BRUSSELS — The crisis over Crimea has not restarted the Cold War but has revived a “contest of ideas” between belief in powerful leaders and in democratic ideals, President Obama declared Wednesday as he laid out his case for firm opposition to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Speaking in this European capital as two decades of diplomacy on the continent unraveled, Obama cast the crisis as a fight between “the old way of doing things” and “a young century.” Obama dismissed as “absurd” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for annexing Crimea and sought to gird Europe for a drawn-out dispute.
“The contest of ideas continues for your generation,” Obama told students and dignitaries in the keynote address of his five-day trip to Europe. “Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident: that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”
Obama avoided direct, heated challenges to the Kremlin and never mentioned Putin by name. He did not repeat his Tuesday remark that Russia was not a superpower, but a “regional power” threatening its neighbors “out of weakness.” Instead, the president said the world needed “a strong and responsible Russia” and a Russian people “proud of their own history.”
“Now is not the time for bluster,” he said moments later.
The president continued to insist that the crisis did not mark a return to the decades-long clash between the United States and Russia.
“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” he said. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
Still, Obama directly countered the justifications the Russian leader has offered for his moves. Obama said ethnic Russians in Crimea were not threatened after the fall of the pro-Russia government in Kiev late last month, as Putin has insisted. Any such claims, Obama said, could be handled under international law.
The president also addressed Putin’s complaint that the U.S. was hypocritical to condemn his actions in Crimea when it had invaded Iraq. In a politically strange turn, Obama, whose rise in national politics was fueled by his opposition to that war, used the still-unstable country to defend U.S. moral authority. The U.S. sought to work within the international system, he said.
“We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that could make decisions about its own future,” Obama said.
But Obama also acknowledged that the United States and Europe have not always adhered to their ideals.
“We are human, after all, and we face difficult decisions about how to exercise our power,” he said. “But part of what makes us different is that we welcome criticism, just as we welcome the responsibilities that come with global leadership.”
Obama spoke at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a stately fine arts center built in 1928 that made an appropriately formal backdrop for the grave, 36-minute address. The president’s remarks traced the history of European “ideals” through the Enlightenment, trench warfare, the Holocaust and freedom movements in South Africa, Latin America and Asia.
The sweep of the speech reflected both Obama’s penchant for lofty themes and the pressure the president is under to demonstrate that the U.S. still has clout to rally and lead a coalition of allies.
The attempt to soar fell flat for some. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the speech “flowery, high-flying rhetoric, but totally devoid of content.”
Kuchins, who headed the Carnegie Moscow Center in Russia from 2003 to 2005, called the U.S.-European response to Russia feeble. “Putin was told there would be costs for taking Crimea, but there have been virtually none,” he said.
Obama has tried to unite European leaders behind what will probably be a long, incremental strategy for dislodging Crimea from Russia control — “over time,” as Obama said. The U.S. and Europe have excluded Russia from the Group of 8 industrialized nations and imposed sanctions on Russian officials and close Putin associates.
Meanwhile, Obama has defended himself against critics who say the crisis was a failure of his attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow. The new era, some have argued, looks a lot like the Cold War.
That label no longer applies, the president insisted, saying Western values had triumphed over those “on the other side of the Iron Curtain.” “For decades, a contest was waged, and ultimately that contest was won,” he said.
Amid the talk of the U.S. commitment to Europe, Obama looked back at the history of U.S.-European relations. Earlier, he laid a wreath in Flanders Field, an American cemetery and memorial for soldiers killed in World War I. That war, which tore apart Europe and wiped out much of a generation, still echoes in conflicts 100 years later, he said.
“The lessons of that war speak to us still,” Obama said in his first stop in Belgium. “This visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted.”
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.