President Obama acknowledged Tuesday that it will be difficult to roll back Russia’s military land grab in Ukraine, even as Congress seemed to break a political logjam in Washington that has held up financial aid to the embattled European nation.
Senate Democrats signaled the breakthrough when they said they no longer would insist on tying Ukrainian loan guarantees and Russia sanctions to controversial changes at the International Monetary Fund. That demand led to a two-week delay.
“The main thing is to get the aid now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said as he relented.
House and Senate lawmakers hope to clear the package by the end of the week to show Ukrainians that they have American support in their standoff with Russia.
That support will do little to roll back Russian inroads, including the annexation of Crimea.
“Obviously, the facts on the ground are that the Russian military controls Crimea,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in the Netherlands. “There’s no expectation that they will be dislodged by force.”
Even as he grappled with Russian power, Mr. Obama sought to downplay its threat. He said he is more concerned about Islamist terrorists on a daily basis than he is about the troops of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness,” Mr. Obama said. “I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
On the second day of his weeklong trip to Europe, Mr. Obama also addressed concerns about U.S. spying by announcing proposed reforms to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. He said an administration proposal that would stop the NSA from collecting metadata, or bulk phone records, is a workable solution to protect the nation and individual rights to privacy.
Mr. Obama and his Group of Seven allies agreed not to impose more damaging economic sanctions against Mr. Putin’s regime unless Russian aggression goes beyond the seizure of Crimea.
Russian currency stopped its decline and Russian assets climbed as investors expressed hope that the crisis had been contained, at least for now.
Part of the bill Congress is rushing to pass would codify the sanctions Mr. Obama already has announced and would offer financial support to Ukraine.
But some on Capitol Hill are pushing for broader action. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who returned this weekend from a visit to Ukraine, said the U.S. must provide military aid to the interim government in Kiev. She also said Mr. Obama should revisit his 2009 decision to cancel anti-ballistic missile partnerships with Poland and the Czech Republic.
“That would send a strong message to Putin,” Ms. Ayotte said.
Mr. Obama has ruled out military action to reverse Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and said his strategy is to press allies for united economic sanctions.
“What we can bring 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,” Mr. Obama said.
But with Ukraine’s withdrawal of military forces from Crimea, Mr. Obama was confronted in the public setting at The Hague with the notion that his diplomacy was having little effect on the world stage.
A reporter asked the president whether he was worried that his global influence was diminishing in light of ineffective policies toward Syria, Egypt, China and now Russia.
Reminded that he scoffed at Republican rival Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign for referring to Russia as the top geopolitical foe of the U.S., Mr. Obama said Mr. Putin’s invasion of Crimea was a sign of weakness.
“With respect to Mr. Romney’s assertion … the truth of the matter is that, you know, America’s got a whole lot of challenges,” Mr. Obama said. “The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more. Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States.”
Even as he tried to downplay Russia’s status as a world power, Mr. Obama said he was concerned that the Russian military would make further incursions into Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
“I think that will be a bad choice for President Putin to make,” Mr. Obama said. “But ultimately, he is the president of Russia, and he’s the one who’s going to be making that decision.”