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Obama faces difficult balancing act as he heads for NATO summit

President Obama is visiting Tallinn in Estonia before heading for the NATO summit in Wales. The focus of the discussions in both venues is likely to be the Ukraine crisis, with Baltic leaders seeking reassurance and NATO planning to create a rapid deployment force.

WASHINGTON: President Obama is visiting Tallinn in Estonia before heading for the NATO summit in Wales this week. The focus of the discussions in both venues is likely to be the Ukraine crisis, with Baltic leaders seeking reassurance and NATO planning to create a rapid deployment force.

In Wales, the city of Cardiff has set up a security wall as it prepares for dozens of dignitaries to meet - a useful metaphor, perhaps, for the NATO summit's main theme is Europe's security in the face of Russian action in Ukraine.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Programme at CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), said: "The newsmaker here at this summit will be about NATO's collective defence response in Central Europe, in Northern Europe, in the Baltics. And it will focus on NATO's readiness action plan. No one predicted that a portion of Europe would be annexed in 2014. And it has now required NATO to really adapt and change fairly dramatically."

As Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists continue to make incursions into Ukraine, NATO has released photos showing what it says are columns of Russian armed forces inside Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance is planning to start a rapid deployment force and a more visible presence in Eastern Europe to reassure Baltic states in particular.

As part of that mission, President Obama will be making a stop in Estonian capital Tallinn on his way to Wales. "In Estonia, I will reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the defence of our NATO allies. At the NATO summit in the United Kingdom, we'll focus on additional steps we can take to ensure the alliance remains prepared for any challenge," said Mr Obama.

It is strong talk but in reality, when it comes to the planned rapid response force, experts say Mr Obama will have to think carefully about how much the US can contribute. Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Programme at CSIS, said: "The big question on the US side...is how we will support that, with the strain on our own forces around the world."

Meanwhile, several current urgent crises could mean that longer term issues, including President Obama's rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific, do not get as much attention as they might have.

Kathleen Hicks said: "There has been some discussion about the Asia rebalance before - certainly before the Ukraine crisis - and how the Asia rebalance on the US side would affect NATO. Should NATO rebalance? While that at one point may have been a major discussion for this summit, I think it will fall much lower in the agenda of those sidebar conversations."

But overall, some say that the alliance should welcome having such a packed agenda. Heather Conley said: "In some ways, NATO should thank Vladimir Putin because it was really searching for its purpose, post-ISAF, and it was having a fairly significant identity crisis. It has now not only been re-purposed, it has been reinvigorated."

President Obama has got a difficult balancing act to undertake as he travels to Europe. He wants to reassure nervous allies in the Balkans that America's got their back, and show a united front with NATO partners on the new rapid reaction force. But at the same time, he will need to manage expectations about what the US can do, given he is clearly keen to stay restrained and avoid escalating what are already considerable tensions with Moscow.