Ukraine crisis: Obama attacks Putin over Russia’s role

Dan Roberts

US president accuses his Russian counterpart of failing to respect people’s basic freedoms in both Ukraine and Syria

Ukraine crisis Obama attacks Putin over Russia's role

Barack Obama has sharply criticised Russian support for crackdowns in Ukraine and Syria, calling for a transitional government in Kiev and personally accusing Vladimir Putin of failing to respect basic freedoms in both countries.

In his most explicit comments yet on alleged Kremlin involvement, the president used a press conference at the North American leaders’ summit in Mexico to warn against viewing the countries as a “cold war chessboard”, insisting the US was “on the side of the people”.

“You have, in this situation, one country that has clearly been a client state of Russia, another whose government is currently being supported by Russia, where the people obviously have a very different view and vision for their country,” said Obama.

“I think this is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of people inside of Syria and people inside of the Ukraine who recognise that basic freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections – are fundamental rights that everybody wants to enjoy.”

Obama continued with an unusually personal attack on the Russian president, suggesting recent setbacks in Ukraine and at Syrian peace talks had pushed their already strained relationship to a fresh low.

“Mr Putin has a different view on many of those issues [of basic freedom] and I don’t think that there’s any secret on that,” he said.

“Our approach in the United States is not to see these as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make the decisions without having bombs going off.

“There are times, I hope, where Russia will recognise that over the long term they should be on board with those values and interests as well. Right now there are times where we have strong disagreements.”

Both Obama and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who shared the stage at the press conference in Toluca, were cautious about reports of a truce with Ukrainian protestors, urging political leaders in Kiev to go further and establish a transitional government.

“My hope is at this point that a truce may hold,” said Obama. “But Stephen is exactly right; ultimately the government is responsible for making sure that we shift towards some sort of unity government, even if it’s temporary, that allows us to move to fair and free elections so that the will of the Ukrainian people can be rightly expressed without the kinds of chaos we’ve seen on the streets, without the bloodshed that all of us I think strongly condemn.”

Events in Kiev have overshadowed the Mexico summit and precipitated a rapid hardening of the US position over the last 24 hours. Arriving on Wednesday morning, Obama directed his criticism solely at the Ukrainian government, which he said was “primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way”.

Later in Washington the state department was more explicit in its comments on Russian involvement but said it was difficult to be sure exactly how much of an influence Kremlin support had played.

“We’ve seen a pattern of [financial support] beginning with the $15bn in loans that Russia offered in December,” said a senior state department official. “But these have been non-transparent discussions. So it’s very hard to have a good ability to analyse. And with regard to how it might have influenced President Yanukovych’s thinking, I personally have long since stopped trying to read his mind.”

Obama showed little hesitation in blaming Russian support for exacerbating the Ukrainian crisis.

“When I speak to Mr Putin, I’m very candid about those disagreements,” added Obama. “But I want to emphasise this. The situation that happened in Ukraine has to do with whether or not the people of Ukraine can determine their own destiny.”

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