Obama in Poland: Freedom not guaranteed

President Obama painted Ukrainians struggling to determine their future as the heirs of the democratic resistance to communist rule during an event Wednesday marking the 25th anniversary of free elections in Poland.

“As we've been reminded by Russia's aggression in Ukraine, our free nations cannot be complacent in pursuit of the vision we pursue,” Obama told European leaders and dignitaries gathered in Warsaw’s Castle Square.

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Obama said that Poland’s story “reminds us that freedom is not guaranteed” and declared that “every nation must be free to chart its own course, forge its own partnerships, choose its own allies.”

“We stand with Ukrainians now,” Obama said. “Ukraine must be free to choose its own future for itself and by itself. And we reject the zero sum thinking of the past.”

The president repeatedly drew explicit comparisons between the actions of the modern-day Kremlin and the communist regime that imposed rule over Poland, and said leaders must “stand for those who seek freedom.”

“We stand together because we believe that upholding peace and security is the responsibility of every nation,” Obama said. “The days of empires and spheres of influence are over. Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small, or impose their will at the barrel of a gun or with masked men taking over buildings. And the stroke of a pen can never legitimize the theft of a neighbor’s land.”

The president repeated his vow that the U.S. would never accept Russian occupation of Crimea, and said free nations “will stand united so that further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia.”

“After investing so much blood and treasure to bring Europe together, we refuse to allow the dark tactics of the 20th century to define the 21st,” he said.

Obama also looked to reassure Poles and other Eastern Europeans that the United States would defend their borders if Russian aggression continued. The U.S. has looked to assuage fears among leaders in former Soviet republics, vowing to step up America’s military presence on the continent.

“As allies, we have a solemn duty, a binding treaty obligation, to defend your territorial integrity,” Obama said. “And we will. We stand together, now and forever, for your freedom and ours. Poland will never stand alone. Estonia will never stand alone. Latvia will never stand alone. Lithuania will never stand alone. Romania will never stand alone.”

Obama said the NATO alliance was an “unbreakable commitment” backed by “the most powerful military in history."

The president touted $1 billion in additional military spending that, if authorized by Congress, would go to joint military exercises and training missions, supporting U.S. air, land and sea operations in Europe and helping modernize the militaries of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

The president spoke shortly after meeting Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko for the first time, during which he offered U.S. military aid including night vision goggles and body armor. The $5 million gesture was an escalation of aid that had previously been restricted to nonlethal assistance like battlefield meals.

Later Wednesday, Obama will head to Brussels for a meeting of the Group of Seven. That conference had originally been slated for Sochi, but Western leaders opted to expel Russia from the group over its aggression in Ukraine.