Former President Barack Obama spoke at length about the war in Ukraine on Wednesday, telling an audience in Chicago that the conflict is a “bracing reminder for democracies that had gotten flabby and confused and feckless around the stakes of things that we tended to take for granted,” including the United States.
That includes the “rule of law, freedom of press and conscience … independent judiciaries, making elections work in ways that are fair and free,” Obama said during remarks at a forum hosted by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic on disinformation.
“We have gotten complacent. And I cannot guarantee that as a consequence of what has happened that we are shaking off that complacency,” he said, adding, however, that he has been “encouraged” by how the European nations have reacted to Russia’s ongoing, deadly invasion of Ukraine. Asked if he wishes he had done more about Russia during his administration, the former President said “the circumstances were different” when Russia invaded Crimea, in part because European nations were far less interested in intervening.
The comments from Obama came the same day that his onetime vice president, President Joe Biden, declared that “major war crimes” were being discovered in Ukraine as Russian forces retreat from areas around Kyiv. Biden cited scenes of brutal, cold-blooded executions as rationale for ratcheting up US sanctions on Moscow, including on Russia’s largest financial institutions and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two adult daughters, among a number of individuals tied to the Kremlin.
Obama on Wednesday addressed his recollections of Putin and how he isn’t sure “that the person I knew is the same as the person who is now leading this charge.”
“He was always ruthless. You witness what he did in Chechnya; he had no qualms about crushing those who he considers a threat. That’s not new. For him to bet the farm in this way, I would not have necessarily predicted from him five years ago,” Obama said, adding that he is aware of speculation that aging and being isolated during Covid-19 have changed the Russian leader.
Obama said it is “too early to tell what an end game looks like” in Ukraine but that he thinks Russia and Putin have been surprised by the “degree to which the nature of war has changed, where everybody is seeing exactly what is happening on a real-time basis” and how that has “the potential of preventing a maximalist victory for Putin.”
Obama added: “It is a tragedy of historic proportions. That is not news to people here. I think that it is calling into question a set of trends around the world that we have seen building for some time.”
Putin, he said, “represented a very particular reaction to the ideals of democracy but also globalization, the collision of cultures, the ability to harness anger and resentment around an ethnonationalist mythology. And what we are seeing is the consequences of that kind of toxic mix in the hands of an autocratic government that doesn’t have a lot of checks and balances.”
As for what those in the US can do in response to Ukraine, Obama said the American people should “support them and their efforts and their courage,” but also “take this as a lesson that sadly they are paying the price for but that … speaks to a much more bumpy, difficult, violent, challenging future for the coming generation if we don’t get some things right here at home, in Europe, in Asia, Latin America.”