Obama to Russia and E.U.: ‘This Is Not Another Cold War That We’re Entering Into’

But the president did spend much of his major speech hitting back at Putin.

President Obama delivers a speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts - BOZAR) in Brussels on March 26, 2014.
National Journal
Matt Berman
March 26, 2014, 10:25 a.m.

In a Wed­nes­day speech at the European Uni­on sum­mit in Brus­sels, Pres­id­ent Obama strongly re­af­firmed his com­mit­ment to Ukraine and re­peated his warn­ing to Rus­sia to push no farther in­to the coun­try. The U.S., Europe, and its part­ners “have isol­ated Rus­sia polit­ic­ally,” the pres­id­ent said, and “are im­pos­ing costs through sanc­tions that have left a mark on Rus­sia and those ac­count­able for its ac­tions.”

If Vladi­mir Putin and Rus­sia stay on their course, Obama said, “we will en­sure that this isol­a­tion deep­ens.”

At the same time, the pres­id­ent at­temp­ted to push back against the nar­rat­ive that the Crimea con­flict has brought U.S. and Rus­si­an re­la­tions back to the 20th cen­tury.

“This is not an­oth­er Cold War that we’re en­ter­ing in­to,” Obama said. “After all, un­like the So­viet Uni­on, Rus­sia leads no bloc of na­tions. No glob­al ideo­logy. The United States and NATO do not seek any con­flict with Rus­sia.”

Obama also kicked back at sev­er­al of Putin’s stated reas­ons for an­nex­ing Crimea. For starters, “there is no evid­ence, nev­er has been, of sys­tem­ic vi­ol­ence against eth­nic Rus­si­ans in­side of Ukraine,” Obama said. Rus­sia is not act­ing like the West did in Kosovo, as Putin has claimed. NATO only in­ter­vened in Kosovo after the coun­try’s people “were sys­tem­at­ic­ally killed and bru­tal­ized for years,” Obama said.

And Amer­ica’s in­vove­ment in Ir­aq isn’t a pre­ced­ent for Rus­si­an ac­tion, either. “We did not claim or an­nex Ir­aq’s ter­rit­ory,” Obama said. “We did not grab its re­sources for our own gain.” Obama did not, however, launch in­to a staunch de­fense of the U.S.’s war in Ir­aq, say­ing in­stead that Amer­ica and Europe don’t “claim to be the sole ar­bit­er of what is right and wrong in the world,” but that “part of what makes us dif­fer­ent is that we wel­come cri­ti­cism.”

Obama also called it “ab­surd” for Putin or oth­ers to sug­gest that “Amer­ica is some­how con­spir­ing with fas­cists out­side of Ukraine or fail­ing to re­spect the Rus­si­an people.” Just be­cause Rus­sia and Ukraine share a close his­tory “does not mean [Rus­sia] should be able to dic­tate Ukraine’s fu­ture.”

But the pres­id­ent wasn’t just speak­ing to Putin in his ad­dress. “I know it may seem easy to see these events as re­moved from our lives … dis­tant from con­cerns closer to home,” he said. “There will al­ways be voices who say that what hap­pens in the wider world is not our con­cern, nor our re­spons­ib­il­ity.” He con­tin­ued:

But we must nev­er for­get that we are heirs to a struggle for free­dom. Our demo­cracy, our in­di­vidu­al op­por­tun­ity only ex­ists be­cause those who came be­fore us had the wis­dom and the cour­age to re­cog­nize that ideals will only en­dure if we see our self-in­terest in the suc­cess of oth­er peoples and oth­er na­tions. Now is not the time to bluster. The situ­ation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy an­swers. Nor a mil­it­ary solu­tion. But at this mo­ment, we must meet the chal­lenge to our ideas, to our very in­ter­na­tion­al or­der with strength and con­vic­tion.

Obama’s not talk­ing about a fic­tion­al group of un­con­cerned Amer­ic­ans here. Re­cent polling shows that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans don’t think the U.S. should get “too in­volved” in Ukraine, with only 29 per­cent of re­spond­ents say­ing the U.S. should take a “firm stand” against Rus­sia.

It won’t be so easy to change a slew of minds on this. But, at least ac­cord­ing to Obama, the crisis in Ukraine poses a vi­tal ques­tion worth an­swer­ing.

What kind of Europe, what kind of Amer­ica, what kind of world will we leave be­hind? And I be­lieve that if we hold firm to our prin­ciples and are will­ing to back our be­liefs with cour­age and re­solve, then hope will ul­ti­mately over­come fear, and free­dom will con­tin­ue to tri­umph over tyranny. Be­cause that is what forever stirs in the hu­man heart.

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