President Obama strongly condemned the continuing violence in Ukraine on Wednesday night, but insisted he does not see developments there as a renewal of the Cold War even though the United States and Russia are supporting different sides in the showdown in Kiev.
"I don't think this is a competition between the United States and Russia," he said in a press conference in Toluca, Mexico, concluding a one-day North American leaders' conference with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada.
Also condemning the actions of the Kremlin-backed Assad regime in Syria, the president acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin has opposed U.S. efforts to end the violence. "Now, Mr. Putin has a different view on many of those issues, and I don't think that there's any secret on that," Obama said. But he added that "our approach in the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power."
At the same time, he left no doubt that he believes Russia is influencing the governments in both Syria and Ukraine in a way that is decidedly unhelpful. "I do think it is worth noting," he said, "that you have, in this situation, one country that has clearly been a client state of Russia, another whose government is currently been supported by Russia, where the people obviously have a very different view and vision for their country."
He urged Putin to change his policy and side with those fighting for fundamental rights in those countires. "There are times, I hope, where Russia will recognize that over the long term, they should be on board with those values and interests as well. Right now, there are times where we have strong disagreements." He said he will continue to be "very candid" in making his case to Putin. "We'll continue to stand on the side of the people."
He also expressed hope that a truce will hold in Kiev, adding that this is the responsibility of the government.
Earlier, in his opening statement at the press conference, he also warned the government of Venezuela, which has been cracking down on protesters and trying to blame the United States for stirring up opposition. "Rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people," he said, demanding that the government "release protesters that it's detained, and engage in real dialogue."
The outbreak of violence elsewhere overshadowed the issues on the agenda for this summit bringing together Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Obama. But it did not prevent an uncomfortable dispute between Washington and Ottawa from being the first question in the press conference—Canadian exasperation at how long it is taking the Obama administration to rule on the Keystone XL pipeline.
As expected, neither leader chose to air the dispute publicly. Instead, each repeated his well-known position. Obama did acknowledge the Canadian unhappiness, though. "As I've stated previously, there is a process that has been gone through. And I know it's been extensive and at times, I'm sure, Stephen feels, a little too laborious." But he was unapologetic, explaining simply that this is "how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have significant impact on America's national economy and our national interests." He said—again—that he will not make his decision until the close of a comment period to let agencies weigh in and an evaluation and recommendation from Secretary of State John Kerry. "And we'll make a decision at that point."
In response, Harper said that "obviously" he had pressed his case in private with Obama. "My views in favor of the project are very well-known," he said, adding, "His views on the process are also equally well-known, and we had that discussion and we'll continue on that discussion."
On another topic, the president made a pitch for his trade policy and challenged a reporter's assertion that Democrats are opposed to negotiating free-trade deals, calling that "not accurate." He insisted that "there are elements in my party" who oppose the deals, noting that these same elements opposed earlier deals and they were still approved. Speaking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being negotiated, he concluded, "We'll get this passed—if it's a good agreement."