Surrounded by the flags of his European allies, President Obama spoke from Brussels on Wednesday to make clear his (and their) position on Russia: no isolated nation, however big, can derail the ongoing push toward freedom.
In some ways, the speech was a fuller articulation of the case that Obama made briefly during a news conference on Tuesday. In those comments, he criticized Russia's weakness, indicating that its violations of international law by annexing Crimea "indicate less influence, not more." That point became stronger when given from a stage in the capital of the European Union.
"It was here in Europe," Obama said, "through centuries of struggle, through war and enlightenment, repression and revolution, that a particular set of ideals began to emerge." Among those ideals are "the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed and that laws and institutions should be set up to protect that understanding." It was also Europe that was the inflection point for two significant challenges to those ideals, World War II and the Cold War. "A contest was waged" between the Soviet Union and the West, "and ultimately, that contest was won. Not by tanks or missiles," but by people standing for those ideals. And when the Iron Curtain fell, the European Union rose. "The people of Europe, hundreds of millions of citizens, east, west, north, south, are more secure and more prosperous because we stood together for the ideals we share."
But as events in Ukraine show, "the contest of ideas continues." During the Cold War, the Ukraine occupied the literal middle ground in that contest; now, it is in the figurative center. Obama made clear that he sees Putin's incursion into Crimea as suggestive of a Russian desire to revisit that ideological battle, that it is only because of the need to protect that victory that the United States and the European Union are taking action against Putin. "If we define our interests narrowly, if we applied a cold-hearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way," Obama said, since the US doesn't share borders or any threat with that country. But the allies will act regardless, because not to do so would "ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century." As ABC's Rick Klein put it on Twitter, "Obama message: Putin is opening up a can of worms the wars of the 20th century shut down."
That risks inflating Putin's sense of purpose. So Obama was also careful to constrain his remarks to remind the world that Russia is not a 1970s-era Soviet Union. "This is not another Cold War that we're entering into," he said. "Unlike the soviet union, Russia leads no block of nations, no global ideology." Turning the levers of economic power against an isolated country would, in Obama's optimistic view, prompt Russians to "recognize that they cannot achieve a security, prosperity and the status they seek through brute force." To reinforce that, the US and Europe "have isolated Russia politically... and if the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens."
The US and its allies have "an interest in a strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one," he said. "We want the Russian people to live in security, prosperity and dignity, like everyone else," he said. In other words: We want you to accept the same ideals that we trumpet.
Obama couldn't avoid mentioning a key argument leveled by Russia and its defenders: that what Putin has done in Crimea echoes what the United States did in Iraq. Obama defended the U.S. in part by noting that he objected to the Iraq War. And, somewhat more shakily, by saying that "we did not claim or annex Iraq's territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people" — allowing Obama to claim credit for the uncertain end result, if not the reviled opening salvoes.
The audience for Obama's speech wasn't in that elegant auditorium in Brussels. It was the Russian people who support Putin and long for a prominent Russian state, but who are generally indifferent to the struggle for Ukraine. Obama wanted to present them with a renewed interest in what seemed universal in late 1991: a desire to be free and prosperous and uphold the values of Western Europe. He wants to see Russian hearts stirred like the Hungarians and Czechs that he referred to earlier in the speech.
Such revolutions are slow.