US President Barack Obama, here shaking hands with Belgium's King Philippe while Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo looks on, called on Europe and Russia to commit to peace. Obama made the remarks during a special speech at the WWI Flanders Field Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium on Wednesday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
U.S. President Barack Obama says Russia's leadership miscalculated if it thought the world wouldn't care about its actions in Ukraine. And, he says Russia was mistaken if it thought it could drive a wedge between the U.S. and the European Union.
Obama, speaking at a news conference with EU leaders in Brussels, said the U.S. and Europe are both determined to isolate Russia for its incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. He praised the EU’s sanctions levelled against Russia, some of which target the same people as American sanctions.
“Taken together, they’re the most significant sanctions Russia has faced since the Cold War,” Obama said.
Obama said coordination between the U.S. and Europe on economic sanctions against Russia has been excellent and warned that if Russia continues on its current course, "the isolation will deepen."
The leaders also expressed confidence they would complete a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that seeks to remove trade barriers between the 28-nation bloc and the U.S. Obama noted the deal arrangement would have a Ukraine connection because it could provide a counterweight to Russian energy leverage in Europe.
Until a deal is signed, though, the onus remains on the EU to ween itself off Russian oil and gas.
“We in Europe have to solve our own problems," said President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso.
Earlier, Obama reached back 100 years to reinforce the U.S.-European bond, calling for a recommitment to peace Wednesday during a solemn pilgrimage to a First World War cemetery as European tensions run high over Russia's incursion into Ukraine.
"This visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never ever take our progress for granted," Obama said at Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in northwest Belgium. "We must commit perennially to peace, which binds us across oceans."
Followed by the stirring sound of a bugler playing Taps, Obama joined Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and King Phillipe in laying a trio of wreaths at the white stone chapel at the center of the cemetery, the site of a significant First World War battle. The three leaders then walked among some of the white crosses that mark the burial site of 368 American troops, most of whom gave their lives in liberating Belgium from German occupation.
The Belgian leaders did not mention Russian President Vladimir Putin by name in remarks afterward, but clearly were referencing his audacious annexation of Crimea as they recalled the lessons of world war. "Our countries have learned the hard way that national sovereignty quickly reaches its limits" when confronted with armed adversaries who don't respect that sovereignty, said King Phillipe.
"We have to continue to draw lessons from the terrible war that started 100 years ago," Di Rupo said. "And, above all, we have to prevent new conflicts.
"Those who ignore the past are taking the risk to relive it," he added.
Obama dismissive of Russian threat
On Tuesday, Obama aimed to solidify broad-based support against Russia, dismissing it as a mere "regional power" that was threatening its neighbours "not out of strength, but out of weakness."
It was the kind of brush-off-your-shoulder language sure to antagonize the nationalistic Putin, but it also belied the time and energy Obama and European leaders have devoted to isolate Russia and fashion a menu of sanctions designed to stop Moscow's aggression.
Obama came to Brussels to shore up commitments he received from allies in The Hague, Netherlands, to reassure Eastern European members of NATO that the alliance will stand by them and to make a larger point about European security a quarter-century after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Russia says Ukraine antagonizing its airline crews
Meanwhile, Russia accused Ukrainian officials of barring Russian commercial airline crews from going outside their planes in Ukrainian airports. Ukraine denied the allegation.
Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that Ukrainian border guards have been forcing cabin crews of Aeroflot, the state-controlled Russian airline, to stay inside their planes. The ministry said the decision violates international law and ultimately "poses a threat to the safety of civil aviation" because the crews cannot rest properly.
Oleg Slobodian, spokesman for the Ukrainian border service, denied any policy to keep Aeroflot crews on their planes. The only time a crew member was prevented from entry was on March 24, he said, when a passport check revealed that the man had a travel ban. In solidarity, the remainder of the crew remained on board with him.
Tensions have been high between Moscow and Kyiv since Russia annexed Crimea.
Russian authorities had previously complained that Ukrainian border guards singled out Russian men at the frontier and blocked their crossing, fearing that they may be activists coming to stir up unrest.
Paris-bound jet diverted due to Russian drills
Air France says a plane carrying 495 passengers and 22 crew was diverted on its way from Shanghai to Paris after Russia announced at short notice that part of its airspace was closed for a military exercise.
The company said flight AF111 was forced to land in Hamburg, Germany, early Wednesday to refuel because the plane had too little fuel on board to complete the flight following its detour.
Hamburg Airport confirmed that the plane landed shortly after 6 a.m. local time and was able to take off for Paris again after an hour and a half.
It wasn't immediately clear if Russia's military exercise was linked to the increased troop activity on its western border with Ukraine.