THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Amid the chest-thumping between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in recent weeks, one question has lingered: How big a threat is Russia, anyway?
Mitt Romney, Obama’s 2012 presidential challenger, made clear his own assessment during the campaign, saying repeatedly that Russia was the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and arguing that Putin’s aggressive stance demanded more of a like response from the American president.
Today, Obama offered his answer, saying that Putin leads a “regional power” whose real threat extends largely to its bordering nations. In language that seemed to be aimed at the highest ranks inside the Kremlin, Obama dismissed Russia as a country that is lashing out at its neighbors “not out of strength, but out of weakness.”
Obama’s decision to engage a reporter’s question about Romney during a foreign trip suggests that the president was eager to deflect criticism at home that he has been naïve about his approach to Putin. In Obama’s first term, he pursued a “reset” in relations with Russia and during the campaign, he mocked Romney, saying during a televised debate that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
In recent weeks, as Putin’s forces rolled through Crimea will little regard to stern warnings by Obama, Republicans have said Romney has been vindicated and Obama proved wrong. In February, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s 2008 rival, called him “the most naïve president in history.”
Seizing his news conference with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands as a platform to respond, the president today explained his thinking about Putin and the country he governs, saying that the influence of Russia on the world stage has languished since the breakup of the Soviet Union. He said the situation in Ukraine in recent weeks proves that he is right.
“The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” Obama said.
In the weeks ahead, Obama may face more criticism as the confrontation between Putin and the Western nations continues with no end in sight. But Obama’s aides have made clear that they have no intention of letting Romney or McCain succeed in painting the president as doe-eyed in the face of a harsh reality.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president, said, “Well, look, we’ve been very cleareyed about our Russia policy from when we came into office, which is that we will cooperate when we have common interests and we can form common positions, but we’ll be very clear when we have differences.”