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Obama's Europe ties tested

by JULIE PACE AP White House Correspondent on March 23, 2014 1:10 AM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s complex relationship with Europe faces new challenges during a weeklong trip as he tries to persuade allied leaders to hold firm in efforts to punish Russia for its incursion into Ukraine.

The deepening dispute between East and West is expected to dominate his visit to Europe, which begins Monday in the Netherlands. The four-country trip was long-planned, but now provides the U.S. and Europe a well-timed chance to present a united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But behind the scenes, Obama will be gauging how far the still economically shaky European Union is willing to go in punishing Russia, one of its largest trading partners. He’ll also be confronted with other European frustrations with the U.S. that are bubbling just below the surface.

Some European officials, chief among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are still smarting over revelations of National Security Agency spying on the continent. There’s also lingering resentment among EU leaders over what it sees as Obama’s snubbing of the alliance.

“There’s an anger there, there’s a frustration there,” said Heather Conley, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She added that while the Ukraine crisis may “mute” some of Europe’s irritation with Obama, “it doesn’t solve it.”

In the Netherlands, Obama will join world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit and head a hastily arranged meeting of the Group of Seven - the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The latter meeting will focus on boosting financial support for Ukraine’s fledgling government, while also serving as a symbol of the West’s efforts to isolate Moscow.

Russia often joins the G-7 nations for Group of Eight meetings, including a summit Putin is supposed to host this summer. Those plans are now in doubt.

Russia is participating in the nuclear summit, but Putin will not attend. He’s sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to The Hague.

Obama’s focus on Ukraine will continue in Brussels, the headquarters for the EU and NATO. A later stop in Rome will feature a highly anticipated meeting with Pope Francis.

Then it’s on to Saudi Arabia for a fence-mending visit with the important Gulf ally.

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