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Obama: Crimea not another Cold War but a 'contest of ideas'

March 26, 2014|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama delivers a speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
President Obama delivers a speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )

BRUSSELS -- The dispute over Crimea is not another Cold War but a “contest of ideas,” pitting an outmoded nationalism against the progress of democratic ideals, President Obama declared Wednesday as he sought to explain the Western response to Russia’s seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine.

Speaking in the capital of Europe, Obama cast the crisis as a fight between “the old way of doing things” and “a young century.” He also drew a contrast between the “bully” behavior of Russia and that of the Ukrainian protesters, whom he called the “voices for human dignity.”

“The contest of ideas continues for your generation. And that's what's at stake in Ukraine today,” Obama said. “Russia's leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that, in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”

Obama spoke to students and dignitaries in the 1928 Palais des Beaux-Arts, a venue that offered a formal backdrop for the grave speech, the keynote of his weeklong trip to Europe. The long planned visit to refresh old alliances was transformed into a tense diplomatic mission after Russia occupied and then annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Since then, Obama has been trying to craft a unified response from U.S. and European leaders, and defending himself against critics who say the crisis was a failure of Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow and represents a return to Cold War hostilities.

“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” Obama answered. “After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

Some of Obama’s remarks seemed a direct response to the justifications Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered for his move, although he never mentioned Putin by name.

Obama addressed the notion that Crimea was akin to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a strange turn, Obama, whose rise in national politics was fueled by his opposition to that war, defended it.

“But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system,” Obama said. “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory … instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people.”

“We face difficult decisions about how to exercise our power. But part of what makes us different is that we welcome criticism, just as we welcome the responsibilities that comes with global leadership,” Obama said.

Twitter: @khennessey

Twitter: @cparsons

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