Russia looms over Obama's trip to Asia

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President Obama may have been trying to reaffirm his alliance with Asian allies over the weekend, but the unfolding crisis in Ukraine is continuing to draw his attention westward.

Turmoil in the eastern European nation and tensions with Russia have hung like a shadow over events in Korea, Japan and Malaysia in recent days and stolen headlines from what the Obama administration hoped would be a celebration of the “pivot” to Asia. The administration’s doctrine has repeatedly been dogged by upheaval in the Middle East, North Africa and now Ukraine.

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On Saturday, Obama took part in a state dinner with Malaysian royalty as the first president to visit the Southeast Asian nation since former President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

“I’m delighted to make this historic visit,” Obama said during a toast with King Abdul Halim of Kedah.

Obama, who lived in Malaysia briefly as a child, recalled his mother’s fascination with batik, the traditional Malaysian textile art.

“It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them,” he said. “It was a window into the lives of others - their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes.”

But while in Korea on Friday, the White House’s attention had been on Russia, where the Group of 7 nations was readying new sanctions to stop the Kremlin’s encroachments in eastern Ukraine. 

Those sanctions targeting Russian “cronies,” which could be issued as soon as Monday, “can have a significant impact,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“These sanctions are meant to reinforce that economic cost on Russia,” he added. “We believe it will carry with it a significant economic cost on Russia.”

Rhodes also threatened to increase sanctions to entire sectors of the Russian economy, rather than just individuals, should Russian troops invade Ukraine. Those extra efforts would be necessary “even though they will carry with it uncertainty for the global economy, difficulty for each of the countries of the G-7 in its own way, given their various commercial relationships with Russia,” he said.

The Ukraine crisis was also a topic of much discussion between Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, another G-7 member.

“In concert with our G-7 partners, the United States and Japan have condemned Russia over its illegal attempt to annex Crimea and are consulting closely on further measures against Russia over its deplorable conduct, while strongly urging Russia to deescalate tensions in Ukraine,” the two countries said in a joint statement. “Together, we are taking concrete steps to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and economic stability. “

Obama’s visit was intended to solidify the “rebalance” or “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, including securing a trade deal with the region and bolstering defense relationships.

But the administration’s heavy push to strike a bilateral deal with Japan failed during negotiations there last week, threatening the goal of finishing the landmark 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the year. 

Obama will remain in Malaysia on Sunday for bilateral meetings and events with civil society leaders, and then heads to the Philippines on Monday, before coming back to Washington on Tuesday.