PRAGUE -- Today, U.S. President Barack Obama signed a new arms treaty with Russia. Tonight, he aimed to reassure jittery Eastern European leaders that better relations between Washington and Moscow would not come at their expense.
Just hours after signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a key part of his efforts to "reset" relations with the Kremlin, Obama held a working dinner with leaders from 11 Eastern European countries.
The meeting -- held at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Prague with leaders from Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and the Czech Republic -- came as Washington's allies in Eastern Europe are feeling increasingly neglected by the Obama administration and ever more fearful of a resurgence of Russian influence in their region.
Alexander Vondra, a former Czech deputy prime minister, said the dinner gave Obama a chance to reassure Washington's allies in Eastern Europe:
"President Obama promised two things in Prague a year ago. He promised the beginning of a new era of nuclear disarmament together with the reset of the relationship with Russia. But he also promised not to abandon his allies, in particular the allies in Central and Eastern Europe," Vondra said.
"So this dinner is the first opportunity to discuss the delivery on the second point. But this is just a dinner. It's the first step, but a dinner is not enough," he added.
Questioning NATO's Strength
According to a White House statement released after the dinner, the leaders agreed that NATO was “central to our shared interest in global security.”
Obama also stressed that NATO's Article 5, which obliges alliance members to defend a member who is attacked, must remain “relevant to meeting 21st century threats,” according to the statement.
Some Eastern European members have expressed fears that Article 5 might not be honored in the event they were attacked.
The Eastern European leaders, the statement said, “expressed their view that the improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow has reduced tensions and created new opportunities for them to improve their relations with Russia.”
Memories of Moscow's domination are still fresh in these former communist countries, which joined NATO and the European Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Ever since Obama launched a diplomatic offensive to reset and improve relations with Moscow, officials in the region have expressed fears that their interests would be sacrificed as relations between Russia and the United States warmed.
Michael McFaul, who is Obama's senior advisor on Russian affairs, told reporters in Prague that all of Europe's security is enhanced when Moscow and Washington are engaged.
He said the United States believes that "a more substantive relationship with Russia, where we can talk about things -- including the things that we disagree about ... actually is good for security in this region of the world, not bad for security."
McFaul added that "when we're in a very confrontational relationship with Russia-- that generally has not been good for security in this region of the world."
In July, a group of prominent Eastern European intellectuals and former officials -- including former Czech and Polish presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa -- published an open letter to the Obama administration expressing fears that the United States was becoming less interested in Eastern Europe and NATO was becoming less effective at a time when Russia was resurgent.
"NATO today seems weaker than when we joined. In many of our countries it is perceived as less and less relevant -- and we feel it," they wrote. "Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises."
White House Reassurances
Those fears gained new momentum with Obama's decision in September to reconfigure U.S. plans to deploy components of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The project was ostensibly aimed against Iran but was staunchly opposed by Moscow and had been a thorn in U.S.-
Russia relations ever since former U.S. President George W. Bush's Defense Department first proposed it in 2006.
The White House says its new missile-defense blueprint, which relies initially on mobile sea-based interceptors, makes more sense militarily and is less politically provocative toward Moscow. Many in Eastern Europe interpreted the changes as a dangerous capitulation to the Kremlin -- despite the fact that Russian continues to oppose the new plan.
Obama twice dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to the region -- with visits to Ukraine and Georgia in July and to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania in October -- to help assuage those fears.
Speaking to reporters in Prague, Deputy White House National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stressed that the very itinerary and agenda of Obama's visit to Prague demonstrates that better relations with Russia and greater security for Eastern Europe are not mutually exclusive.
"I think if you looked at where things are today in terms of European security and Russia generally, they have advanced since we've been in office," he said.
"And that the president can come here to Prague and sign a major arms control agreement with the Russian president and have dinner with 11 NATO allies that night underscores the fact that these relationships in no way come at the expense of the others."
(Correspondent Gregory Feifer contributed to this report)