Can Obama Reassure Putin on NATO?

MOSCOW - After a speech full of red meat promises to defend Eastern European allies and defy Russian encroachment on Ukraine, President Obama threw Russian President Vladimir Putin a bone during his press conference.

"Neither Ukraine or Georgia are currently on a path to NATO membership and there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO's membership," he told reporters when asked if the current crisis would make NATO expansion more likely.

That was likely welcome news to Putin, who has indicated that NATO expansion toward Russia's borders is a red line, and is perhaps indicative of at least one way the White House hopes to de-escalate the crisis.

Obama's remark built on parts of his address, in which he stated that Ukraine is not a member of NATO "in part because of its close and complex history with Russia" and that "neither the United States, nor Europe, has any interest in controlling Ukraine."

(Obama also appeared to appeal to Russian sensibilities when describing American efforts in World War Two. While Americans tend to talk about the fight against Nazis, Obama referred to the fight against "fascism" as most Russians proudly do.)

Those comments appeared to be an attempt to reassure the Kremlin that it has nothing to fear from Ukraine's westward turn - and therefore no reason to intervene militarily in more parts of the country.

Last week President Putin, who has amassed troops on Russia's border with Ukraine, ostensibly for training but amid talk of the need to protect Russian speakers across the border, railed against Western deception over NATO expansion in the past and suggested Russia would not allow it to happen again.

"We are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory," he declared in his speech to Russia's political elite.

He said he could never imagine having to visit NATO sailors in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet - comments that may have betrayed the real geopolitical reason for Russia's annexation of the peninsula, which Putin had sold as an effort to protect ethnic Russians.

Still, while experts say Obama's overture may be useful, they are skeptical it will be enough.

"His other recent statements are more likely to offend Putin and other Russians, including his statement that Russia is a 'regional power' and that its actions reflect 'weakness,'" said Paul Saunders, a Russia expert and executive director of the Center for the National Interest.

"Putin's desire to keep Ukraine in Moscow's geopolitical orbit means that he does not want Ukraine to draw closer to the European Union as well," said Steven Pifer, a former US Ambassador to Ukraine who is now with the Brookings Institution. "A Ukraine that signs and implements the EU association agreement will be just as much out from Russia's sphere of influence as a Ukraine that joins NATO."

"If Putin trusts the president on this (not sure that Putin would), it might help, but only partly," Pifer added.

After all, Putin has heard these assurances before.