Obama Deflecting Criticism Calls Russia a Regional Power

President Barack Obama brushed aside his critics who say he’s been weak in foreign affairs and dismissed Vladimir Putin’s Russia as merely a regional threat as he set the stage for the next moves in the confrontation over Ukraine.

Seeking to assure U.S. allies in Europe as well as voters at home, Obama told a gathering of world leaders in The Hague yesterday that an international coalition is moving to isolate a nation that no longer rates as a superpower.

“The United States is the most powerful nation in the world,” Obama said at a news conference concluding a two-day Nuclear Security Summit and a Group of Seven meeting dominated by discussions of Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness.”

“I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan,” he said, pointing to the just-finished summit which focused on keeping nuclear material secure.

Russia’s actions are testing U.S. global leadership with the most tense standoff involving the NATO alliance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Obama today will use a speech in Brussels to expand on what that means for European security, especially the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in ensuring that the rights of sovereign nations are respected.

‘Hallowed Ground’

Obama started the day with a visit to a World War I cemetery at Flanders, the site of trench warfare from 1914-1918 including the first mass use of poison gas by Germany on the Western front.

“This visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted,” Obama said. The U.S. and its European allies “will always stand together for freedom, for dignity and for the triumph of the human spirit,” he added.

The U.S. brings to the current confrontation an unmatched global economic and military footprint. The $16 trillion U.S. economy is largest in the world, eight times larger than that of Russia, which ranks eighth, according to World Bank figures.

U.S. defense spending accounted for about 38 percent of the global expenditure of $1.75 trillion in 2012, as measured in constant 2011 dollars, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Pentagon’s budget of $685 billion for that year dwarfed the $90.7 billion spent by Russia, according to the group.

Domestic Challenge

At the news conference, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “There is no geopolitical conflict which can be solved without the United States.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea also has created a domestic political challenge for the U.S. president. Since the Russian military pushed into Crimea, Obama’s Republican opponents have offered a drumbeat of criticism.

Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 election opponent, called his foreign policy “feckless.” Sarah Palin, who was McCain’s running mate, appeared on Fox News and compared Putin “who wrestles bears and drills for oil” with Obama “who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama was “weak and indecisive,” thus inviting aggression from foes. “Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine,” Graham said March 20 on CNN.

‘Less Influence’

Asked whether his 2012 Republican opponent, former Governor Mitt Romney, was correct when he said during the campaign that Russia is the “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama said of all the security concerns for the U.S. Russia isn’t at the top of the list.

“The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” Obama, 52, said. “Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States.”

The Republican criticism strikes at a core trait the U.S. public traditionally seeks in presidents -- strength. Public doubts about Obama’s resolve in foreign affairs have grown during a year in which Obama threatened air strikes against Syria for chemical weapons attacks on civilians and instead accepted an agreement to disarm.

Public Perception

Fifty-one percent of Americans said Obama isn’t “tough enough” when it comes to national security, up from 41 percent who thought so in 2012, in a Pew Research Center poll taken Oct. 30-Nov. 6. Obama’s job approval on international relations also declined, to 47 percent from 54 percent in December 2012, in an ABC News-Washington Post poll taken Feb. 27-Mar. 2.

Obama provided an example of U.S. global influence later in the day yesterday. He brought together the leaders of Japan and South Korea for their first meeting since each took office, kept apart until now by a dispute that has festered for nearly a year.

The U.S. and European Union have used their economic power to punish Russia, imposing sanctions on a combined 82 Russians and Ukrainians as well as a Russian bank. The benchmark Russian Micex Index is down 12 percent this year, and investors have pulled $5.5 billion from Russian equities and bonds this year through March 20, according to data compiled by EPFR Global, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm tracking fund flows. By comparison, total outflow in 2013 was $6.1 billion.

In his speech today in Brussels, will press EU leaders to maintain a unified front and threaten tougher sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy to deter Putin from further advances. He’ll also discuss coordinated economic assistance to Ukraine.

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