Two issues in particular that dominated our workday this morning — Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the international fight against ISIL.
With regard to Russia and the separatists it supports in Ukraine, it’s clear that they’ve violated just about every commitment they made in the Minsk agreement. Instead of withdrawing from eastern Ukraine, Russian forces continue to operate there, training separatists and helping to coordinate attacks. Instead of withdrawing its arms, Russia has sent in more tanks and armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery. With Russian support, the separatists have seized more territory and shelled civilian areas, destroyed villages and driven more Ukrainians from their homes. These are the facts.
But Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity of the United States and Germany and our allies and partners around the world. And I want to thank Angela for her strong leadership and partnership as we’ve met this challenge. Chancellor Merkel and Vice President Biden met with Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Munich over the weekend, and Angela also shared with me the results of her talks in Moscow. We continue to encourage a diplomatic resolution to this issue. And as diplomatic efforts continue this week, we are in absolute agreement that the 21st century cannot stand idle — have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.
So today we’ve agreed to move forward with our strategy. Along with our NATO allies, we’ll keep bolstering our presence in central and Eastern Europe — part of our unwavering Article 5 obligation to our collective defense. We will continue to work with the IMF and other partners to provide Ukraine with critical financial support as it pursues economic and anti-corruption reforms. We discussed the issue of how best to assist Ukraine as it defends itself, and we agreed that sanctions on Russia need to remain fully in force until Russia complies fully with its obligations.
Even as we continue to work for a diplomatic solution, we are making it clear again today that if Russia continues on its current course — which is ruining the Russian economy and hurting the Russian people, as well as having such a terrible effect on Ukraine — Russia’s isolation will only worsen, both politically and economically.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: First question, Steve Mufson, The Washington Post.
Q Thank you. You’ve said — stressed that U.S. and Europe need to have cohesion on the issue of sanctions and on dealing with Ukraine, and yet the administration is discussing sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, which is very different from what the Chancellor has said over the weekend. So I was wondering whether this was a good cop-bad cop act, or is this a real reflection of difference of views in the situation on the ground.
And more broadly, if there’s no agreement this week, what lies ahead? Are we looking at a broader set of sanctions? What makes us think those set of sanction will change the Russian President’s mind any more than the current ones?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, let me start with the broader point. I think both Angela and I have emphasized that the prospect for a military solution to this problem has always been low. Russia obviously has a extraordinarily powerful military. And given the length of the Russian border with Ukraine, given the history between Russia and Ukraine, expecting that if Russia is determined that Ukraine can fully rebuff a Russian army has always been unlikely.
But what we have said is that the international community, working together, can ratchet up the costs for the violation of the core principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.
And Russia has paid a significant cost for its actions — first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine. It has not yet dissuaded Mr. Putin from following the course that he is on, but it has created a measurable negative impact on the Russian economy, and that will continue.
My hope is that through these diplomatic efforts, those costs have become high enough that Mr. Putin’s preferred option is for a diplomatic resolution. And I won’t prejudge whether or not they’ll be successful. If they are successful, it will be in part because of the extraordinary patience and effort of Chancellor Merkel and her team. If they are not, then we will continue to raise those costs. And we will not relent in that. And one of the things I’ve very encouraged about is the degree to which we’ve been able to maintain U.S.-European unity on this issue.
Now, it is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options — what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus — and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined. But I have not made a decision about that yet. I have consulted with not just Angela, but will be consulting with other allies about this issue. It’s not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that was determined. It is rather to see whether or not there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of separatist aggression. But I want to emphasize that a decision has not yet been made.
One of the bigger issues that we’re also concerned with, though, is making sure the Ukrainian economy is functioning and that President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk can continue with the reform efforts that they’ve made. And I’m glad to see that because of our cooperation and our efforts, we’re starting to see a package come together with the IMF, with the European Union and others that can help bolster the European economy so that they have the space to continue to execute some of the reforms and anti-corruption measures that they’ve made.
One of the most important things we can do for Ukraine is help them succeed economically, because that’s how people on the ground feel this change, this transformation, inside of Ukraine. If that experiment fails, then the larger project of an independent Ukraine will fail. And so we’re going to do everything we can to help bolster that.
But there is no doubt that if, in fact, diplomacy fails this week, there’s going to continue to be a strong, unified response between the United States and Europe. That’s not going to change. There may be some areas where there are tactical disagreements; there may not be. But the broad principle that we have to stand up for not just Ukraine, but the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty, is one where we are completely unified.
Q President, you said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide an armament of the Ukrainian army? And what do you think — will this hold by way of a promise? Because the Chancellor said it will make matters worse. And what can the Nobel Laureate Obama do more to defuse this conflict?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: On providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, it’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear — he’s not interested in escalating violence, he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.
So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here. It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory. Our hope is, is that that’s done through diplomatic means.
And I just want to emphasize here once again for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.
Unfortunately, Russia has made a decision that I think is bad for them strategically, bad for Europe, bad for the world. And in the face of this aggression and these bad decisions, we can’t simply try to talk them out of it. We have to show them that the world is unified in imposing a cost for this aggression. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.
With respect to the NSA, I’ll just make this point very briefly. There’s no doubt that the Snowden revelations damaged impressions of Germans with respect to the U.S. government and our intelligence cooperation. And what I have done over the last year, year and a half, is to systematically work through some of these issues to create greater transparency and to restore confidence not just for Germans but for our partners around the world.
And we’ve taken some unprecedented measures, for example, to ensure that our intelligence agencies treat non-U.S. citizens in ways that are consistent with due process and their privacy concerns — something that I put in a presidential order, and has not been ever done not only by our intelligence agencies but I think by most intelligence agencies around the world.
There are going to still be areas where we’ve got to work through these issues. We have to internally work through some of these issues, because they’re complicated, they’re difficult. If we are trying to track a network that is planning to carry out attacks in New York or Berlin or Paris, and they are communicating primarily in cyberspace, and we have the capacity to stop an attack like that, but that requires us then being able to operate within that cyberspace, how do we make sure that we’re able to do that, carry out those functions, while still meeting our core principles of respecting the privacy of all our people?
And given Germany’s history, I recognize the sensitivities around this issue. What I would ask would be that the German people recognize that the United States has always been on the forefront of trying to promote civil liberties, that we have traditions of due process that we respect, that we have been a consistent partner of yours in the course of the last 70 years, and certainly the last 25 years, in reinforcing the values that we share. And so occasionally I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst — assuming that we have been consistently your strong partners and that we share a common set of values.
And if we have that fundamental, underlying trust, there are going to be times where there are disagreements, and both sides may make mistakes, and there are going to be irritants like there are between friends, but the underlying foundation for the relationship remains sound.
Q …And to you, Mr. President, I address the question, there is quite a lot of pressure by members of your government who say weapons should be delivered to the Ukrainians. Now, you yourself have said you want to ratchet up the cost that Putin has to bear and then make him relent and give in maybe. And you said all options have to be on the table, so apparently also weapons. So what makes you so sure that these weapons will not only go into the hands of the regular Ukraine army, but will then also perhaps get into the hands of separatists or militias on the Ukrainian side, who are accused by Amnesty International and other NGOs of having violated human rights?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The point Angela made I think is right, which is we never have guarantees that any particular course of action works. As I’ve said before, by the time a decision reaches my desk, by definition, it’s a hard problem with no easy answers. Otherwise somebody else would have solved it and I would never even hear about it.
The issue that you raised about can we be certain that any lethal aid that we provide Ukraine is used properly, doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, does not lead to overaggressive actions that can’t be sustained by the Ukrainians, what kinds of reactions does it prompt not simply from the separatists but from the Russians — those are all issues that have to be considered. The measure by which I make these decisions is, is it more likely to be effective than not? And that is what our deliberations will be about.
But what I do know is this — that the United States and Europe have not stood idly by. We have made enormous efforts, enormous investments of dollars, of political capital, of diplomacy, in trying to resolve this situation. I think the Ukrainian people can feel confident that we have stood by them. People like Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry have spent countless hours on this issue, as has Angela and her team on the German side. And just because we have not yet gotten the outcome that we want doesn’t mean that this pressure is not, over time, making a difference.
I think it’s fair to say that there are those inside of Russia who recognize this has been a disastrous course for the Russian economy. I think Mr. Putin is factoring that in. But, understandably, until the situation is entirely resolved, we’re going to have to keep on trying different things to see if we can get a better outcome.
What I do know is, is that we will not be able to succeed unless we maintain the strong transatlantic solidarity that’s been the hallmark of our national security throughout the last 70 years. And I’m confident that I’ve got a great partner in Angela in maintaining that.
Thank you very much, everybody.