19th Jan 2020

Obama: Russian aggression is strategic failure

  • Obama urged Hollande to maintain Russia sanctions (Photo:

US president Barack Obama has described Putin’s aggression against Ukraine as a strategic failure, while urging the EU to maintain sanctions.

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday (20 January) in his 2015 state of the union address, he held up US intervention in the Ukraine crisis as an example of “the power of American strength and diplomacy”.

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“We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small - by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our Nato allies”, he said.

“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with [Nato] frontline states, [Russian leader] Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That's what I heard from some folks”, he added.

“Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters”.

Obama noted that the US is still a global sheriff.

He said it should use “all elements of [its] power to defeat new threats and protect our planet”. He also said “we reserve the right to act unilaterally” to combat terrorist threats or to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But he contrasted his foreign policy to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to north Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists”, he said.

“Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group [IS]”.

He also promised to bring an ethical dimension back to US security policy.

He noted that he has “prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained”.

He said he will continue to try to close down Guantanamo Bay despite the Republican party’s opposition in Congress and to “increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse” in US intelligence gathering.

He also promised more action on climate change, noting that “the Pentagon says climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it”.

He devoted the bulk of his speech to what he called “middle class economics” - creating a more inclusive society by improving access to childcare and health insurance, raising the minimum wage and closing tax loopholes for rich corporations and individuals.

Noting that “the shadow of [economic] crisis has passed”, he said “since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined”.

He described China as an economic threat, saying: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage”.

But he noted that the EU-US free trade pact and a parallel US-China free trade treaty will help the US to “write those rules” instead.

Hollande calling

With France in the camp of EU states which recently called for the EU to “stop” Russia sanctions, Obama also on Tuesday spoke by phone to French president Francois Hollande.

He promised France “whatever assistance” it needs to combat terrorism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders.

The White House press release said they also discussed “the need to maintain sanctions against Russia in the absence of implementation of the Minsk agreements [a 2014 peace ceasefire accord] and they agreed upon the importance of providing additional financial support to the Ukrainian government”.

The Elysee’s press release was less hawkish, noting only that they talked about “the situation in Ukraine”.

For their part, EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday agreed the sanctions regime should stay in place.

Many of Russia’s friends in Europe - such as the German centre-left SPD party, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - also backed sanctions.

But Hollande in a speech to French business leaders in Paris the same day voiced concern that Russia’s counter-sanctions - a ban on EU food imports - are hurting French farmers.

“We can see clearly that the whole region [Europe] is affected. That’s why I’m so interested in putting an end to the Ukraine crisis and in maintaining a dialogue with Russia, for reasons also related to our agricultural sector,” he said.

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