President Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday that his singular focus in Syria is to eliminate President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons, not enter into a geopolitical grudge match with Russia.
"This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia," Obama said in an interview with ABC's "This Week" program, which was recorded Friday. "The fact of the matter is that, if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria — post-Assad — that doesn’t hurt our interests."
Obama said he doesn't believe Russian President Vladimir Putin "has the same values that we do," particularly in relation to the Syrian strongman, a close Russian ally. But he emphasized that "we have worked together on important issues," and "we both have an interest in preventing chaos."
"I know that sometimes this gets framed … [as] the U.S. versus Russia, but that’s not what this is about," he said. "What this is about is, how do we make sure that we don’t have the worst weapons in the hands, either of a murderous regime or … some elements of the opposition that are as opposed to the United States as they are to Assad."
The comments were made the evening before a nascent agreement was announced between the two countries on a framework to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by nonmilitary means. But they nonetheless highlight the political stakes, as both leaders are, in a sense, hoping to claim victory with their diplomatic strategy after several tense weeks when U.S. military strikes on Syria appeared imminent.
The episode has been a tricky one for Obama, who ran his 2008 campaign on a platform of pulling the country out of wars, not launching them, and it grew even more complicated when his effort to get congressional approval ran into a wall of enormous opposition, even from many of his fellow Democrats.
Putin was also in a tough spot, faced with the question of how to respond to potential U.S. strikes and maintain Russia's stature as a protector of its allies.
On Capitol Hill, the parties are split over which side has the upper hand following Saturday's announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that they'd reached a deal after three days of negotiations in Geneva.
Many Democrats are giving the credit to Obama, arguing that it was only his threat to use the military that brought Russia and Syria to the table.
"We would not be at this point had it not been for the president's credible threat of the use force," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told "Fox News Sunday."
Many Republicans counter that Putin has the advantage, not only because the Russian president has more leverage with Assad, but also because Saturday's deal does not include an automatic trigger for sanctions or force in the event that Assad doesn't comply with the terms. Instead, the response would be decided by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have vetoed past efforts to condemn Assad's behavior.
GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) blasted the agreement as an "act of weakness" by the Obama administration "that is morally and strategically indefensible."
"It as an act of provocative weakness on America's part, [and] we cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran and other American adversaries," they said.
Obama, for his part, said he's largely ignoring the criticisms to focus instead on the goal of ridding Assad of his chemical stockpile.
“I’m less concerned about style points," he told ABC. "I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right.”