Delivering what seemed like an agenda-setting speech in Brussels on Wednesday (26 March), US President Barack Obama said that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had miscalculated if he thought he could divide the West over his annexation of Crimea. Obama said it had rather achieved the opposite, further uniting Europe, the United States and partners.
"Over the last several days, the United States, Europe, and our partners around the world have been united in defence of these ideals, and united in support of the Ukrainian people," said the US president.
The United States and the European Union agreed yesterday (26 March) to work together to prepare possible tougher economic sanctions in response to Russia's behaviour in Ukraine, including on the energy sector, and to make Europe less dependent on Russian gas [more].
Leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial powers decided this week to hold off on sanctions targeting Moscow's economy unless Putin took further action to destabilise Ukraine or other former Soviet republics [more].
"If Russia continues on its current course, however, the isolation will deepen, sanctions will increase and there will be more consequences for the Russian economy," Obama told a joint news conference with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
Later on, in the keynote address of his European trip, Obama told an audience of 2,000 young people in a Brussels concert hall that the West would prevail if it remained united, not by military action but by the power of its values to attract ordinary Ukrainians. The US president's speech resembled a point-by-point rebuttal of Putin's 18 March Kremlin speech announcing the annexation of Crimea.
Obama voiced respect for a strong Russia but said "that does not mean that Russia can run roughshod over its neighbours".
Russia would not be "dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force”. But with time, so long as the West remained united, he said that “the Russian people will recognise that they cannot achieve security, prosperity, and the status they seek through brute force".
The US president argued that if the West defined its interest narrowly, it could have decided “to look the other way” in the case of Crimea’s annexation by Russia. This message however would bring back “the old way of doing things” and would set a bad example for other regions, such as Asia, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East, he said.
No plans to take Ukraine in NATO
Obama also appeared to reject Russian claims that the United States had an interest in controlling Ukraine or extending NATO into Russia’s backyard.
“Make no mistake: neither the United States, nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine. We have sent no troops there. What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world”, Obama said.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, “partly because of its complex history with Russia”, Obama acknowledged, passing the message that the West had no plans to further antagonise Russia by expanding the alliance.
But the US President also said that just because Russia had a deep history with Ukraine did not mean it should be able to dictate Ukraine’s future. “No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong”, Obama said.
He also rejected Russian claims that the United States was conspiring with “fascists” inside Ukraine. In the developments which led to the overthrow of the regime of former President Viktor Yanukovich, fringe groups like the “Right Sector” were highly visible. On this basis, Russian propaganda has often labelled the pro-European forces as “fascists”.
“My grandfather served in Patton’s Army, just as many of your fathers and grandfathers fought against fascism. We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices”, Obama said.
Kosovo and Iraq comparison
The US president added that Russia had claimed Kosovo as a precedent for its actions in Crimea. But he insisted that NATO only intervened in 1999 after the people of Kosovo were “systematically brutalised and killed for years”.
“And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organised not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbours. None of that even came close to happening in Crimea”, Obama said.
He also said that NATO would step up its presence in new eastern European member states bordering with Russia and Ukraine to provide reassurance that the alliance's mutual defence guarantee would protect them.
Obama also referred to Russian claims that the previous US administration’s decision to launch the Iraq campaign was an example of Western hypocrisy.
“It is true that the Iraq War was a subject of vigorous debate not just around the world, but in the United States as well. I participated in that debate and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain,” Obama said.
Not another Cold War
Obama said that the latest developments were not “another Cold War that we’re entering into”.
“After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology”, Obama said, omitting that Putin aimed to build a Eurasian Union reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, and that he spearheaded “true values” like the traditional Orthodox anti-gay sentiments in several countries of Russia’s “near neighbourhood”.
As Obama was speaking, Russian forces in Crimea captured the last Ukrainian navy ship after firing warning shots and stun grenades, completing Moscow's takeover of military installations in the Black Sea peninsula, Reuters reported. Kyiv has ordered its forces to withdraw.
Western concern has focused on an estimated 30,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border amid Kremlin allegations of attacks on Russian speakers in that industrial region of the country.
But Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said it seemed likely that the firm Western response so far would stop Russia undertaking what he called "other acts of aggression and interference on the territory of Ukraine".
The new Ukrainian authorities announced a radical 50% increase in the price of domestic gas from 1 May, meeting an unpopular condition for International Monetary Fund aid, which Yanukovich had refused before he was ousted last month. Russia has said it will increase the price it charges Ukraine for gas from April.
The IMF concluded talks with Ukrainian officials on Wednesday, and was likely to announce an aid deal on Thursday for Kyiv to help plug the government's budget gap and put its economy on a growth track. Ukraine has been seeking a bailout package of between $15 and $20 billion (€11 and €14.5 billion).