White House stresses Ukraine conflict is not “proxy” war

Anti-government protesters chant slogans in Independence Square Feb. 21, 2014, in Kiev, Ukraine. AFP/Getty Images

The United States and Russia have had opposing reactions to the violence in Ukraine -- and to the newly-signed deal between the Ukrainian government and protest leaders -- but the conflict there does not represent a proxy war between the East and West, the White House insisted Friday. 

The current situation, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, “is profoundly different from the Cold War era in that what we’ve seen in recent weeks and months is the express desire of Ukrainian people for a future that they decide on their own -- for themselves, for their nation.”

During the Cold War, there were “conflicts that were simply proxy conflicts,” he said. By contrast, “The Ukrainian people are not substitutes for anyone in this conflict. They are expressing their desires, not U.S. desires or European desires. Our desires are only that they be listened to by their government.”

 Mr. Obama made this point in a press conference Wednesday in Mexico. The president acknowledged that his views differ from those of Russian President Vladimir Putin on many issues, such as the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

However, he said, “our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved because a despot wants to cling to power.”

The president added, “When I speak to Mr. Putin, I’m very candid about those disagreements, even as we will continue to pursue cooperation with Russia on areas where we had shared concerns.”

Mr. Obama spoke to Putin for more than an hour Friday afternoon, following news that Ukrainian President Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed an ambitious agreement. Russian diplomats helped mediate negotiations between Yanukovych and the opposition, but they refused to join European diplomats in endorsing the deal.

During his phone conversation with Mr. Obama, Putin told the U.S. president that he wants the agreement to succeed and would work with the U.S. and European nations to help implement it, a senior State Department official said later Friday afternoon. 

Carney said Friday, “It is in Russia's interest that Ukraine not be engulfed in violence -- Kiev, or other places -- and that it return to stability and that progress be made towards a future in Ukraine that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people.”

The conflict arose when Yanukovych rejected a long-anticipated deal with the European Union in exchange for a $15 billion bailout from Russia.

The White House sounded cautiously optimistic about the deal Friday. Carney noted that the agreement is consistent with what the U.S. has called for -- a de-escalation of violence, constitutional reform, a coalition government, and early elections.

“Our focus today is on working with our European partners as well as the government and opposition in Ukraine to ensure the agreement's implementation,” Carney said. “And we are not ruling out sanctions to hold those responsible for the violence accountable, especially should there be further violence or violation of the agreement.”

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