President Barack Obama said indifference to Russia’s attempt to unilaterally redraw the boundaries of Ukraine would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries for the dead in two world wars.
The U.S. and Europe are at “a moment of testing,” as Russia challenges the ideals of democracy, free markets and international law that have spread peace and prosperity, Obama said in a speech at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
“Once again, we are confronted with the belief that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way, that recycled maxim that might makes right,” he said.“So I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe.”
Obama’s speech capped three days of rallying opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in The Hague and in Brussels, shuttling from the Nuclear Security Summit, an emergency meeting with Group of Seven leaders, a sit-down with the presidents of the European Commission and European Union as well as NATO’s secretary general.
He cast the most tense confrontation for NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union as a battle between 21st Century ideals and “the old way of doing things.”
Obama dismissed Putin’s justifications for taking over the Black Sea peninsula and said Russia can’t be allowed to run roughshod over its neighbors. He twice in his speech said larger nations can’t “bully” less powerful ones.
“This is not another Cold War” because Russia doesn’t lead a bloc of nations or a global ideology, he said. While the U.S. and NATO don’t seek conflict with Russia, they will defend “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies.”
The situation in Ukraine has neither an easy answer nor a military solution, Obama said. Even so, he said, every member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “must step up and carry its share of the burden” for the alliance’s collective defense and its role in maintaining international security.
“We must meet the challenge to our ideals -- to our very international order -- with strength and conviction,” Obama said in the speech.
Failure “would allow the old way of doing things to gain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard -- not just in Europe -- but in Asia and the Americas; in Africa and the Middle East,” he said.
Obama rejected Putin’s assertion that the invasion of Iraq and military intervention in the former Yugoslavia show NATO’s hypocrisy. He noted his own opposition to the Iraq war and said the U.S. sought to work within the international system.
“We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory, nor did we grab its resources for our own gain,” he said. “Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state could make decisions about its own future.”
The U.S. and European Union have imposed financial sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian officials as well associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, leaving open the threat of broader sanctions targeting the Russian economy.
As Obama spoke, U.S. stocks fell, erasing earlier gains, on investor concern that the conflict may escalate. The Standard & Poor’s 500 lost 0.3 percent to 1,859.76 at 3:19 p.m. in New York, after earlier climbing to within three points of its record closing level reached March 7.
Before the speech, Russian markets rebounded to levels seen before Putin’s decision to annex Ukraine’s Crimea region. The benchmark Russian Micex Index climbed 1.9 percent to 1,349.39, the highest since March 5 by the close, though it is down 10 percent this year.
European governments, faced with youth unemployment rates above 50 percent in some southern-tier countries, are debating the costs of more sanctions. Banking curbs would hurt Britain, an arms embargo would bar France from selling Mistral-class helicopter carriers to the Kremlin, and cutbacks in purchases of Russian gas would harm a swathe of EU countries, starting with Germany.
Russia provides about 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas, which flows through pipelines that cross Ukraine.