President Barack Obama has launched a robust defence of American and European values, telling an audience in Brussels that they must unite behind their ideals to counter Russia’s “bullying” of Ukraine and its return to the tactics of the past.
Mr Obama spoke of his visit to the First World War battlefields and referenced both the violent upheaval of the two world wars and the decades of the Cold War which divided East and West, as he sought to emphasise Western unity in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “Once again we are confronted with the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” Mr Obama said in Brussels.
“So I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world. Because the contest of ideas continues, for your generation, and that’s what is at stake in Ukraine today,” he said.
“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.”
He also responded directly to President Vladimir Putin’s scathing speech to the Kremlin earlier this month, in which he accused the West of hypocrisy and cited the Iraq war as an example. The US President conceded that the conflict provoked debate, but insisted that “America sought to work within the international system – we did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory”.
Mr Obama also used his first trip to Brussels since taking office to tell European nations that they need to lessen their dependence on Russian energy and maintain spending on defence and security if they want to meet the new challenges posed by Moscow’s power-grab in Ukraine.
While he stressed that the European Union was America’s “closest partner” and praised their joint efforts to chastise and isolate President Putin after his annexation of Crimea earlier this month, he was clear that the EU could not rely on the US alone to help wean itself off the Russian oil and gas.
“Europe collectively has to examine it energy policies.” Mr Obama said at a press conference earlier with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy. Meanwhile, in Crimea, Russian forces captured the last Ukrainian navy ship after firing warning shots and stun grenades, completing Moscow’s grip on the Black Sea peninsula.
While the West has raised concern over Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said it seemed likely that the firm Western response so far would stop Russia undertaking what he called “other acts of aggression and interference on the territory of Ukraine”.
Mr Obama praised the joint effort by the US and EU to impose sanctions on a number of Russian officials, and repeated that any further Russian military incursions would provoke much deeper economic sanctions which would hit at the heart of the Russian economy.
He also had strong words for members of Nato, which rely on America to provide the bulk of the funding for the military alliance. He did not single out any particular nations, but his defence officials have in the past said the decline in European defence spending could lead to the break-up of the alliance.
Russia’s intervention in one of its neighbours, he added, “ reminds us that our freedom isn’t free, and we’ve got to be willing to pay for the assets, the personnel, the training that’s required”.