By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is set to toast the five leaders of Nordic nations at a lavish state dinner at the White House on Friday, an unusual summit aimed in part at sending a message to a nation not on the guest list: Russia.
Obama will laud the humanitarian and environmental accomplishments of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland, but also wants to talk about how to deal with their increasingly aggressive neighbor Russia ahead of a NATO summit in July.
"We share the concern of countries in the region, particularly those who have a border with Russia, about the increasing presence of Russian military assets in the area," said Charles Kupchan, Obama's senior director for European affairs.
"We will be discussing ways to enhance the security of the region, writ large, and also what we can do through dialogue and diplomacy to urge Russia to be more transparent and to be more restrained and careful in its military exercises," Kupchan told reporters.
Obama last met Nordic leaders in Stockholm in 2013 on his way to a G20 summit in St. Petersburg after canceling a planned bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin because of tensions over Syria and surveillance issues.
Since then, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region, prompting Nordic nations to step up their military cooperation and the United States to boost military spending to help NATO do more to try to deter Russia.
During a recent visit to Europe, Obama sought to reassure allies about the U.S. commitment to the continent, but pushed nations to increase their defense spending and stay united amid the strain of dealing with an influx of migrants fleeing Middle East conflicts.
The leaders will discuss a long-term approach for dealing with refugees, Kupchan said, as well as new contributions to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. He declined comment on specific commitments from the meeting.
Typically, the White House rolls out the red carpet for one leader at a time. Friday will be a bit trickier, juggling five guests of honor and their entourages.
The state dinner itself will be in a large tent with a transparent ceiling evoking the northern lights and "shadowy spaces in the arctic night," the White House told reporters.
Guests will sit at long, rustic wooden tables bedecked with columns of ice, fiddlehead ferns, and fragrant hand-rolled beeswax candles, and dine on braised Nebraska beef short ribs and salt-cured Atlantic ahi tuna served in a large ice cube.
The summit is expected to be heavy on "feel-good" messages about the outsized role Nordic nations play in international diplomacy, said Julie Smith, a former Obama administration official now with the Center for a New American Security.
"In many ways, the actual visit is the deliverable," Smith said, noting it was unlikely major new initiatives would emerge.
"We're at the end of the president's tenure so there are limits on what new things he can drive forward," Smith said.
In Washington, preparations for the leaders' arrival have been overshadowed by a visit by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to meet with congressional leaders as the race intensifies to replace Obama in the White House in the Nov. 8 election.
Trump has said NATO is obsolete and European nations should look after their own defense, which has sparked concern among Nordic nations, said Heather Conley, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
"They hear with great clarity the statements of Donald Trump and they don't know exactly how this is going to work in November," said Conley, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg plans to stress the importance of American participation in NATO for Nordic nations, she said in an interview this week with the Norwegian daily Aftenposten.
"With an unpredictable Russian presence in the northern areas, it's important that the Americans have a focus on the Arctic regions," Solberg said.
(Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; Editing by David Gregorio)