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17th Jan 2022

Obama's first 100 days 'blank' on Eastern Europe

As US President Barack Obama marks his 100th day in office on Wednesday, several blanks in his policies towards eastern Europe and Russia still need to be filled, experts on transatlantic affairs told this website.

Mr Obama, who has travelled to Europe and met all the bloc's leaders, as well as his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, has provided a sharp change of style compared to his predecessor's approach, yet his policies towards this part of the world so far have remained vague.

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  • Barack Obama's foreign policies are still work in progress (Photo: barackobama.com)

On eastern Europe, the policies are "blank" and no particular statements were made on the situation in Ukraine, Georgia or recently Moldova, Michael Emerson from the Centre for European Policy Studies, a centre-right Brussels-based think tank told this website.

"Some people speculate that Mr Obama is not interested in the region and will leave it to Russia and the EU to sort it out. I wouldn't say that. We will have to see, as his administration is not fully staffed yet," he said.

The only example of US involvement in the region, in Mr Emerson's view, concerned Armenia, with what he described as "correct" statements made last Friday, in which Mr Obama avoided the use of the word "genocide" to describe the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks in 1915, contrary to what he had said as a presidential candidate.

The issue is highly controversial in Turkey, with whom Mr Obama is trying to mend ties that were strained with the country as a result of the Bush's administration's war on Iraq.

Turkey may have been the core focus of Mr Obama's visit to Europe in April, as he urged the EU to take Ankara in as a member. But his statement was immediately countered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The US has been saying that for decades, but it has no influence on EU decisions," Mr Emerson noted.

Apart from having the second largest army amongst NATO members after the US, Turkey maintains a regional influence that is seen as pivotal for Western relations with the Arab world, for the troubled Caucasus countries, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wrong button with Russia?

On Russia, the new US policy so far has been defined by the "hit the reset button" phrase, announced by vice-president Joseph Biden in February.

A month later in Geneva, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton handed her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov a plastic button with the word "reset" spelled out in both English and Russian. "I hope I got it right," she said. "No, I'm afraid you didn't," Mr Lavrov replied. Instead of "reset", in Russian it said "overload".

One concrete result the "reset" policy might yield is "serious arms control talks", Mr Emerson said, referring to the plan announced by the US and Russian presidents on 1 April to make deep new cuts in their nuclear weapon arsenal.

"Resetting the button with Russia is a great framework, but it doesn't mean anything. It's part of the review of the Bush policies, which didn't work, but we don't know yet what they will do," Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank often described as Atlanticist told EUobserver.

"Russia is not a policy priority. It's seen as instrumental for other issues, just like Turkey," she added.

Energy security, one of eastern Europe's main concerns in relation to Russia, is not a priority either.

"They have so much to do on the domestic economy, on climate change, on Afghanistan and Pakistan, that EU energy security is not the main concern, especially now with oil prices so low," she explained.

End of European honeymoon

Although European audiences were mesmerised by the Obamas when they travelled to Europe in April, EU leaders were reluctant to offer the new president what he had expected.

The trip was still deemed as a success, but only because Mr Obama lowered his publicly expressed expectations with regards to more troops for Afghanistan and for an economic stimulus in Europe matching the one in the US.

"The honeymoon with Europe looks rather disappointing now," said Fabrice Pothier, head of the Brussels bureau of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think-tank closely associated with the US State Department.

The reluctance in committing more troops to the war in Afghanistan – or only conditioned for the Afghan election period – proved in his view that Europe was "high on rhetoric and low on actions."

"This impacts Europe's credibility as a global player," he said, noting that also on climate change, the US and China were doing more than the traditional champion of this cause, the EU. This could even lead to a separate climate deal between China and the US after the European-hosted UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

In Mr Pothier's view, unlike other former US presidents, Mr Obama is not a "natural European president", but he could rather be a "natural Asian president."

However, Europe will remain the US's main trade and security partner in the years to come, he stressed.

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