BRUSSELS – President Barack Obama is meeting with two of his most important European allies -- Britain and France -- as they navigate shifting conditions in the Ukraine crisis now that a new government is coming to power.
Obama plans to consult Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels after a gathering of world leaders at the Group of 7 summit, then hop a short flight to Paris for dinner with French President Francois Hollande. Topping the agenda was what to do about Russia and its involvement in Ukraine.
The U.S. and Europe started out showing solidarity against Vladimir Putin by levying sanctions against the Russian president. But diverging approaches are emerging now that European leaders are planning separate, private meetings with Putin in Paris while Obama is steering clear of him.
Hollande said Thursday that it's up to Obama whether he wants to meet with Putin and noted that both men would be at events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy Friday, along with other world leaders.
"The important thing is we have the same language, the same arguments on Ukraine all together," Holland said in a brief exchange with reporters traveling with Obama. "We are seven."
The G-7 meeting was originally supposed to take place in Sochi, Russia, and include Putin, but the leaders froze him out and moved the site to Brussels after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. After an opening dinner Wednesday night, the group said in a joint statement that they condemn Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and its annexation of Crimea.
"Our free nations will stand united so that further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia," Obama said earlier Wednesday. He announced he'll ask Congress for up to $1 billion to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe and earmarked $5 million worth of equipment to help Ukraine's military fight insurgents, including night vision goggles, body armor and communications tools.
But the changing dynamic in Ukraine has raised questions across the West about how to proceed. The allies had warned Russia that disrupting Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote would trigger even harsher sanctions, but businessman Petro Poroshenko's victory has made Western leaders more optimistic. Obama praised Poroshenko effusively after meeting him for the first time this week in Poland ahead of his inauguration Saturday.
Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes said G-7 leaders would discuss the future approach on sanctions during their meetings.
"We'll have to evaluate going forward, what are the triggers for different types of sanctions," Rhodes said. "That would be reviewing whether or not Russia is continuing to destabilize Eastern Ukraine and whether or not Russia is continuing to support separatist groups."
While Obama avoided scheduling a meeting with Putin, it remained unclear whether Poroshenko and Putin would meet. "We don't want different countries to be having conversations over the head of the government in Kiev about Ukraine's future," Rhodes said.
But Rhodes said the White House is not concerned about the meetings Putin has scheduled with Cameron, Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel around the commemoration. "The question is not whether there are meetings, it's what people are saying in those meetings," Rhodes said.