Russia has 'miscalculated' US and EU resolve over Ukraine, warns Obama

Unsurprisingly, the crisis in Ukraine dominated discussions at the EU-US summit in Brussels.

By Raj Singh

30 Mar 2014

Despite this being his first visit to Brussels since becoming US president, Barack Obama took time to stress the importance of the transatlantic alliance by describing "Europe as the US's closest partner" and "the cornerstone of its engagement across the globe".

"We are more secure and prosperous, and the world is more just, when Europe and America stand as one", he told EU leaders on Wednesday.

Although the talks were largely dictated by the current crisis in the Ukraine, Obama, EU council president Herman Van Rompuy and European commission president José Manuel Barroso discussed other issues including trade and economics, nuclear negotiations with Iran, the crisis in Syria and the resurgence of violence in the Central African Republic.

In a serious and subdued press conference following the talks, Obama underlined the importance of trade and economics saying "We agreed to step up our efforts to boost growth and job creation on both sides of the Atlantic and that includes working together to conclude a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP)."

With EU energy security in mind, he added, "Once we have a trade agreement in place, export licences for US liquefied gas destined for Europe will be much easier, which is relevant given the current geopolitical climate."

 

"We are more secure and prosperous, and the world is more just, when Europe and America stand as one" Barack Obama

On Russia's action in Ukraine, Obama emphasised that the EU and US were standing firm on opposing Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Describing Russia's military actions as "breaking international law" and "violating the sovereignty" of Ukraine, Obama said that "the United States and Europe stand united on this issue, we are united in the need to provide support for Ukraine, we are eager to provide economic assistance to stabilise its economy…and isolate Russia."

He commended EU measures against Russia, including travel bans, asset freezes and sanctions against individuals close to Vladimir Putin, and suspending high level meetings, including the EU-Russia summit and the upcoming G8 meeting in Brussels, which will take place without Russia.

He warned, "If Russia continues with its actions, the consequences for the Russian economy will be worse…if anybody in the Russian government thought the world wouldn't care, or that they could drive a wedge between the European Union and the United States, they have clearly miscalculated."

However, Obama did offer an olive branch, saying, "There is still a way for Russia to work with Ukraine and the international community, by de-escalating the situation through diplomacy. That's the only way this issue will be resolved." However,  the president stressed that if Russian troops made further incursions into Ukraine, the US and Europe would react with harsher sanctions.

Acknowledging the negative effects that further sanctions on the Russian economy could have on the world economy, the US leader was mindful of the economic downturn it could cause, not only for transatlantic trade, but also within Europe.

 

If anybody in the Russian government thought the world wouldn't care, or that they could drive a wedge between the European Union and the United States, they have clearly miscalculated"  Barack Obama

In particular, he recognised the vulnerability of some EU countries and their dependence on Russian gas. "Energy has to be considered very strongly, this entire event points out to Europe the need to further diversify its energy sources, and we need to move now."

But he accepted that Europe couldn't end its energy reliance on Russia overnight. To assist he said that the US was already licencing to export the same amount of gas that Europe was using each day.

Obama also encouraged the EU to consider its own energy assets and to accelerate supply diversification and independence, and not to just rely on the US. "The truth of the matter is, like defence, there is no easy or free way to defend ourselves, nor is there a perfect, free or ideal energy source, with every energy source there will be some inconveniences, or downsides."

Alluding to the development of shale gas, which although environmentally controversial, has given the US some energy security, Obama said that through the availability of new technologies, "We have been blessed by some incredible energy resources, but we are also making choices.

In response, commission president José Manuel Barroso said that the Ukraine situation was a "very strong wakeup call" for Europe to seek out more energy integration and independence.

EU council president Herman Van Rompuy also stressed a united front against Russia, but he pointed out that unlike the US, the EU needed more coordination among members states in agreeing effective sanctions due to differing levels of reliance on Russia. "We have to coordinate amongst member states, as they are not in the same position in relation to trade, financial services and energy."

However, when Van Rompuy said sanctions "should not be seen merely as a punishment… but are a positive incentive to reach a diplomatic and political solution while respecting international law" the assembled press corps responded with cynical chuckles.

He went on to say that the EU was working with the US to strengthen the economic and political situation within the Ukraine, but also announced that the EU was unilaterally removing EU customs duties.

Barroso also stressed a united political stand, saying, "All this discussion on who is implementing stronger sanctions, the US or Europe is sterile and useless." For Barroso, the important issue was that, "In the 21st century it is just not acceptable for a big power to grab a region belonging to a sovereign country."

Turning to the TTIP negotiations, Obama accepted that many Europeans and Americans have legitimate questions concerning the preservation of consumer protection and environmental standards.

"I have fought throughout my entire political career and as president to strengthen consumer protection legislation… also I am currently fighting to strengthen environmental standards, and have no interest in signing a trade agreement where consumer protection and environmental standards are weakened."

He added, "there is a right way of doing this… but there are bad ways of doing trade agreements as well. However, there is no point of getting excited about potential provisions in trade agreements that have not been drafted yet. There will be plenty of time to criticise the trade agreement when it is put before the public."

He said he recognised that people were suspicious of trade agreements when they were only seen as benefitting "those at the top or large corporations as opposed to small or medium sized businesses". Therefore, it was important for leaders both in the US and Europe to ensure that trade helps the "folks at the bottom and the middle… and not a few elites".

Barroso generally agreed with Obama but wanted to see the removal of non-tariff-barriers. "I am sure we can do a trade agreement that is right… that will also benefit European and American citizens, which also leads to a more open global trade system."

Obama also highlighted the US commitment to European security, saying, "Nato is the cornerstone to US security, where at its core is a commitment to collective defence, with no junior or senior members." He also called for a regular Nato presence to be established in those countries that were feeling vulnerable to Russia.

However, in a moment of candour, he said, "with collective defence, European countries are expected to chip in," and he raised concerns about the diminishing levels of defence spending by many European countries, though he was sympathetic to the financial challenges some countries face.

"The situation in the Ukraine reminds us our freedom isn't free," he concluded.

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