Obama Looks For EU Support To Pressure Russia On Ukraine

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President Obama has announced a package of U.S. aid to support Ukraine's economy including a billion dollars in loan guarantees. The president also had tough words for Russian President Putin.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene, good morning.

Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, today in Paris to talk about the Ukrainian crisis. In Washington, President Obama has announced a package of U.S. aid to support Ukraine's economy, including a billion dollars in loan guarantees. The president had some tough words for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We stand on the side of history that I think more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people are able to make their own decisions about their own lives. And, you know, Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he's not abiding by that principle.

GREENE: Now, the president has some work to do getting European allies to speak with one voice on Ukraine. Turns out that's the same problem he has in Congress.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama has found himself in a role that not too long ago seemed outdated: The leader of the free world. He has to rally the NATO allies and also get the U.S. Congress singing from the same page, to counter Russian aggression.

OBAMA: When it comes to preserving the principle that no country has the right to send in troops to another country unprovoked, we should be able to come up with a unified position that stands outside of partisan politics.

LIASSON: To listen to the president's Republican critics, you'd think this is another big partisan fight between the White House and its congressional opponents.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: This is ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore.

LIASSON: That's Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. Here's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham on CNN.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll - including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.

LIASSON: But what does Graham want the president to do?

GRAHAM: How about this. Suspend Russian membership in the G8 and the G20 at least for a year, starting right now. Do something.

LIASSON: But President Obama has already suspended preparations for the upcoming G8 meeting in Sochi, Russia. And he says he's planning a series of economic sanctions to isolate Russia and hurt its economy. He's not planning military action nor are Republicans suggesting it.

Jeremy Rosner is a former National Security Council aide who advises Democrats on foreign policy.

JEREMY ROSNER: There's been a lot of partisan attacks on President Obama, on his handling of Ukraine so far, but they are mostly partisan at this point and not substantive. So they're proposing things he had already put in motion after he put them in motion, and then complaining that he hasn't done them.

LIASSON: While there's not much daylight between the president and the Republicans about what to do now, there is a raging debate about why this happened. And on that issue Republicans are having an I-told-you-so moment.

Peter Feaver worked at the National Security Council for George W. Bush.

PETER FEAVER: Where the strongest critique is, the retrospective, how do we get here, the mistake that was made were all made over the last five years, beginning with an ill-conceived reset of Russian/U.S. policy. And Republicans have been quite unanimous in criticizing that policy and the events have shown that they were mostly right.

LIASSON: This is an ongoing debate but it's confined to Washington, D.C. As a domestic issue, Ukraine barely registers right now with the public. When presidents have little control over events, they can look weak, but the crisis in Ukraine is unlikely to affect the president politically, the way that the NSA surveillance scandal did or the BP oil spill. Jeremy Rosner.

ROSNER: This is an enormously big international crisis, but it's worth remembering that only 18 percent of Americans - according to a YouGov survey done this week - find that the U.S. should be responsible for defending Ukraine, and it's only 26 percent even among Republicans.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama will probably have more trouble getting the Germans and the British to agree to tough economic sanctions than he will the Republican Congress. That's a big change for this president, and says Peter Feaver, a welcome one.

FEAVER: There is a price for appearing weak. But there is also an opportunity here. There has been a fair amount of bipartisan consensuses in the recommendations given to President Obama. And so he could use this as a time of bringing Congress and the White House together for a united front on foreign policy.

LIASSON: President Obama wasn't able to do that on Syria, where he reversed course in the face of congressional opposition. But the crisis in Ukraine may allow Mr. Obama to emerge with better relations with Congress.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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