Obama and Kerry Fact-Check Putin and Russia

In contemporaneous statements, the president and the secretary of State pushed back on Putin’s claims about what his country is doing in Ukraine.

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he speaks in the US Embassy in Kiev on March 4, 2014.
National Journal
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Matt Berman, Brian Resnick and Marina Koren
March 4, 2014, 7:32 a.m.

“There is a bet­ter way for Rus­sia to pur­sue its le­git­im­ate in­terests in Ukraine.”

John Kerry says it’s “time to set the re­cord straight” in East­ern Europe.

The sec­ret­ary of State’s re­marks at a press con­fer­ence in Kiev on Tues­day came hours after Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin spoke to the press on his coun­try’s re­cent in­cur­sion in­to Crimea, a sov­er­eign re­gion of Ukraine. The two politi­cians’ re­marks, as Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel might put it, were truly from dif­fer­ent worlds.

“Not a single piece of cred­ible evid­ence sup­ports any one of these claims,” said Kerry of Putin’s jus­ti­fic­a­tions for en­ter­ing Crimea. “None.”

The sec­ret­ary said the U.S. is not seek­ing con­front­a­tion. “There is a bet­ter way for Rus­sia to pur­sue its le­git­im­ate in­terests in Ukraine.” Kerry spoke harshly and clearly when he said, “There are count­less out­lets that an or­gan­ized, struc­tured, de­cent world has struggled to put to­geth­er to re­solve these dif­fer­ences so we don’t see a na­tion uni­lat­er­ally in­vade an­oth­er na­tion.”

One of the end goals of dip­lomacy, Kerry said, is “to al­low Rus­sia to be prop­erly listened to.” He ac­know­ledged that the coun­try has “le­git­im­ate in­terests in Ukraine.”

In a brief state­ment Tues­day, Pres­id­ent Obama echoed Kerry’s state­ment. Obama said that the U.S. stands “on the side of his­tory,” and sup­ports the prin­ciple that Ukrain­i­ans, “an in­de­pend­ent people,” should be able to “make their own de­cisions about their lives.” Rus­sia is cur­rently resid­ing on a los­ing side of his­tory, Obama sug­ges­ted. “Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there. But the facts on the ground in­dic­ate that, right now, he’s not abid­ing by that prin­ciple.”

In­ter­est­ingly enough, Putin echoed this self-de­term­in­a­tion sen­ti­ment in his own speech: “Most im­port­antly, people should have the right to de­term­ine their own fu­ture, that of their fam­il­ies and of their re­gion, and to have equal par­ti­cip­a­tion in it.”

Still, Obama said, “what’s hap­pen­ing there is not based on ac­tu­al con­cern for Rus­si­an na­tion­als or Rus­si­an speak­ers in­side of Ukraine, but is based on Rus­sia seek­ing through force to ex­ert in­flu­ence on the neigh­bor­ing coun­try.”

But words from the U.S. are un­likely to shake Putin, whose rhet­or­ic re­flects an en­tirely dif­fer­ent lo­gic. Ac­cord­ing to Putin, eth­nic Rus­si­ans are un­der threat from the in­ter­im Ukraine gov­ern­ment, there are no of­fi­cial Rus­si­an troops sta­tioned in Crimea, and “Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al tech­no­lo­gists” are fan­ning the un­rest. All de­tails that Kerry and the U.S. would con­test out­right.

Here are some more spe­cif­ic ex­amples of dis­agree­ment between the two coun­tries.

On last month’s peace agree­ment:

Putin: [Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych] agreed to all the op­pos­i­tion’s de­mands: He agreed to early par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions, to early pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, and to re­turn to the 2004 Con­sti­tu­tion, as de­man­ded by the op­pos­i­tion…. And as soon as he left, in­stead of re­leas­ing the oc­cu­pied ad­min­is­trat­ive build­ings, they im­me­di­ately oc­cu­pied the pres­id­ent’s res­id­ence and the gov­ern­ment build­ing — all that in­stead of act­ing on the agree­ment.

Kerry: The Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment would have you be­lieve it was the op­pos­i­tion who failed to im­ple­ment the Feb. 21 agree­ment that called for a peace­ful trans­ition, ig­nor­ing the real­ity that it was Ya­nukovych, when his­tory came call­ing, when his coun­try was in need, when this city was the place where the ac­tion was, where the lead­ers of the na­tion were gathered in or­der to de­cide the fu­ture — he broke his ob­lig­a­tion to sign that agree­ment, and he fled in­to the night with his pos­ses­sions, des­troy­ing pa­pers be­hind him.

On the le­git­im­acy of the newly formed Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment:

Putin: Are the cur­rent au­thor­it­ies le­git­im­ate? The par­lia­ment is par­tially, but all the oth­ers are not. The cur­rent act­ing pres­id­ent is def­in­itely not le­git­im­ate. There is only one le­git­im­ate pres­id­ent, from a leg­al stand­point. Clearly, he has no power. However, as I have already said, and will re­peat: Ya­nukovych is the only un­doubtedly le­git­im­ate pres­id­ent.

Kerry: The Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment would have you be­lieve that the Ukraine gov­ern­ment is il­le­git­im­ate or led by ex­trem­ists, ig­nor­ing the real­ity that the [Ukrain­i­an par­lia­ment] rep­res­ent­ing the people of Ukraine, the elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives of the people of Ukraine, they over­whelm­ingly im­prove the new gov­ern­ment, even with mem­bers of Ya­nukovych’s party desert­ing him and vot­ing over­whelm­ingly in or­der to ap­prove this new gov­ern­ment.

On con­di­tions with­in Kiev:

Putin: Armed and masked mil­it­ants are still roam­ing the streets of Kiev.

Kerry: The Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment would also have you be­lieve that the calm and friendly streets, one of which I walked down, but many of which I just drove through, that some­how these streets of Kiev are ac­tu­ally dan­ger­ous, ig­nor­ing the real­ity that there has been no surge in crime, no surge in loot­ing. No polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion here.


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