NATO on Friday agreed to establish a “rapid response” force that could be ready to defend Ukraine, President Obama announced at a news conference in Wales.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine threatens our vision of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace,” Obama said at the conclusion of a NATO summit.
The president also said there was unanimity among NATO members that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses an international threat. He called the group a “savage organization causing chaos in the region.”
In remarks aimed principally at Russia, Obama said actions have consequences and that “deeper and broader” sanctions could be imposed if Russia did not back down in its conflict with Ukraine.
Obama said he was “hopeful but skeptical” about a cease-fire that was announced early Friday between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. The cease-fire “has to be tested,” the president said.
Obama described Russia as increasingly isolated as a result of sanctions and its behavior. Still, NATO prepared to increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, announcing the rapid response force and increasing its presence in eastern Europe. Obama said patrols in the Black Sea would continue.
Obama said NATO had reaffirmed that it would respond to an attack against any member.
“An armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against all,” said Obama. “This is a binding treaty obligation. It is not negotiable.”
He added: “We have left absolutely no doubt: We will defend every ally.”
That remark appeared to be a warning to Putin to avoid an attack on any of the Baltic states, which have significant Russian-speaking populations.
On ISIS, Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the region to continue assembling an international coalition aimed at defeating the terrorist group. He said it was “critical” that the coalition contain not just Arab states, but Sunni-majority states.
Obama said the goal was not to contain ISIS, but to destroy it—though he described that as a longer-term goal. “We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the group. “The bottom line is, we will do what is necessary to make sure that ISIL does not threaten our friends and partners.”
Obama spoke after a meeting of several NATO allies that have formed a “core coalition” to combat ISIS. The core coalition will aim to carry out airstrikes against ISIS, as well as to aid moderate Syrian rebels and the Kurdish peshmerga forces. It currently comprises the U.S. Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark, but it could expand.
Over the summer, ISIS fighters have overwhelmed the Iraqi Army to take control of swaths of the country, raising the threat of an Islamic extremist state in the heart of a strategically vital region. The recent beheadings by ISIS of two American journalists have added to the pressure on the U.S. to respond. But with polls showing little appetite among Americans for a new ground war in the Middle East, Obama is reluctant to commit troops.
“I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Kerry said during an appearance at the summit earlier Friday.
Obama has been criticized lately, mostly by conservatives and Republicans but also by some Democrats, for what some call his uncertain response to the crisis. He added fuel to the fire last week when he acknowledged at a White House press conference: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”