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White House: Obama’s Puzzling Ukraine Comment Referred To Kremlin Ally Yanukovych

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on January 12.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on January 12.

The White House has clarified U.S. President Barack Obama’s puzzling reference to Ukraine in his final State of the Union address, in which he said Russia is “pouring resources in to prop up” its ex-Soviet neighbor.

Obama raised eyebrows with the phrase in the January 12 speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress because it appeared to contradict his administration’s position that Russia is stoking unrest in Ukraine by supporting armed separatists.

But a senior U.S. administration official told RFE/RL on January 13 that Obama was referring in part to Moscow’s support for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February 2014 amid mass street protests that helped usher in a pro-Western government.

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“The president was referring in his remarks to Russia’s previous long-term efforts to bolster the regime of former President Yanukovych as a way to prevent Ukraine from pursuing further integration with Europe,” said the official, who could not be identified under White House protocol.

Yanukovych’s ouster triggered events that led to Russia’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which a majority of UN member states deem illegitimate. It also led to war between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv’s forces in the east of the country that has killed more than 9,000 since April 2014.

Before Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia had offered billions in financial incentives, in what was widely seen as an effort to dissuade him from signing an agreement for closer relations with the European Union. Moscow feared the deal would have tugged Ukraine out of its orbit, economically and politically.

The U.S. official also told RFE/RL that Obama’s remarks about Ukraine referred to Russia’s “current occupation of Crimea, extensive efforts to support armed groups operating in eastern Ukraine, and other efforts to destabilize the country.”

Obama veered only slightly from his prepared remarks on Ukraine in the annual address, which is thoroughly vetted by the U.S. president’s staff and speechwriters.

"Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria -- client states they saw slipping away from their orbit," he said in the speech. "And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality."

The phrase “prop up Ukraine” was also included in the prepared version of the speech distributed to the media by the White House.

The administration official reiterated Washington’s support for Ukraine’s government and citizens.

“Over the past two years, the United States has led an international coalition to help Ukraine defend its democracy and territorial integrity, and the United States remains firmly committed to helping the Ukrainian people build a country that is peaceful, prosperous, and free to chart its own destiny,” the official said.

Overall, Ukraine and Russia got scant mention during the hourlong speech, which instead focused on other pressing foreign policy issues such as terrorism, the Islamic State in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, and warming relations with Cuba.

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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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