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Americas

Opinion: Obama not showing weakness on Ukraine

While US sanctions against Russia are largely symbolic thus far and a military intervention is out of question, DW's Miodrag Soric says that's not a sign of Obama's weakness. Instead, it's part of a realpolitik approach.

The presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin could hardly be more different. When they talk on the phone, they don't waste much time with courtesies and get straight to the point. That's also true when it comes to Ukraine. At the moment, Obama is upping the political price in the event that Russia annexes Crimea. He has threatened to isolate Russia in the international community, and he has signaled readiness to increase defense of the Baltic states as well as Poland and Hungary. No matter what he says, though, it's not enough for many in the American capital.

Washington wouldn't be Washington if there weren't politicians trying to secure political capital at home from the Crimea crisis. Senator John McCain is again accusing Obama of weakness, saying the president doesn't see the true nature of the former KGB spy Putin. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made similar comments. In light of the tensions in Europe, she - and many others - are demanding stronger American leadership.

The Kremlin's saber-rattling comes at the right time for the powerful US arms lobby, given Obama's proposal to scale back the Pentagon's budget. The lobby is applauding criticism of the president due to the possibility of forcing a reverse on defense spending.

'Strong leadership' - no, thanks

Listening to Washington's political establishment, one might think that the Cold War has suddenly returned. But most Americans see things differently than the agitators in the capital. In general, only a minority want the US to play a significant role in the Crimea crisis. They don't want "strong leadership" as President Bush Junior understood it - with numerous interventions and a black-and-white foreign policy. If there's a foreign policy issue that's of interest to Americans, then it's centered on the Middle East.

Restoring peace, ending US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, standing as a kind of "anti-Bush" - that's part of President Obama's political legacy. That's the way he sees himself, and he acts accordingly. He is seeking a compromise with Putin on the Crimea issue. The present sanctions against Russia's politicians and military are largely symbolic. Military action is out of the question. Obama is and remains cautious. He wants to be able to pile on economic penalties if Russia occupies eastern Ukraine. He plays tactical games and makes decisions day by day.

That has nothing to do with weakness. That's realpolitik. The US president recognizes the Kremlin's ability to interfere, whether in the Syria conflict, with the forthcoming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan or in the negotiations with Iran.

Russiais not a threat

Many people in western Ukraine, Poland, Georgia or the Baltic states may not like to hear it, but Obama primarily has to pursue US interests. Russia is a threat neither to the US nor NATO. The real rival is China. Partly due to his background but primarily based on economic considerations, Obama prefers to focus on Asia rather than Europe.

However, nothing has come of the major foreign policy projects Obama tackled at the start of his term. His stated aim of achieving a re-start on relations with the Arab World and with Russia has not panned out.

Obama's America is deeply concerned with itself. For many Americans, Crimea remains a distant issue.

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