The combativeness on display in President Obama’s State of the Union last night was not reserved for his domestic political opponents alone. While Republicans may have been the target of much of the president’s sarcasm and mockery, Obama saved a few choice lines for his fellow head of state, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the section of his address dedicated to foreign policy, Obama claimed credit for the dire condition of the Russian economy, which is suffering primarily because of falling oil prices. He also took a swipe at Republicans who, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, suggested after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year that Vladimir Putin was a stronger leader than Obama.
“We are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy,” the president said. “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.
“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”
He added, “That’s how America leads – not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”
The president’s remarks did not go unnoticed in the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking Wednesday at a press conference said, “We hear from our Western partners that Russia has to be isolated. Specifically, Barack Obama has just repeated that. These attempts won’t be effective. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will never resort to self-isolation.”
Lavrov blasted the U.S. for a foreign policy stance that, he said, could be paraphrased as, “’We are number one and everyone else has to recognize that.’” The U.S., he continued, “[W]ants…to dominate the world and not merely be first among equals.”
He spoke in Moscow before traveling to Berlin to meet with the foreign affairs representatives of Ukraine, France and Germany. The meeting is part of an effort to secure a cease-fire in Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels have been trying to carve out an independent republic since shortly after Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last year and subsequently declared it part of Russia.
Toeing the Kremlin party line, Lavrov on Wednesday denied that Russia is actively supporting Ukrainian rebels. He also described the mounting tension in Ukraine, where the intensity of fighting has spiked in the last month, as the fault of the U.S. and its allies, going so far as to imply that the U.S. is trying to start another Cold War.
“NATO followed the US in its drive for confrontation. NATO made an absolutely politicized decision to halt civil and military cooperation. Almost all projects have been frozen,” Lavrov said. However, he said, the Putin government “will not allow a new Cold War.”
Lavrov was expected to propose a cease fire in Ukraine on Wednesday, a position seemingly at odds with reports that Russia continues to supply troops and advanced weapons to the rebels. Lavrov dismissed such claims as “absolute nonsense.”
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