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.