TALLINN, Estonia - President Obama warned the killers of American journalist Steven J. Sotloff on Wednesday that their atrocities only served to galvanize American resolve to punish and dismantle the Islamic State militants.
The comments, at a news conference in the Estonian capital Tallinn, appeared to sharpen the U.S. commitment to confront the hard-line Islamist groups controlling parts of northern Iraq and Syria. But Obama gave no clear details on whether the United States planned to escalate its pressure on the group beyond the current wave of limited airstrikes and efforts to forge a stronger international coalition against the militants.
“We will not be intimidated,’’ Obama said shortly after U.S. intelligence experts said the videotaped beheading of Sotloff appeared authentic — the second such killing of an American journalist at the hands of the Islamic State.
“Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists,” he added. “And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that out reach is long and that justice will be served.”
Obama’s tougher tone also stood in contrast to the criticism leveled last week after he said America was still struggling to define its strategy against the Islamic State.
Obama said America’s objective was to “degrade and destroy’’ the group that killed Sotloff and fellow U.S. journalist James Foley “so it is no longer a threat just to Iraq, but to the region and the United States.”
He acknowledged, however, that any push to dismantle the group could be a drawn-out battle. The Islamic State holds strategic hubs — including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul — and appears to have a formidable arsenal after overrunning Iraqi military bases and other sites.
But Obama suggested that the Islamic State’s “sphere of influence’’ could be eroded with greater international cooperation to dry up its financing and military pipelines. He gave no further details, yet such a move would likely require greater clampdowns from Western allies in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere to monitor the flow of funds and recruits to Islamic State-held territory.
At the news conference, Obama reached out to Sotloff’s family, saying the journalist was “taken from us in a horrific act of violence.”
“We cannot even begin to imagine the agony that everyone who loves Steven is feeling right now, especially his mother, his father and his younger sister. So today our country grieves with them,” Obama said in words similar to the condolences offered following the beheading late last month of James Foley.
The growing crisis with the Islamic State took center stage despite Obama’s other critical message carried to the small Baltic States: Reassuring the former Soviet republics that the United States and NATO stand ready to defend them against possible Russian aggression. The meetings came ahead of a NATO meeting in Wales that is expected to be dominated by the showdowns in Ukraine between pro-Moscow rebels and the Western-leaning government in Kiev.
Obama arrived in this walled medieval capital on the Baltic Sea as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that a “cease-fire process’’ had been potentially agreed to with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a surprise decision that came as Russian-backed rebels have made rapid strides to retake territory in the last week.
But major questions were immediately raised about the plan. The Kremlin said no firm cease-fire deal was hammered out and reiterated earlier statements — strongly disputed by the West — that Russia has no direct sway over the Ukrainian rebels.
Obama told the news conference it was “too early to tell” what the Ukrainian announcement meant. He said the desire had always been for a political solution, but that a realistic settlement could not be achieved until Russia stops sending tanks, troops, arms and advisers to the separatists.
“We haven’t seen a lot of follow-up on so-called announced cease-fires,” he said. If Russia is prepared to stop financing, arming, training and in many cases joining with Russian troops and is serious about a political settlement, “that is something we hope for.”
Obama planned talks Wednesday with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — NATO members with varying concerns about possible Russian pressure as tensions increase with the Western alliance.
Obama was greeted in a formal ceremony by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at Kadriorg Palace. The two men shook hands outside on a crisp, sunny morning. A military band played the national anthems of both countries. The men greeted a group of children, one of which got a high five from Obama.
“In Estonia, I will reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the defense of our NATO allies,” Obama said.
Obama’s trip was arranged in the past few weeks as the White House blamed Russia for a "flagrant escalation" of the situation after it moved humanitarian convoys across the Russian border without Ukraine’s consent or knowledge.
“There has always been a great fear in the Baltic states that if push came to shove, they question whether NATO would really have their back,” said Heather Conley, vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and director, Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia said this week it will review its military plans as NATO is expected to endorse the formation of a rapid response team of about 4,000 troops that can quickly deploy to Eastern Europe. The plan will respond to Russia’s “aggressive behavior,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday, and plans to open bases in Eastern Europe.
“Russia is intervening overtly in Ukraine,” Rasmussen said.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.