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Obama Speaks in The Hague, Addresses Russia Annexation of Crimea

Aired March 25, 2014 - 11:00   ET


MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Let's talk about this with our Michelle Kosinski, she's is traveling with the President as he's there joining in The Hague. I think Michelle safe to say that we should also expect the President to address Russia's annexation of Crimea.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Probably so. Just because this dominated the discussion so much.

The G-7 meeting which was held as a part of the nuclear security summit, wasn't really -- wasn't an original part of the plan. It was only because of the events of the events in Ukraine that this happened.

And it was a big deal to essentially suspend Russia from participation in this summit with the biggest economies in the world that Russia was supposed to host in June in Sochi.

It's a big step. The question, though, is, especially, of course, among critics, will this have any effect?

The U.S. administration, other countries, repeatedly say that there is still a door open to discussion, to a diplomatic solution. There is a chance for de-escalation. We can change things if Russia decides to change course.

But, for everything that has been said and all the talks that have been held, not only among Western countries, but talks with Russia, nothing has changed that course.

And, so, it remains to be seen now what could constitute escalation for additional and more damaging sanctions to be issued and what could be de-escalation?

We asked that question yesterday.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Michelle, we're going to jump out.

The president has now taken the stage with the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte. The two men are addressing the congregated press there.

Let's listen to what they are saying.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE S: ... I speak a little bit about this summit, I'd like to say a few words about a tragedy that recently took place back in the United States.

Over the weekend, a massive landslide swept through a tiny town called Oso in Washington state. And while I won't get ahead of the ongoing response and rescue operations, we know that part of this tightly knit community has been lost.

First responders have acted bravely despite still-dangerous conditions. The American Red Cross has opened multiple shelters and the people of Washington state have been quick to help and comfort their fellow citizens. I just spoke to Governor Inslee, who swiftly declared a state of emergency. I signed that emergency declaration to make sure he's got all the resources that he needs. My administration is in contact with them on an ongoing basis. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers has also bee on-site to offer their assistance and expertise.

So, I would just ask all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso and the families and friends of those who continue to be missing. We hope for the best, but we recognize this is a tough situation.

Now, as for our work here in The Hague, I want to just repeat the extraordinary work that Mark has done in helping to organize this. King Willem Alexander and the people of The Netherlands, your hospitality has been remarkable. Your organization has been flawless. To all the people who were involved in putting this together, including those who were putting up with the traffic that I caused, I want to say thank you.

I'm told there's a Dutch word that captures the spirit, which doesn't translate exactly into English, but let me say that my first visit to The Netherlands has been truly hoozelig (ph).


So, you know, I convened the first nuclear security summit in Washington four years ago because I believed that we need a serious and sustained global effort to deal with one of the greatest threats to international security. And that's the specter of nuclear terrorism. We made further progress at our second summit in Seoul, and under your prime minister's stewardship, we've built on that progress here.

Keeping with the spirit of these summits, this was not about made (ph) commitments, it was about taking tangible and concrete steps to secure more of the world's nuclear material so it never falls into the hands of terrorists. And that's what we've done. In particular, I want to commend Belgium and Italy for completing the removal of their excess supplies of highly enriched uranium and plutonium so that those supplies can be eliminated.

In a major commitment, Japan announced that it will work with the United States to eliminate hundreds of kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material from one of their experimental reactors. That's enough for a dozen -- for dozens of nuclear weapons.

Dozens of other nations have agreed to take specific steps towards improving nuclear security in their own countries and to support our global efforts. Some have pledged to convert their research reactors to low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make a bomb. We've set new goals for implementing our nuclear security measures, including sharing more information to show that we're all living up to our commitments.

I've made it clear that the United States will continue to do our part as well. Our nuclear regulator will develop new guidelines to strengthen cybersecurity at our nuclear power plants and we've pledged to pursue the production of a key medical isotope, used to treat illnesses like cancer, without relying on weapons usable materials. And we are going to work to install more radiation detection equipment at ports and transit sites in order to combat nuclear smuggling.

And, all of this builds on our previous efforts. Twelve countries, and two dozen nuclear facilities around the world, have now rid themselves entirely of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Dozens of nations have boosted security, or created new centers to improve nuclear security and training. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or the IAEA, is now stronger and more countries have ratified the treaties in international partnerships at the heart of our efforts.

So we have seen a fundamental shift in our approach to nuclear security. But, as Mark indicated, we still have a lot more to do to ensure the ambitious goals we set years ago to fully secure all nuclear and radiological material, civilian and military, so that it can no longer pose a risk to any of our citizens.. I believe this is essential to the security of the entire world, and given the catastrophic consequences of even a single attack, we can not be complacent.

I'll close by reminding everyone that one of the achievements of our first summit in 2010 was Ukraine's decision to remove all its highly enriched uranium from its nuclear fuel sites. Had that not happen, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now, and the difficult situation we are dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern.

It's a vivid reminder that the more of this material we can secure, the safer all of our countries will be. We made progress. We have got more to do. We are going to continue our work. And I look forward to hosting the fourth nuclear security summit in the United States in two years.

So thank you again, Mark and all your team as well as the people of the Netherlands for this outstanding summit.

MARK RUTTE, PRIME MINISTER OF THE NETHERLANDS:: Thank you, Mr. President. We will go straight to the questions now. The first question will be Julie (inaudible) the Associate Press.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You have been criticized during this dispute with Russia as not understanding president Putin's motivations. As recently as last month, you and others in your administration said, you thought Putin was reflecting or pausing his incursion into Crimea. Did you misread Putin's intentions? And what do you think his motivations are now?

And, if I could just quickly ask on NSA, when you spoke about the NSA review in January, you said you weren't sold on the option of having phone companies hold meta-data, and you thought it raised additional privacy concerns.

What has changed for you on that matter since that time? And do you think Congress will pass the legislation you are seeking?

And, Mr. prime minister, there are leaders in Europe who have concerns about the sector sanctions the president has proposed on Russia's economy.

Do you think any of those leaders have had their concerns alleviated during their talks with the president over the past few days?

Thank you.

OBAMA: All right, let me see if I can remember all of these.


With respect to president Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States, but the entire international community are looking to uphold.

I don't think that any of us have been under any illusion that Russia has been very interested in controlling what happens to Ukraine. That's not new. That's been the case for years now. That's been the case dating back to the Orange Revolution.

But, what we have said consistently throughout this process is that it is up to the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions about how they organize themselves, and who they interact with. It has always been our belief that Ukraine is going to have a relationship to Russia. There is a strong historic bond between the two countries.

But that does not justify Russia encroaching on Ukraine's territorial integrity or sovereignty. That's exactly what's happened. And I said, very early on, that should Russia do so, there would be consequences. And working with our European partners and our international partners, we have put in place sanctions that have already had some impact on the Russian economy.

Now, moving forward, you know, we have said, and I want to be very clear about this, we're not recognizing what has happened in Crimea. The notion that a referendum sloppily organized over the course of two weeks would somehow justify the breaking off of Crimea and the annexation by Russia, you know, that somehow that would be a valid process, I think the overwhelming majority of the world rejects. But we are also concerned about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine. So what I announced and what the European Council announced was that we were consulting and putting in place the framework, the architecture for additional sanctions, additional costs, should Russia take this next step.

What we also said and will continue to say is that there is another path available to Russia. The Ukrainian government has said it is prepared to negotiate with Russia, that it is prepared to recognize its international obligations.

And the international community has been supportive of a diplomatic process that would allow a deescalation of tensions, a moving back of Russian troops from Ukraine's borders and rapidly organized elections that allow the Ukrainian people to choose their leadership.

And my expectation is, is that if the Ukrainian people are allowed to make their own decisions, their decision will be that they want to have a relationship with Europe and they want to have a relationship with Russia. And that this is not a zero sum game.

And I think that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and the current government have shown remarkable restraint and are prepared to go down that diplomatic path.

It is now up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself to be, once again, willing to abide by international rules and international norms.

And if it chooses to do so, I think that there could be a better outcome. If it fails to do so, there will be additional costs. And those will have some disruptive effect to the global economy, but they'll have the greatest impact on Russia. So I think that would be a bad choice for President Putin to make. But, ultimately, he's the president of Russia and he's the one who's gonna be making that decision. He just has to understand that there's a choice to be made here.

With respect to -- even though this was directed at Mark, I just want to address this issue of sectorial sanctions.

So far, what we've done is we've put in place sanctions that impact individuals, restricts visas being issued to them, freezes their assets. We have identified one bank in particular in Russia that was well-known to be the bank of choice for many of the persons who support and facilitate Russian officials from carrying out some of these activities.

But what we've held off on are more broad-based sanctions that would impact entire sectors of the Russian economy. It has not just been my suggestion but it has also been the European Council's suggestion that should Russia go further, such sectorial sanctions would be appropriate.

And that would include areas potentially like energy or finance or arms sales or trade that exists between Europe and the United States and Russia.

And what we're doing now is at a very technical level, examining the impacts of each of these sanctions. Some particular sanctions would hurt some countries more than others.

But all of us recognize that we have to stand up for a core principle that lies at the heart of the international order and that facilitated the European Union and the incredible prosperity and peace that Europe has enjoyed now for decades.

And so, although it could cause some disruptions to each of our economies or certain industries, what I've been encouraged by is the -- the -- the firmness and the willingness on the part of all countries to -- to look at ways in which they can participate in -- in this process.

Our preference throughout will be to resolve this diplomatically, but I think we're prepared, as we've already shown, to take the next step if the situation gets worse.

Finally, on Ukraine, I think it's very important that we spend as much effort on bolstering the economy inside of Ukraine and making sure that the elections proceed in an orderly fashion. And so, my hope is that the IMF is able to complete a package for Ukraine rapidly, to stabilize their finances and their economy.

The OSCE, other international organizations are sending in observers, monitors. And we're providing technical assistance to make sure that the elections are free and fair. The sooner those elections take place, the sooner the economy is stabilized, the better positioned the Ukrainian people will be in terms of managing what is a -- a very challenging situation.

With respect to the NSA, and I'll be just brief on this, I said several months ago that I was assigning our various agencies in the I.C., the intelligence community to bring me new options with respect to the telephone database program. They have presented me, now, with an option that I think is workable. And it addresses the two core concerns that people have.

Number one, the idea of government storing bulk data, generally. This ensures that the government is not in possession of that bulk data. I want to emphasize once again that some of the dangers that people hypothesize when it came to bulk data, there were clear safeguards against. But I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that's been presented to me would eliminate that concern.

The second thing the people were concerned about is making sure that not only is a judge overseeing the overall program, but also that a judge is looking at each individual inquiry that's made into a database, and this new plan that's been presented to me does that.

So, overall, I am confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers from the terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised. And I'm looking forward to working with Congress to make sure that we go ahead and pass the enabling legislation quickly, so that we can get on with the business of effective law enforcement.

RUTTE: On Ukraine, let me make it absolutely clear that European Union and U.S. and yesterday, we saw alignment within the G-7. We're working very closely together.

And I can fully support all the answers that you gave on the question you asked. And I can add one thing, which is the highly (inaudible) to Russian economy is very much gas and oil dependent. And that means that economic sanctions, if they will be necessary, and we are not there yet, if economic sanctions will be necessary, because this conflict would escalate to a next stage, that if this were to happen, these sanctions would hit Russia very badly.

And obviously, you can never guarantee that the people in Europe and Canada and the U.S. would not be hurt. But obviously, we will make sure that we will design these sanctions in such a way that they will have maximum impact on the Russian economy and not on the European, the Canadian, the Japanese, or the American economy. That is our aim.

That we work very closely together and we seek total alignment on this issue.

QUESTION: OK Thank you.

MODERATOR: Next question. (inaudible)

QUESTION: Question for President Obama on Ukraine.

Reportedly, there are about 30,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. What guarantees can you give to the people of eastern Ukraine, to the people in the Baltic states, Moldova, other countries, that they will not be next when it comes to the Russian politics of annexation.

And with regard to that also, is this a done deal? Is there an doubt in your mind that Putin will return Crimea to where it belongs according to the West? Or is this diplomatic show of force basically just to prevent another land-grab somewhere else?

OBAMA: On the second question first, on the issue of Crimea. It's not a done deal in the sense that the international community by and large is not recognizing the annexation of Crimea. You know, obviously, the facts on the ground are that the Russian military controls Crimea. There are a number of individuals inside of Crimea that are supportive of that process. There's no expectation that they will be dislodged by force.

And so, what we can to bear are the legal arguments, the diplomatic arguments, the political pressure, the economic sanctions that are already in place to try to make sure that there's a cost to that process. But, you know, I think it would be dishonest to suggest that there's a simple solution to resolving what has already taken place in Crimea. Although, you know, history has a funny way of moving in twists and turns, and not just in a straight line. So, you know, how the situation in Crimea evolves in part depends on making sure that the international community stays unified in indicating that this was an illegal action on the part of Russia.

With respect to the Russian troops that are along the border of Ukraine at the moment, right now they are on Russian soil. And if they stay on Russian soil, we -- we oppose what appears to be an effort an intimidation. But Russia has the right, legally, to have its troops on its own soil.

I don't think it's a done deal and I think that Russia is still making a series of calculations. And again, those calculations will be impacted in part by how unified the United States and Europe are and the international community is, in saying to Russia that this is not how in the 21st century we resolve disputes.

I think it's particularly important for all of us to dismiss this notion that somehow Russian-speakers or Russian nationals inside of Ukraine are threatened and that somehow that would justify Russian action. There has been no evidence that Russian-speakers have been in any way threatened. If anything, what we've seen are provocateurs who have created, you know, scuffles inside of Ukraine.

But, you know, when I hear analogies, for example, to Kosovo, where you had thousands of people who were being slaughtered by their government, you know, it's a comparison that makes absolutely no sense. And I think it's important for everybody to be clear that -- and strip away some of the possible excuses for potential Russian action.

With respect to the broader issue of states that are bordering Russia and, you know, what assurances do they have about future land-grabs, as you put it. Obviously, you know, some of those countries are NATO countries. And as NATO allies, we believe that the cornerstone of our security is making sure that all of us, including the United States, are abiding by Article V and the notion of collective defense.

And, you know, what we are now doing is organizing even more intensively to make sure that we have contingency plans and that every one of our NATO allies has assurances that we will act in their defense against any threats. That's what NATO is all about. And that's been the cornerstone of peace in the trans-Atlantic region now for several generations.

So we will uphold that and there will be a series of NATO consultations.