TALLINN, Estonia (AP) -- Lashing out at Russia, President Barack Obama on Wednesday cast Moscow's aggression in Ukraine as a threat to peace in Europe. He vigorously vowed to come to the defense of NATO allies that fear they could be Vladimir Putin's next target.<br />
"You lost your independence once before," Obama said following meetings with Baltic leaders in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. "With NATO, you'll never lose it again."<br />
Obama, who faces criticism in the U.S. for being too cautious in confronting Russian President Putin, sharply condemned Moscow's provocations. He declared in blunt terms that Russian forces that have moved into Ukraine in recent weeks are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission, as the Kremlin has insisted.<br />
"They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks," he said during a speech at a packed concert hall.<br />
Obama also took aim at one of Russia's main rationales for its provocations in Ukraine: the protection of Russian speakers living outside its borders. Like Ukraine, Estonia and other Baltic nations have sizeable Russian-speaking populations, compounding their fears that Moscow could seek to intervene inside their borders.<br />
"We reject the lie that people cannot live and thrive together just because they have different backgrounds or speak a different language," Obama said.<br />
Despite the president's tough talk, the U.S. and Europe have been unable to shift Putin's calculus in the months-long crisis in eastern Ukraine. While multiple rounds of Western sanctions have damaged Russia's economy, the penalties have not pushed Putin to end what the White House says is unfettered support for pro-Moscow separatists who have stirred upheaval in key cities.<br />
Obama offered no new options for penalizing Russia beyond more sanctions, and reiterated his opposition to getting involved in the conflict militarily.
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
House Republican leaders rallied around one of their own, Whip Steve Scalise, on Tuesday after he said he regrets speaking 12 years ago to a white supremacist organization and condemns the views of such groups.
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