Obama touts US influence as changing 'balance' in Ukraine

 

U.S. efforts to rally the world against Russia's incursion into Ukraine have "rapidly changed the balance and equation" there, President Obama said in an interview with NPR News airing Thursday.

"When you look at events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine," Obama said.

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He pointed to the election of Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement to withdraw troops from Ukraine's border as evidence that international pressure was paying dividends.

"That’s an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want," Obama said.

Asked if Ukraine could be considered a foreign policy success considering Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Obama said it was a mistake to think Putin's moves "reflected strength in this situation."

"From Mr. Putin’s perspective, he was operating from a position of weakness," Obama said. "He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who are looking west economically, from a security perspective. And even in Ukraine, the crown jewel of the former Soviet system, outside of Russia, an oligarchy that was corrupt was rejected by people on the streets."

Obama says Putin was "scrambling" to react to that public uprising.

"The fact that Crimea, which historically is dominated by native Russians and Russian speakers, was annexed illegally does not in any way negate the fact that the way of life, the systems of economic organization, the notions of rule of law, those values that we hold dear, are ascendant, and you know, the other side is going to be on the defense," Obama said.

The interview with "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep was taped shortly after the president's speech on foreign policy at the U.S. Military Academy's commencement ceremony on Wednesday.

Obama was asked about indications he and senior administration officials made suggesting the administration would work to train rebel fighters in Syria, pending congressional approval. 

The president offered little new insight into how the training program might look, but suggested the U.S. wanted to help create a "capacity for them to hold ground, to be able to rebuff vicious attacks, for them to be able to also organize themselves in ways that are cohesive, all that takes, unfortunately, more time than I think many people would like."

Still, Obama conceded that "in many ways, the conditions are worse" for aiding and training opposition fighters than in the past.

"But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before," Obama said.

Obama also reiterated his desire to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, saying he would not hand it off to his successor "if I can help it."

"What I know is that we cannot in good conscience maintain a system of indefinite detention in which individuals who have not been tried and convicted are held permanently in this legal limbo outside of this country. That is contrary to U.S. traditions," Obama said. "It feeds terrorist propaganda. It is not ultimately going to be effective when it comes to dealing with the long-term terrorist threat. It makes it harder for us to get cooperation from our partners. And it is wildly expensive."