President Obama affirmed his belief, in a press conference this afternoon, that Russia holds the keys to future peace in Eastern Ukraine. He announced plans to follow through on promises of further sanctions against Russia, saying that he and the EU were coordinating an attack on key sectors of the Russian economy, particularly in energy and investing.
“We are united in our view that the situation in Ukraine ought to be resolved diplomatically,” he said. “We’ve also made it clear…that if Russia continues on its path the cost on Russia will continue to grow.” He went on to describe this latest move as, “The most significant and wide-ranging sanctions to date.”
The president described the attack on Flight MH17 as senseless, and promised that America would ensure that justice was done, explicitly assigning responsibility to pro-Russian separatists. He was, however, quick to show that he had the support and agreement of many of the world’s leaders. Throughout his speech, he walked a balance between speaking in terms of strong American leadership and international consonance.
The president appeared confident that this action on the part of the West would elicit some sort of concession from Vladimir Putin. “Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the sanctions we’ve already imposed are making a weak Russian economy even weaker,” he said. “Today, Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting it back in progress.”
Obama made clear that in his mind, this was not an inevitable turn of events, and the blame for it rested entirely on Putin’s shoulders. “It didn’t have to come to this,” he said. He explained that Russia needed to come to terms with an independent and Western-leaning Ukraine on its border, and respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, acting as a “good neighbor.”
“The United States keeps its word,” the president warned. Tough words, but it also highlighted an incongruity in policy. At this point, America is apparently committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, even at risk of souring relations with Russia. However, that commitment seems to have been absent when Russia annexed Crimea.
As the president wrapped up his speech, a correspondent shouted, “Is this a new Cold War, sir?” Obama replied quickly and forcefully that it was not, declaring that Putin’s efforts to render Ukraine “a vassal state to Russia” were the sole root of this tension, exacerbated by the pro-Russian separatists’ use of a Russian missile system to shoot down a passenger jet. He reiterated his assessment of the role Russia plays in supporting the separatists both with arms and equipment, noting that the Ukrainian military is still superior to the separatist groups. He seemed to be only condemning interference by Russia that prevents Kiev from solving its own problems, though in past speeches he has called for Putin to not only halt support for the separatists but also demand that they cease hostilities.