WARSAW, June 3- President Barack Obama lands in Poland to Tuesday open a European tour shaped by the Ukraine crisis, on which he will reinforce US security guarantees to worried eastern European NATO members.
Within minutes of stepping on Polish soil, Obama will meet US and Polish F-16 fighter pilots who are mounting joint patrols that were stepped up after the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula — in a symbolic signal to Moscow of US intent.
He will also use an overnight stay in Warsaw to meet Ukraine’s president elect Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday, in a sign of support for the newly elected leader’s bid to tilt the country West after his solid election win and navigate out of an economic and political crisis.
The White House also announced Monday that Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kiev on Saturday to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration — underscoring the US position that the people of Ukraine — and not Moscow — should decide their destiny.
Obama’s tour later takes in the Group of Seven summit in Brussels, which will be dominated by a US push to sometimes reluctant Europe to maintain the economic pressure on Russia.
The summit will take place in the shadow of a major offensive by hundreds of pro-Russian gunmen who struck a Ukrainian border guard camp with mortar and grenade fire Monday, in an expanding insurgency which Washington says is directed by Moscow.
Obama will also visit France, for talks with President Francois Hollande in Paris and will attend 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day Normandy landings to complete his second trip to Europe this year.
In Normandy, Obama will come face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a potentially prickly encounter, given that the US leader has spent months trying to isolate his rival and punish the Kremlin inner circle with sanctions over Ukraine.
The White House says there will be no one on one meeting between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of several events featuring heads of states and leaders attending the World War II commemoration.
But senior aides have not ruled out an informal encounter — which would be the first for the rivals since the Ukraine crisis mushroomed into the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War earlier this year.
Obama, who has faced sharp criticism at home over what critics say is a weak foreign policy that has seen him outmaneuvered by Putin, will Tuesday co host a meeting of central and eastern European states which were formerly behind the Iron Curtain and are now in NATO, with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
“Given the focus on reassuring and consulting with our Central and Eastern European allies, we determined with the Poles that it would be good to host this meeting in Warsaw,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor.
Obama will be expected to reassert his promise to eastern European allies left skittish by Russia’s pressure on Ukraine, that Washington is firmly committed to Article Five of the NATO charter, which holds that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.
The meeting, at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, will include leaders or senior representatives from former Eastern bloc states including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
Poland is billing itself as a valuable example for Ukraine after its own journey from Moscow’s influence towards the West.
Obama will also be an honored guest at Poland’s 25th anniversary celebrations of the first free, post-communist elections, which put the country on a path out of the Soviet orbit and towards democracy and growing economic prosperity as a member of the European Union.
“I am very happy that tomorrow and the day after, Poland will be the capital of the free world: that it will be here that leaders from the EU and the United States will meet Ukraine’s president-elect,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters on Monday.
Obama will also hold talks on Tuesday with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and attend a gala dinner celebrating the silver anniversary of modern Polish democracy at the Royal Palace in Warsaw.
He will give the keynote speech of his trip when he attends a formal celebration event outside the Palace on Wednesday, before heading off to the G7 summit in Belgium – where he will also meet British Prime Minister David Cameron.