are interested in good relations with Russia. We are not interested in threatening Russia,” he said.

Russia is deeply suspicious of any creep of Nato forces towards its borders, and Moscow’s envoy to Nato warned on Monday that new rotations of troops or a build-up of military hardware would provoke a reaction.

“All this could cast Europe back to the days of the Cold War and launch an arms race,” Alexander Grushko was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

Nato defence ministers also met in Brussels with Ukraine at the top of the agenda. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of the military alliance, said that they would be assessing their long-term response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. He also praised America’s leadership in the crisis.

“The United States has reacted swiftly after Russia’s illegal military actions in Ukraine,” Mr Rasmussen said. “And I appreciate that other allies have followed so that we can announce that all 28 allies are now contributing to reassurance measures.”

After a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland and a first meeting with Mr Poroshenko, Mr Obama will fly into Brussels on Wednesday to meet heads of state from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. An EU official said that the priority would be assessing Russia’s reaction to the Ukrainian elections. The Kremlin has expressed a willingness to negotiate with Mr Poroshenko, easing the pressure on the EU to move towards sanctions.

Soldiers attend an oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine (EPA) Soldiers attend an oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine (EPA)
“Now the priority is to get a political and diplomatic solution with the momentum created by the election of the new Ukrainian President,” the official said. But he added that Russia “can do more to avoid destabilisation” in Ukraine and said the G7 leaders “will reconfirm their willingness to press ahead with more sanctions should the situation require”.

The soft diplomacy will get into full swing later this week in France, when President Putin is due to meet his French, German and British counterparts. There is no meeting planned with Mr Obama, but both leaders will attend a ceremony in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings “There are always opportunities for networking,” one European diplomat said.

Michael Leigh, a former EU foreign affairs official and senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said it was important that the US and Europe remain on the same page. While they need to work together to offer Ukraine the reassurances and financial assistance it needs to pull itself out of crisis, he said they must also maintain pressure on Moscow to halt any support of the armed rebel groups.

“A new division of labour which is really clear needs to emerge from this, in which the European Union shows that it is truly ready to engage with Ukraine... and that we’ve understood the need to be really ready to commit the necessary resources to this,” he told The Independent.

G7 leaders will also try to agree joint action to tackle the problem of foreign fighters in Syria and their return to their home countries. A British source said: “They will discuss counter-terrorism, the issue of foreign fighters and the threat they pose to our national security.”

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