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Observers Say Partnership, Not Policy, Dominated Obama Speech

U.S. President Barack Obama waves after delivering a speech at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on March 26.
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after delivering a speech at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on March 26.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile speech on trans-Atlantic ties offered little new on the West’s response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine but sent a strong signal of commitment to European partners in the standoff with Moscow, analysts said.

“This was a speech that says we’re in this for the long haul and it’s going to take time," James Collins, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Bill Clinton, said of the March 26 address in Brussels.

Obama may have disappointed anyone expecting an announcement of new sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory, as he largely restated his administration’s intent to introduce new punitive measures should Moscow stay “on its current course.”

Instead, he set out to simultaneously reassure Europe of Washington’s partnership and “unwavering commitment to the NATO alliance and to defending the territorial integrity of alliance members” while also maintaining pressure on the Moscow, said William Tobey, a defense policy and arms-control expert.

"I think the signal to Russia was that this will play out over time, and that the Kremlin shouldn’t think that because it’s achieved its short-term goals, there won’t be long-term consequences, and therefore they should begin to rethink," said Tobey, who served on the staff of the White House National Security Council under three U.S. administrations.
RFE/RL Live Blog on the Ukraine crisis

The broader themes of the speech with regard to the trans-Atlantic partnership were not new, however, and would not have sounded out of place if delivered by any U.S. president over the last 25 years, Tobey added.

“In its defense of common values between the United States and Europe, in its defense of the importance of freedom and resisting tyranny, in some ways it sounded a bit like Ronald Reagan to me," Tobey said.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while Obama delivered the speech with “long and flowery” eloquence, its lack of policy substance on the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis left him “extremely disappointed.”

“In Kyiv I would be extremely disappointed, and in Moscow...if I’m in the Kremlin, I would probably be kind of chuckling," Kuchins said.

With an audience of some 2,000 mainly young people at the speech, Obama appeared to eschew concrete policy in favor of emphasizing the importance of the American-European partnership going forward, Collins said.

“It was kind of pitched to the next generation," Collins said.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.