President Barack Obama called on the world Monday to give priority to diplomacy and international law over the use of force to resolve conflicts and disputes, and he lambasted Russia for its “aggression” against Ukraine and its help in keeping embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
Obama’s address to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly augured badly for his first meeting in nearly a year, scheduled for Monday evening, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke later in the morning to the annual gathering of kings, presidents and prime ministers.
The meeting was expected to focus on the four-year conflict in Syria, where Putin has been building up a military force to bolster Assad, and on Ukraine, where Russia seized the Crimea and is providing support to secessionist rebels in the eastern reaches of the country.
Throughout his speech, Obama sounded a theme that using diplomacy and adhering to international law have been more successful in bringing lasting settlements to disputes and conflicts, while repression and the use of military force fuel violence and produce only short-term results.
To illustrate his points, Obama held up as successes his re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after five decades and the two-year international negotiations that this summer produced the deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He pointed to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation of Iraq as failing to create stability.
“Change won’t come overnight to Cuba, but I am confident that openness, not coercion, will support reforms and better the life the Cuban people. Just as I believe that Cuba will find success if it improves cooperation with other nations,” he said.
Unless we work together to defeat the ideas that drive different communities in a country like Iraq into conflict, any order that our militaries can impose will be temporary.
“In Iraq, the United States learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave troops, trillions of dollars from our treasury cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land,” he said. “Unless we work with other nations under the mantle of international norms and principles and law that offer legitimacy to our efforts, we will not succeed.”
“Unless we work together to defeat the ideas that drive different communities in a country like Iraq into conflict, any order that our militaries can impose will be temporary,” he added.
Obama’s comments appeared to be aimed directly at Putin’s military intervention in Syria, where Russia has deployed at least 28 jet fighters, advanced armored vehicles, helicopters, artillery and several hundred troops near the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.
Putin was expected to portray the force as intended to fight the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. But he acknowledged in an interview aired Sunday by CBS News’ 60 Minutes program that the contingent was deployed to bolster Assad, who recently has suffered a series of defeats and is struggling with manpower shortages after four years of war.
Russia also maintains its only military base in the Middle East in the port city of Tartus, which it would lose if Assad were driven from power.
Obama rejected Putin’s assertion that the world must help keep Assad in power as the only effective force capable of fighting the Islamic State and other rebel groups, all of which Moscow views as Islamist extremists.
Some nations, he said, prefer using force over following the precepts on which the United Nations was founded.
“In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Assad who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse,” he said.
The Russian intervention – backed by a new intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran and Iraq – and the waves of refugees from Syria and other countries washing into Europe have diverted international attention from the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia seized Crimea and is supporting pro-Moscow separatists who seized two self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine.
We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine but we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.
Obama sought to refocus attention on Russia’s actions in Ukraine and at the same time to justify the provision of U.S. financial assistance, military training and non-lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government, as well as the imposition of U.S. and European sanctions on Russian state-run banks and firms and members of Putin’s inner circle.
“Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression in Eastern Ukraine. America has few economic interests in Ukraine. We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine but we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.”
“If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” he continued. “That is the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia. It is not a desire to return to a cold war.”
“Imagine if instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected,” said Obama. “That would be better for Ukraine but also better for Russia and better for the world.”