President Obama sought to rally Europe to intensify Russia’s isolation in a sweeping speech Wednesday that cast the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea in Cold War terms.
Even as Obama insisted the new fight with Russia was “not another Cold War,” the president described the annexation of Ukrainian territory as part of a decades-old battle with the “darker forces of the past.”
Obama hoped to use his speech capping a four-nation, three-day swing through Europe to unify European partners less comfortable with sanctioning Russia given their economic ties.
The case he made at the Palais Des Beaux Arts in Brussels was a moral one, as he acknowledged that, if nations “applied a cold-hearted calculus,” they might shy away from responding to a crisis that did not directly affect their own borders.
“But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent,” Obama said. “It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”
Obama’s address was at the top of major U.S. news websites, but it appeared down the page on several major news sites in European capitals on Wednesday night.
The speech culminated a summit between the European Union and United States that took on new meaning with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive measures toward Ukraine.
The new fight with Russia has raised questions about European security and the ability of NATO.
Obama’s attempts to contain Russia have also been complicated by close economic ties between Russia and Western Europe, where many nations are dependent on Russian energy.
Obama, at times, sought to diminish Russia in Wednesday’s speech, saying it no longer wielded the same type of influence it had during the Cold War.
Unlike during the Soviet era, he said Russia doesn’t lead a bloc of nations or a global ideology.
He also dismissed justifications offered by Russian leaders for the incursion.
“It is absurd to suggest, as a steady drumbeat of Russian voices do, that America is somehow conspiring with fascists inside of Ukraine but failing to respect the Russian people,” Obama said. “My grandfather served in [U.S. Gen. George S.] Patton’s army, just as many of your fathers and grandfathers fought against fascism.”
Obama’s remarks shied away from a call to specific action. He had already received assurances from the Group of Eight earlier in the week that it would move to suspend Russia from the organization and impose sectoral sanctions if Moscow’s aggression persisted.
“If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together, we will ensure that this isolation deepens,” Obama said. “Sanctions will expand, and the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase.”
But the president’s remarks likely preceded a call for additional military commitments from NATO allies.
At a press conference earlier Wednesday, Obama expressed concern that cuts to the defense budgets of NATO members had left the alliance vulnerable.
As he spoke to the assembled world leaders in Brussels, Obama reiterated that “NATO members never stand alone.”
But, he added, “every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security.”
“Just as we meet our responsibilities as individuals, we must be prepared to meet them as nations because we live in a world in which our ideals are going to be challenged again and again by forces that would drag us back into conflict or corruption,” Obama said. “We can’t count on others to rise to meet those tests.”
This story was updated at 7:40 p.m.