Obama: Russia doesn’t want ‘any kind of military confrontation with us’

This post has been updated with additional excerpts from the interview. 

Russia doesn't want a military confrontation with the United States, President Obama said Wednesday.

In an interview with Major Garrett of CBS News, Obama said Russia must recognize that Ukraine, part of which it annexed last month, is a sovereign nation that should be able to chart its own course.

"They’re not interested in any kind of military confrontation with us, understanding that our conventional forces are significantly superior to the Russians. We don’t need a war," Obama said, according to a transcript of the interview. A Russian fighter jet made numerous passes close to a U.S. warship in the Black Sea this week, according to the U.S. military.

Obama reiterated that Russia annexed Crimea "in an illegal fashion," and said that Russia, at a minimum, has supported militias in southern and eastern Ukraine.

(Related: Pro-Russian militants killed in clash at Ukraine port city)

Obama said there is "no excuse" for the covert and rhetorical support Russia is showing for the militias, which Obama said are "causing chaos" and taking over government buildings.

Obama stopped short of saying there would be additional sanctions leveled against Russia (even as reports indicate his administration is heading in that direction), but again said, as he has in the past, that each time Russia takes steps to violate Ukraine's sovereignty, "there will be consequences." The United States and European Union imposed sanctions against Russia last month.

"The fact that he's willing to endanger his economy-- and lose all credibility around the world the way he has is indicative of the fact that Ukrainians are unsatisfied with a relationship in which you've got another country trying to dictate their foreign policy and their economy.  And they want to move forward," Obama said.


President Obama speaks next to Vice President Biden after touring the Community College of Allegheny West Hills Center in Oakdale, Pa., on April 16, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama's comments come the day before a diplomatic meeting in Geneva with officials from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.

Obama said the sanctions that are in place have weakened the Russian economy.

"Mr. Putin’s decisions are not just bad for Ukraine over the long-term, they’re going to be bad for Russia," Obama said.

When asked if Putin is trying to incite a civil war, Obama demurred, but said Russia has not been respecting Ukraine's sovereignty. Obama repeated a line he has used before - that Putin is acting out of "a sense of weakness, not strength."

"The question now becomes whether or not this can be deescalated and resolved-- in a way that gives Ukrainians a chance to make their own decisions about their own lives," Obama said.

Obama underscored the "deep historical roots" Ukraine has with Russia, and said there is no way that one can ignore the other. However, the world does not think Ukraine should be "a vassal state," he said. Because Ukraine is not a NATO ally no military action will be taken, "but we do have a stake, as every country around the world has a stake in upholding basic international norms and basic international rules,"  Obama said.

Obama was interviewed after an event in Oakdale, Pa., where he and Vice President Biden announced $600 million in grants for job training programs. In the interview with Garrett, Obama stressed the need to make the country's work training programs "smarter" and use the nation's community college system better.

 

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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