Putin Shown Not ‘So Smart’ as Russia Economy Suffers, Obama Says

Russian President Vladimir Putin, hailed as a “genius” by some earlier this year, hasn’t been “so smart” as sanctions his country faces are proving successful, President Barack Obama said in a year-end interview with NPR.

Difficulties afflicting the Russian economy and changing views of Putin’s efforts to expand his influence through the Ukraine conflict show the wisdom of “having some strategic patience” in dealing with world crises, Obama said in the interview taped earlier this month and released today.

“Three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius” as Russia had annexed the Crimean peninsula and Russian-backed separatists sought control of Ukraine’s eastern regions, the U.S. president said. “And today, you know, I’d sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”

Part of the rationale for sanctions the U.S. and European allies imposed on Russia for its actions “was that the only thing keeping that economy afloat was the price of oil,” Obama said. The sanctions combined with declining crude prices -- down by almost 50 percent in the past six months -- have validated the U.S.-led approach and shown the Russian economy’s vulnerability, Obama told NPR “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep in the 40-minute interview.

“Ultimately, the big advantage we have with Russia is we’ve got a dynamic, vital economy, and they don’t,” he said. “They rely on oil; we rely on oil and iPads and movies and you name it.”

Midterm Vote

As Obama extolled his approach toward Russia, he termed himself “obviously frustrated with the results” of November’s U.S. elections, which saw Republicans take control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House of Representatives. He also spoke about immigration and relations with Iran.

Reflecting on his party’s losses in the elections, he said: “I think we had a great record for members of Congress to run on and I -- I don’t think we, myself and the Democratic Party -- made as good of a case as we should have.”

On working with Republicans when lawmakers return to Washington in early January, Obama said he is prepared to veto legislation that would roll back regulations and policies on energy and health care.

“I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made in health care; I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on the environment and clean air and clean water,” he said.

He also said Republicans are “in a position where it’s not enough for them to simply grind the wheels of Congress to a halt and blame me.” Instead, “they have to show that they can responsibly govern,” he said.

Immigration Dispute

Defending his Nov. 20 executive order that will temporarily remove the threat of deportation for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Obama said he couldn’t predict whether it would spur Republicans to work with him for a broader revision of immigration policy.

Saying he rejects the notion that the U.S. has “the option of deporting” the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, he raised the prospect that his order could “simply solidify” what he called “a nativist trend in the Republican Party.” If that happens, “then probably we’re not going to get much more done” on immigration policy “and it’ll be a major debate” in the 2016 presidential election.

Obama, asked whether his moves earlier this month to open relations with Cuba might lead to similar steps with Iran, said the two cases weren’t comparable.

Nuclear Negotiations

Calling Cuba a “relatively tiny country that doesn’t pose any significant threat to us or our allies,” he said Iran, by contrast, “is a large, sophisticated country that has a track record of state-sponsored terrorism, that we know was attempting to develop a nuclear weapon.”

Talks aimed at having Iran commit to forgo nuclear-weapon development must be resolved before his administration would push to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran as it is doing with Cuba, Obama said.

In a portion of the NPR interview released Dec. 26, Obama said he thinks race relations are better in the U.S. today compared with when he took office in 2009. The deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white policemen in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York’s Staten Island and racial tensions spurred by those incidents don’t reflect the progress that has been made, he said.

The U.S. is “probably in its day-to-day interactions less racially divided,” he said.

He also said “the issue of police and communities of color being mistrustful of each other is hardly new,” and “the fact that they’re now surfacing -- in part because people are able to film what have just been, in the past, stories passed on around a kitchen table -- allows people to make their own assessments and evaluations.”

Obama traveled to Hawaii, his native state, on Dec. 19 with his family to celebrate the holidays and is scheduled to return to Washington after New Year’s. No public events are planned during his vacation.

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