President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered a jab at Russia – and his 2012 Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney – downplaying Russia’s influence in the world by referring to it as a “regional power” and saying he’s more concerned about a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan than he is about a Russian threat.
Speaking at the close of a nuclear security summit in The Netherlands, which marked the first of a week of events in Europe that will include a meeting with the pope here on Thursday, Obama defended his foreign policy, listing what he said were successes, and he threatened more sweeping sanctions against the Russian economy should Russian President Vladimir Putin seek to expand beyond Ukraine’s Crimea.
“That would be a bad choice for President Putin to make,” Obama said. “But, ultimately, he’s the president of Russia and he’s the one who’s going to be making that decision. He just has to understand that there’s a choice to be made here.”
The wider sanctions potentially could include limitations on such areas as energy, finance, arms sales or trade that exists between Europe and the United States and Russia, Obama said.
The U.S. has slapped sanctions on individuals close to Putin and a Russian bank, and Obama maintained the initial sanctions “have already had some impact on the Russian economy.”
More expansive sanctions under consideration could affect the global economy and some countries “more than others,” he said. Europe does about $400 billion a year in trade with Russia.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who shared the stage with Obama, said the U.S. and Europe “seek total alignment on this issue” and are looking at sanctions that would pinch the Russian economy more than they’d affect Europe.
Obama said there is still room for Crimea to return to Ukraine, though he was not optimistic.
“It’s not a done deal in the sense that the international community by and large is not recognizing the annexation of Crimea,” he said, adding, however, that “there’s no expectation that they will be dislodged by force.”
Instead, he said the U.S. and its allies will try legal arguments, diplomacy, political pressure and economic sanctions to impose a cost.
“But I think it would be dishonest to suggest that there’s a simple solution to resolving what has already taken place in Crimea,” Obama said.
He noted that Russia has troops along the border of Ukraine and said that although he opposes “what appears to be an effort at intimidation,” Russia has the legal right to have its troops on its soil.
Obama’s swipe at Russia came as he was asked to defend his diplomacy-based foreign policy and whether Romney had called it right during the 2012 campaign when he declared Russia to be the U.S.’s biggest geopolitical foe.
Obama, who at the time mocked Romney, dismissed Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness.”
“The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bear these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” he added.
He said he believes Russia’s actions are a “problem” but don’t pose a national security threat to the United States.
“I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan, which is part of the reason why the United States, showing its continued international leadership, has organized a forum over the last several years that’s been able to help eliminate that threat in a consistent way,” Obama said.
Critics have charged the administration with being caught unaware by Putin, but Obama sidestepped a question of whether he had misread Putin’s intent, saying he was “less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts.”
And he said he wasn’t under any illusions that Russia wasn’t interested in Ukraine.
“It has always been our belief that Ukraine is going to have a relationship to Russia. There is a strong historic bond between the two countries,” Obama said. “But that does not justify Russia encroaching on Ukraine’s territorial integrity or sovereignty.”
Earlier in the day, Obama joined the other leaders in posing for a “family photograph” against a backdrop of a stylized world map with the words “Nuclear Security Summit 2014” stretching from Texas to the Korean peninsula.
He noted at the press conference that Japan has announced it will work with the U.S. to eliminate hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade nuclear material from an experimental reactor, and other nations have agreed to take steps to improve nuclear security in their own countries.
Obama was among the last leaders to enter the conference, chatting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he walked in. He took his spot on the front row, between Rutte at his left and President Xi Jinping of China at his right.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood about four rows behind Obama. Reporters said they didn’t see any interaction between the two.
Obama flashed his signature grin and waved as camera shutters went off.
“I think one of those must have worked!” he joked before walking out, chatting again with Ban.