BRUSSELS -- President Obama is urging European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders to bolster the military alliance's presence in countries in Eastern and Central Europe near Russia, part of an effort to ward off further Russian aggression in the wake of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Speaking after a meeting with European Union leaders, Obama said he has suggested that European leaders review and update their "contingency plans" at an April meeting. He said the alliance needs to "do more to ensure that a regular NATO presence among some of these states that may feel vulnerable is executed."
Obama's made the remarks before meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the midpoint of his European trip this week. The president's visit has been dominated by the crisis in Ukraine, and by the attempt to craft a unified U.S.-European strategy to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from another land grab in the former Soviet republic.
The president has ruled out U.S. military involvement in the dispute, noting that Ukraine is not a NATO member and not covered under the treaty. Still, he has had to reassure other NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe that NATO stands ready and prepared.
The White House said Obama would push NATO to step up its efforts with more visible training and exercises in the region, as well as initiating the review of defense plans and improving the readiness of the NATO Response Force.
On Wednesday, Obama made an appeal to unnamed member countries that have reduced defense spending in tight economic times, taking a toll on the 55-year-old alliance.
"If we've got collective defense, it means that everybody's got to chip in. And I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO; not all, but many. The trend lines have been going down," Obama said. "The situation in Ukraine reminds us that our freedom isn't free and we've got to be willing to pay for the assets, the personnel, the training that's required to make sure that we have a credible NATO force and an effective deterrent force."