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Obama Tells Trump Not To Link Russia Sanctions To Nuclear Arms Reductions

In Final Press Conference, Obama Pressures Russia Over Actions In Ukraine
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WATCH: In Final Press Conference, Obama Pressures Russia Over Actions In Ukraine

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama said sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula should not be linked to discussions of reducing nuclear arsenals, saying instead that the sanctions should remain in place until Moscow reverses course on Ukraine.

Obama's comments, made at his final news conference on January 18, appeared squarely aimed at his Republican successor, Donald Trump, who is set to be formally inaugurated as president later this week.

In an interview published in The Times of London on January 16, Trump suggested linking the question of reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to the issue of sanctions imposed nearly three years ago on Russia by Washington and its European allies.

Responding to a reporter's question, Obama lamented what he called Russia's "escalating anti-American rhetoric," which he said started when Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012.

"The reason we imposed the sanctions, recall, was not because of nuclear weapons issues, it was because the independence and sovereignty of a country, Ukraine, had been encroached upon by force, by Russia," Obama said.

"What I’ve said to the Russians, is as soon as you stop doing that, the sanctions will be removed. And I think it would probably best serve, not only American interests, but also the interests of preserving international norms, if we don't confuse why these sanctions have been imposed with a whole set of other issues," he said.

"It's important for the United States to stand up for the principle that big countries don't go around and invade and bully smaller countries," Obama added.

Russia, for its part, condemned the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as Obama's policies in the Middle East, including its intervention in Libya in 2011.

Trump has signaled he wants a more conciliatory approach toward Russia, a move that has alarmed Ukrainians, and some U.S. allies, particularly in former Warsaw Bloc countries of Eastern Europe.

Modernization Of Arsenals

Obama had made nuclear arms reduction a cornerstone of his presidency, and in 2010, Russia and United States signed a treaty known as New START.

That accord committed both countries to modest reductions in strategic nuclear forces. Obama had repeatedly sought to engage the Kremlin in a new round of reductions, but those efforts went nowhere as bilateral relations spiraled downward.

Both countries are also undertaking major modernization of their respective arsenals, which has sparked concerns about a new arms race.

Obama's news conference comes at an extraordinary time in U.S. politics, with a transition to a new presidency roiled by uncertainty and tension not seen in at least a generation.

For many political observers, Trump's election has been seen in part as a repudiation of Obama's legacy, and in recent weeks, Obama has sat for multiple media interviews and held multiple high-profile speeches to push back.

Using executive orders -- essentially constitutionally legal decrees that don't need approval from Congress -- Obama has also sought to cement some of his policy priorities in place, and prevent them from being undermined by the Trump administration.

Diplomat Expulsions

Obama has punished Russian individuals and entities accused of involved in the cyberhacking of U.S. political parties during the election campaign.

He's expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response for what administration officials have called repeated harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.

Obama has also extended financial sanctions on Russian officials for their roles in the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In addition, Obama allowed the UN condemnation of Israeli settlements, shut down a controversial database used to track mostly Muslim and Arab men in the United States, and released 10 more prisoners from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the custody of Oman.

During the news conference, Obama also repeated his administration's position that a two-state solution to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis was essential for peace in the region. He said he worried that opportunity was slipping away.

Chelsea Manning Commutation

Obama also defended one of the more controversial decisions he has made in the final days of his presidency: the commutation of the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents.

Manning was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years in prison. Under Obama's order, issued January 17, she is to be released in May.

Obama said Manning had taken responsibility for the crime she was charged with and handed a "disproportionate" prison sentence compared to other leakers.

"I feel very comfortable that justice has been served," Obama said.

He also rejected the notion that his decision will encourage others to leak classified information.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is enterprise editor for RFE/RL.