WASHINGTON — President Obama will depart Sunday for a six-day swing through Europe and the Middle East in what is shaping up to be one of the most consequential foreign trips of his presidency.
The visit will kick off Monday with a meeting with Dutch leaders and the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, a biennial gathering of more than 50 world leaders that will be overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.
Leaders from the Group of Eight — minus Russia — will meet on the margins of the summit at The Hague on Monday to discuss how they will move forward against Moscow, which formally annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine on Friday.
National security adviser Susan Rice said Friday that Russia's actions have led to a fundamental reassessment of the U.S.-Russian relationship, one that since the end of the Cold War has been moving toward fully integrating Russia politically and economically into the global community.
"But that was predicated on the expectation that Russia would play by the rules of the road," Rice said. "What we have seen in the Ukraine is obviously a very egregious departure from that, and it is causing the countries and people of Europe and the international community and, of course, the United States to reassess what does it mean and what are the implications."
Obama will also hold meetings on the sidelines of the nuclear summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first time the two leaders have sat down together since they met in California last June. Obama plans a trilateral meeting with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, which the White House said is meant to send the message that the United States is committed to the security of northeast Asia.
The crisis in Ukraine will be the central focus during the president's time in the Netherlands, as well as subsequent stops in Brussels and Rome, according to the White House.
Wednesday in Brussels, he will take part in a summit with European Union leaders and visit NATO headquarters. Obama is also scheduled to deliver an address on the Ukraine crisis.
"What will be clear for the world to see is that Russia's increasingly isolated, that the United States is leading the international community in support of Ukraine … and in imposing costs on Russia for its aggression," Rice said.
The president will then travel to Rome, where he's scheduled to meet Thursday with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Obama is scheduled to have an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday at the Vatican, giving the president a high-profile opportunity to highlight his domestic push against income inequality by huddling with the religious leader who has made the eradication of poverty one of his top issues.
Obama and the European Union announced financial sanctions and travel bans this week against more than two dozen Russian officials and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as sanctions against a Russian bank that the Treasury Department said is used by top Russian officials.
Andrew Kuchins, an expert on Russian politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, likened Obama's response to Putin's military incursion to President Jimmy Carter's early response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Carter was ridiculed for seeming flat-footed, Kuchins said. Carter called on the Senate to postpone action on the SALT-II nuclear weapons treaty and recalled his ambassador to the Soviet Union
"By comparison now, Barack Obama makes Jimmy Carter look like Attila the Hun," Kuchins said.
When Obama sits down with European leaders next week, he will have the tough task of persuading his counterparts to approve the sort of tough sanctions on Russia's economy that will have deeper reverberations in Europe than they will in the USA.
Obama signaled Thursday that it might be time to hit Russia's oil and natural gas industries, which account for much of Russia's exports, but he acknowledged the move could be difficult for much of Europe, which relies on Russian exports.
The president will have to answer difficult questions about U.S. efforts to aid Ukraine that have become complicated by differences between the White House and Republicans over the International Monetary Fund.
The White House is using the Ukraine aid measure to press Congress to make changes to the IMF that have stalled since Republicans took the House majority in 2011. Obama wants Congress to shift $63 billion in U.S. funding from the IMF crisis fund to the body's general fund. Republicans want to separate the Ukraine aid and IMF decisions.
"The main sacrifices will be coming from Europe just by the structure of the situation," said Jeremy Shapiro, a former senior State Department official and current visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Particularly the IMF point, I think it's something that he's going to have to deliver on. He may not have to deliver on it next week, but I think he is going to have to make that promise to them that he's going to be able to deliver on it in the reasonably near future."
Obama will cap his trip with a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday, making his first visit to Riyadh since 2009.
Riyadh has become frustrated with U.S. policy toward Syria. The Saudis want Washington to do more to back the increasingly beleaguered Syrian opposition in its effort to oust Bashar Assad's regime and replace it with a pro-Saudi Sunni government. The Saudis are also incensed by Obama's engagement with the Shiite regime in Tehran, Iran.
Rice said the White House contemplated holding a meeting with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council while Obama was in Riyadh but decided not to pursue a summit.
The Obama administration has coordinated closely with GCC members — which include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait — on the civil war in Syria.
Rice noted that internal strife in the GCC makes it difficult to hold a summit. Qatar has faced opposition from the other GCC members over its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that was briefly in power in Egypt and is active in Syria and Libya.
"The situation between and amongst the members of the GCC has grown more complex of late," Rice said. "While we maintain very strong and cooperative relationships with each of the GCC countries, we didn't think that from their point of view the time was optimal for a collective meeting."