As Obama's itinerary makes clear, though, they are decidedly on opposing sides in 2014. And Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, said there are no plans for a formal meeting with Putin when both men are in Paris or Normandy. Nothing beyond a handshake is planned at this point. In contrast, the president will hold a formal meeting in Warsaw Wednesday with Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko.
"This trip is going to be completely dominated by Ukraine and Vladimir Putin," said Heather A. Conley, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe in the George W. Bush administration. "It is definitely a different trip than was originally envisioned to Sochi."
That will be evident from the moment Air Force One touches down in Warsaw. There, the president will meet with the leaders of 11 Central and Eastern European countries — Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary. All have painful memories of domination by Moscow and all seek reassurance from Obama that the United States will not tolerate any future Russian incursions in their territory.
"Ninety percent of reassurance is showing up," said Jeremy Shapiro, recalling Woody Allen's famous dictum. Shapiro, a senior adviser on Europe and a member of the State Department's policy planning staff in Obama's first term, added, "The main thing he has to do on the trip is show up in terms of Poland. Essentially, what he's trying to say to Poland and to other Eastern European countries in NATO is that the United States is behind you."
That reassurance is badly needed, according to Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish ambassador to the United States. In particular, he said the Poles want to hear Obama specifically state that any Russian incursion across the border of a NATO country would provoke a response under Article 5 of the NATO charter. Article 5 holds that "an armed attack against one" member of NATO "shall be considered an attack against them all." He acknowledged that Article 5 has been reaffirmed in recent weeks by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"But it is different to publicly hear it from the president in Warsaw," he said. "To hear the words of the U.S. president telling that Article 5 and the mutual commitment of the NATO countries is unbreakable." He acknowledged that Poland has been told the commitment is ironclad. "But," he said, "iron can get rust. It will be an important declaration" to hear it again from Obama.
The White House has said that assurance will come in the president's speech on Wednesday at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
Conley, who is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the leaders in Warsaw also will press Obama to go beyond Article 5. Now that Ukraine's election has been held, she said, they will ask the president, "What is the U.S. policy approach to Ukraine? To Moldova? And Georgia? And Russia? Are you going to stick and focus on this? Where are you? They are going to ask tough questions and they are going to want much, much more sustained U.S. engagement in this region."