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Obama: Belligerent Russia poses 'testing' moment for Europe, US

Obama, in Brussels, warns Russia of further isolation if it 'stays on course' in Ukraine, but precludes Western use of military force. His speech urges defense of the post-World War II 'architecture of peace.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Wednesday, March 26, in Brussels, Belgium.

The United States and Europe must stand firm in rejecting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea not just because they challenge the principles a peaceful and prosperous Europe is built on, President Obama said Wednesday in Brussels, but also because they thwart "universal values" of freedom and self-determination that stir all humanity.

The president’s speech – the format Mr. Obama has favored for delivering big messages in foreign places – came at the end of a day during which the American leader visited for the first time two pillars of trans-Atlantic relations: NATO headquarters and the executive offices of the European Union.

At both institutions Obama discussed with leaders the steps that Western powers must be ready to take – including broad sanctions on Russian economic sectors such as the dominant energy industry and banking and finance – if Russia moves to “engage in further incursions into Ukraine,” as he put it at EU headquarters.

Obama assured his audience of about 2,000 diplomats, officials, and university students at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts that the West has no intention of meeting Russia’s aggression with military force. But in a clear warning to Moscow, he pledged expanded Western measures to match continued Russian aggression. 

“If the Russian leadership stays on its current course,” he said, “this isolation will deepen.”

The president sought in his speech to take the case for a firm stand against Russia’s actions beyond a mere geopolitical fight to a defense of the values and rules that a war-traumatized world forged from the ruins of World War II.

“We meet here at a moment of testing for Europe and the United States, and for the international order that we have worked for generations to build,” Obama said. After World War II, “America joined with Europe to reject the dark forces of the past” and to build a “new architecture of peace,” he said.

Among the principles that took root are the convictions that borders can’t be changed by nations that would bully their weaker neighbors, and that international law cannot be disregarded with impunity, he said. “In the 21st century the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force,” Obama said.

Yet principles that over time have come to be taken for granted in Europe and the US are suddenly being challenged. “Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident,” he said.

Russia and the challenge its actions pose to a hard-won international order were the focus of Obama's speech. But at another level it sought to reassure a Europe shaken by recent American policies and revelations – Obama’s "Asia pivot," National Security Agency spying on US allies – and to affirm a recommitment to trans-Atlantic ties.

Obama painted a picture of deep and lasting ties, sometimes forged in blood. He noted that earlier in the day he had visited the Word War I cemetery at Flanders Field, where hundreds of American soldiers are buried. Remembering where Europe was a century ago (or even six decades ago) is an important part of resisting any tugs to fall backward, he said. 

To ignore the “lessons of the past,” Obama said, would “allow the old ways to regain a foothold.”  

Obama wrapped up his speech with a special message to American and European young people, telling them never to take for granted the values of freedom and individual rights that allow them to live full lives – or to assume that those values can never be threatened.

He said it would be tempting for young people to see Ukraine as “removed from our daily lives” or to think “that there is more than enough to worry about in the affairs of your own country.” But he said it would be up to today’s young people to protect and safeguard the “universal” principles that have spread around the world in recent decades.

“We live in a world in which our values are going to be challenged again and again by forces that would drag us back,” he told the young people in the audience. “You can help us to choose a better history.”

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