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Many Puzzled By Obama's Reference To Ukraine As Russian 'Client State'


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WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama says that failing states are America's biggest threat abroad, not any competing superpower. In his final State of the Union address, he then makes the reference to Syria and Ukraine. (Reuters)

KYIV -- U.S. President Barack Obama raised eyebrows around the world with a difficult-to-interpret reference to Ukraine in his final annual State of the Union address that lumped the post-Soviet state and its West-leaning government together with Syria as Russian "client states."

"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," Obama said on January 12. "And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality."

In the transcript of the speech posted by the White House, the confusing reference remains, although the word "client" does not appear and the transcript uses the present tense ("states they see slipping away from their orbit").

The annual address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress is one of the U.S. president's most comprehensively prepared and vetted speeches. Obama's chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, told National Public Radio earlier in the day his office had been working on the speech since "around Thanksgiving."

"Once the new year came and went, there would be a frenzied couple of weeks writing and editing and rewriting, right up until the final speech and then practicing the speech on the last day," Favreau said.

So the president's infelicitous comment about Ukraine is all the more difficult to understand. Was Obama referring to Russia's support for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian leader who was driven from office by pro-democracy demonstrations in February 2014? Or did he have in mind Moscow's economic, political, and military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed in March 2014?

According to the White House, it was both.

"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," a senior U.S. administration official told RFE/RL on January 13.

The official, who could not be identified due to White House protocol, said the remarks also 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."

Prior to the White House clarification, officials in Ukraine were quick to stress that Obama's wording should not be taken as a sign that U.S. policy on Ukraine has shifted.

"It is important to make the right emphasis in assessing this comment," Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada's Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "This is an error on the expression level, a failed impromptu. It shouldn't be considered as the position of the U.S. president on Ukraine."

Zalishchuk noted that Obama mentioned Ukraine twice in the speech, saying in the second reference that U.S. support for Ukraine and other countries transitioning to democracy helped make the world more stable.

Ostap Semerak, first deputy chairman of the parliamentary Committee for European Integration, also emphasized Obama's statement of support for Ukraine and his criticism of Moscow.

"Obama says [the United States] is helping Ukraine defend democracy," Semerak said. "And that this strengthens the international order that was established after World War II. When Obama mentions this order, he talks about Russia and its aggressive policies. Ukraine is viewed as trying to maintain the system of peace that was formed after World War II and as opposed to Russia's bid to establish a new world order based on aggression."

Oleg Bilokolos, an analyst with the Kyiv-based Maidan of Foreign Affairs nongovernmental organization, told RFE/RL that one should not overemphasize Obama's "slips of the tongue."

"The main thing for us is that the Obama administration's policy on Ukraine remains unchanged, that democracy will be maintained, and that the United States will encourage maintaining [economic] sanctions against Russia" over Moscow's interference in Ukraine, Bilokolos said.

'Did He Say That?'

Western analysts and journalists -- to say nothing of Obama's U.S. political opponents -- were harsher in their reaction and less inclined to dismiss the remark as a "slip of the tongue."
Journalist Christopher Miller of Mashable wondered on Twitter: "Misspoke? [Because] Moscow is [definitely] trying to destabilize Ukraine."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer also said on Twitter the statement was an "odd line" because of Moscow's efforts to "destabilize Ukraine."

Journalist Julia Davis of Russian Media Monitor wrote that Obama's "choice of words is seriously wrong."

Lydia Tomkiw, a reporter with the International Business Times, wrote that the wording shows that "DC stopped paying attention [to Ukraine] a while ago, sadly."

On the brighter side, Tomkiw noted, Obama did not upset Ukrainians by referring to their country as "the Ukraine" -- an old-fashioned formulation seen by some as offensive, as it suggests Ukraine is a region rather than a country.

Representative Peter Roskam (Republican-Ohio) tweeted that "Ukraine is our ally, not a 'client state' of Russia, Mr. President."

He added that Obama's statement "shows an alarming lack of understanding of geopolitical realities."

​With contributions from RFE/RL's Carl Schreck in Washington
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.

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    Tetiana Iakubovych

    Tetiana Iakubovych is an award-winning journalist and senior radio producer for Donbas.Realities of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. She is a program host, the author of many popular multimedia reports and projects, and the director of the documentary My Shift about workers at Chernobyl.

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