BRUSSELS — President Obama started his day in Warsaw struggling to convince his friends in Central and Eastern Europe that the United States is being tough enough with Russia. He ended his day in Brussels, still struggling, but this time to persuade America’s core Western allies to stay tough with Russia.
The dizzying contrasts underscored the challenges Obama faces navigating the complicated waters of European politics as he tries to forge a unified stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine. On the defensive at home for a prisoner swap, he finds himself pressed overseas by some allies unsatisfied with his reassurances of resolve and others unimpressed with his arguments for action.
He arrived here Wednesday to have dinner with the leaders of the Group of Seven powers, who, at his urging, had excluded President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as punishment for his annexation of Crimea. But Obama’s counterparts from Britain, France, and Germany all ended up scheduling one-on-one meetings with Putin later on. President François Hollande of France even arranged to have dinner with Putin on Thursday just after having a separate dinner with Obama.
Not only were they unwilling to snub the Russian leader entirely, as Obama sought, they were also reluctant to go along with other efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
Most notably, the French government repeated that it would go ahead with the $1.6 billion sale of powerful warships to Moscow along with plans to train 400 Russian sailors in France this month. And other European leaders were cautious about setting further red lines threatening additional sanctions against Russia.
Obama’s aides repeated their opposition to the French sale Wednesday but tried to play down the disparate approaches of the leaders.
“The question is not whether they’re meeting,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “The question is what people are saying in those meetings. And our belief is that there needs to be a unified message.”
The leaders used their dinner Wednesday to discuss what might set off another, more expansive, round of sanctions. Some Europeans want to keep new sanctions in their pocket, as they put it, to impose only if Russia escalates the situation, while others say Moscow should avoid new penalties only if it proactively works to stop pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
After a long discussion, the leaders left the question largely unresolved. In a joint statement, they again condemned Russia’s actions and called on the country to stop the flow of arms and fighters across its borders. But they did not specify what might prompt them to broaden their sanctions to target entire sectors of the Russian economy. Instead, they threatened “to impose further costs on Russia should events so require,” without elaboration.
Unlike some other Western European leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel sided with the tougher line in a speech to the German Parliament before flying to Brussels. Putin “has to make his influence felt” with pro-Russian separatists who have attacked and seized government offices in eastern Ukraine and do more to prevent weapons flowing into Ukraine across porous Russian borders, she said.
“If all this does not stop,” she told Parliament, “then we will not shy away from imposing new sanctions.”
But the French government repeated its refusal to cancel the warship sale, saying it would be illegal to break a contract under international law. French officials view the economic imperative outweighing the geopolitical costs.
Even within the Obama administration, there are cross pressures about how to respond, most recently about sending more troops to bolster the security of Poland and other NATO allies in the east.
Obama sided with aides who advised against a more robust military presence in the east in the short term for fear it would be unnecessarily provocative. But he did promise to spend up to $1 billion if approved by Congress to increase joint exercises, expand military training, and pre-position equipment.