President Obama was departing Tuesday for Eastern Europe and a NATO summit in Wales with the goal of bolstering Ukraine against Russian aggression and shoring up alliance defenses in Poland and the Baltic states.
The trip comes as separatists in eastern Ukraine backed by Russian troops make gains against Ukrainian forces. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks of "statehood" for the rebels and boasts of the threat to the West from his nuclear arsenal.
"It is better not to come against Russia," Putin was quoted as saying last week by the state-run Itar-Tass agency. "I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words."
The mission for Obama in Europe was starkly stated last week by Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in an address to the Security Council denouncing Russia's support for the separatists.
"In the face of these deeply alarming actions, the most important question for us now is not what we should say to Russia," Power said. "The most important question is what we should do to make Russia listen."
Obama's first stop on Wednesday will be in Talinn, Estonia, where he will meet with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and President Andris Berzins of Latvia.
The populations of both Latvia and Estonia are about 25 percent ethnic Russian, while Lithuania has a 6 percent ethnic Russian population. All three Baltic states have expressed concerns that Putin would seek to stir unrest among their Russian speakers, much as Russia did in eastern Ukraine.
Obama has yet to call Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine an "invasion," but Baltic leaders have used that word and gone further.
"It is fact that Russia is in a war state against Ukraine," Grybauskaite told reporters last week. "Practically, Russia is in a state of war against Europe."
Following his meetings in Tallinn, Obama will go to Wales for the NATO summit at which he will be joined by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.
In a conference call with reporters last week, Charles Kupchan, director for European Affairs at the White House National Security Council, said the U.S. will be looking to boost military and economic assistance to Ukraine and to increase NATO troop rotations through Eastern Europe.
"Our strategy here is to try to get to a situation in which Putin sees an off-ramp as a more attractive option than continuing to pursue a course of military intervention in Ukraine," Kupchan said.
Getting the NATO allies to agree on tougher economic sanctions against Russia was also on the agenda, Kupchan said. "Increasing the economic pain in Russia is part of that strategy," Kupchan said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.