Obama Condemns Violence Outbreak in Ukraine

At a press conference in Mexico, the president insisted he does not see recent developments as a renewal of the Cold War.

President Obama speaks at a press conference in Toluca, Mexico, on February 19, 2014.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Feb. 20, 2014, 1:30 a.m.

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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.”

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